Emperors and New Clothes

When I was a youngster, just three or four, I met Governor Tom McCall. Oregonians know McCall as a legendary state political figure responsible for the bottle bill, major environmental legislature, and ensuring the public ownership of Oregon beaches. When I met him, I called him “Big Tom.” I don’t know the logistics of that meeting, but have a vague memory of waiting in the outer office before being ushered into the governor’s office to present him with a drawing I’d made. What I do remember is that during my wait I’d accidentally ripped the paper and when I got to Big Tom I told him that he could fix the rip with a little scotch tape.

photo 4Chutzpah. 

Or maybe it was just the naive perspective of a kid. I figured he’d want to keep the drawing, of course, and knew I was the young fellow who could offer him advice on how to curate this art for his collection. He smiled, nodded, and probably patted me on the head. I left happy.

I happened on a photograph of that meeting this summer and it made me think of the wonderful ability kids have of cutting through bureaucracy and the trappings of office to speak honestly about what’s on their mind. Often it’s the youngest who can offer advice without fear to the authority figures we learn, over time, to defer to. What a marvelous thing.

As a principal I see this deference sometimes, and truth be told it doesn’t make me a better leader. What does help me serve my school community well is when those around me are honest and straightforward and are willing to tell me the truth.

I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong voices in my main office and within the ranks of my staff. Not all, but more than a few of my teachers seem to feel comfortable approaching me with concerns in time that we can do something about them. Those closest to me are kind, but clear, when the offer me advice about how one of my wilder schemes is not a good idea.

“Bjorn, the whole school can’t really tie-dye t-shirts in a way that doesn’t make a colossal mess and cause headaches for everyone.” That sort of thing.

Students are awesome about this too, and some of my favorite memories of student voice have happened when individuals or groups of kids come to my office to talk about what’s on their mind. It’s not always that I can fix what’s bothering them, but I can listen and make efforts to move toward a better situation.

The fearlessness of these students reminds me of that little boy and Big Tom. They are sure that they have an answer to the question at hand, and for that certainty I applaud them, even if the adult reality makes those answers hard to bring about.

In the end, it’s these challenging ideas and the change they can prompt that help to make our school better. Whether it’s the day to day procedures that impact students every day or the broader policies and practices that we can improve to make the student experience better, inviting student voice is an important part of being a school leader. I need to know when the emperor has no clothes, preferably before I walk out in front of the parade.

As a principal I can’t fix everything as quickly as I wish I could, but by listening to others sometimes I can. It just takes paying attention …and a little scotch tape.

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