When I was an English teacher I found that as I read for fun I was constantly thinking to myself: could I teach this? Often I couldn’t, of course, but this way of walking through my literary life did lead to the introduction of Haruki Murakami, Mike Royko, and Barry Yourgrau into my curriculum, and students leaving my classes knowing a little bit about Mary Wollstonecraft and Akira Kurosawa.
It was about two years after I left the classroom before I stopped thinking about how I might incorporate articles and excerpts into my English lessons. Today, as a principal, I’ll confess that I still find unexpected inspiration for how to approach my work between the covers of more than just “leadershippy” books.
Those I do read, like Start With Why and Critical Conversations, are worthy of posts of their own, but sometimes it’s a fictitious character or story that lingers, a line or lesson from a poem or novel that returns unbidden when a situation inspires it.
One such book, that I’ve written about before, is Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain. Truth be told, it’s not his most compelling of the Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, but as it tells the story of a flawed captain struggling for a post, gaining a difficult assignment, and then doing his best to succeed, it earns a place on the bookshelf in my office. If I were ever teaching a class on public school administration, Post Captain would be on the reading list.
Thick with prose that takes some effort to navigate (and is worth it), Post Captain provides a few lessons that have stayed with me for a long time.
Tenacity is the first. Captain Aubrey, financially ruined by circumstance, found himself pursuing an appointment to a ship. Frustrated and mired in the politics of the British Navy, his determination and willingness to explore all options led him to the doorstep of taking a job for a private company, and then allowed him to open his mind and accept command of a strange and experimental ship unwanted by other Navy captains.
Every school administrator at some point in her career longs for the opportunity to lead before that opportunity is available. Some of us get roughed up a bit by the process, but if we stay true to ourselves and make the most of the opportunities we find, we may have success.
Aubrey’s flirtations with the East India Company weren’t unlike a public school administrator thinking about a private or charter school, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
I’m one who has always believed in the importance of public education (flawed and challenged as it sometimes is) and as Aubrey found his HMS Polychrest, I silently cheered that he’d taken on a meaningful challenge in service of something greater than money or himself.
That challenge, as all challenges, led to internal struggling and a manifestation of that famous line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
About halfway through the book, the captain and his doctor friend, Maturin, discuss mutinies and the importance of running a ship with respect and order. They talk honestly of what it takes to make a “happy ship” and how easily one crewman can turn things in the wrong direction.
In what may be my favorite line from Post Captain, and one worthy of a framed cross-stitch in my office (I don’t really have this, but if you’re a cross-stitcher and you’re reading this…) Aubrey turns to Maturin and confesses:
I know things are not perfect, but I cannot reform the world and run a man-of-war.”
In one sentence, O’Brian captures the tension felt by principals everywhere. How do we balance the big goals of changing lives and making a difference (and if this isn’t why we got into the business we should get the heck out) and at the same time make sure we pay attention to the day to day responsibilities that ensure our school stays in ship shape?
In the pages that follow, Aubrey’s story plays out with examples of how he manages the balance, and while these come with a spray of saltwater, I kept seeing how I might I use these lessons to improve the work I do at my school.
That pursuit of improvement is important to me as a principal. Always learning, I know the leader I am today is different than the leader I was five years ago. I’m also different than I will be five years from now.
In another memorable description from the book, Maturin articulates the changes he has seen in his friend, now Post Captain.
…he suffers frustration with more patience than he used; he cares less passionately about many things. Indeed, I should say that the boy has quite vanished now -certainly the piratical youth of my first acquaintance is no longer to be seen. But when a man puts on maturity and invulnerability, it seems that he necessarily becomes indifferent to many things that gave him joy.”
How many of us who considered ourselves swashbuckling as young teachers have matured into roles as administrators? That we are better leaders for being more mature is easy to understand, and yet a part of me still hopes that somewhere behind the tie lurks a heart that beats to “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest.”
As I continue to grow as a leader, I ask myself how I can “suffer frustration with more patience” and still keep my passion “about many things” that give me joy. I’m comfortable with the boy vanishing, but never want to lose that pirate spirit that helped me love teaching and launched me on the adventure of a career in education.
There’s a great deal more to Post Captain, romance, espionage, and naval battles fill the five hundred or so pages. It’s those passages on leaders and leadership, however, that I’ll go back to when I need to be reminded that while I want to reform the world, I’ve got a man-of-war to run.