Let Leaders Lead

Photo by Tessa Wilson on Unsplash

By An Anonymous JDS professional

Fishermen are natural born liars. I was lucky enough to have gone fishing quite a bit with my father, and it occurred to me that the most serious, sun-tanned old-timer lied his head off when it came to comparing the contents of his sack with the others on the boat. It was rarely, “Wow that’s terrific that you landed those four ten-pound bass and those seven rock cod – I only reeled in two – total – but you had a great day.”

It was more often, “You have five? I pulled in six…”

Camp Directors – the same. “You had a good enrollment season? We had a terrific year – eight percent over the last year (didn’t you have a four percent increase?).”

Maybe it has little or nothing at all to do with the profession or title – maybe competition is just hard-baked into the human psyche – or at the very least, into the American psyche. Law schools, med schools, graduate schools – it’s all about the rankings. Far too often, it’s not about how well an institution – or an individual – is doing, relative to its own, innate abilities and context; it’s about comparing one to another, it’s about one against another.

To that innate, knee-jerk, ego-driven rush to out-do the “competition,” add external forces that push and nudge decision-makers with a dual message: beat the competition – but if you can’t do that, please don’t lose to your competition. And in our zero-sum culture, appearing to lose is nearly as bad as actually losing.

And then came COVID-19. The day school Head of School is predisposed – personally, professionally and psychologically – not to lose, not to look weak, compared to her or his perceived competition. If others have jumped on the bandwagon, then everyone else jumps too – and then pretends that they were going to jump all the time. Offer a discount to staff or to children of alumni or to Martians – if the other school/s in the neighborhood have done the same. School X goes out on a limb, and you can safely foretell the future: Schools Y and Z will follow suit.

That our community’s schools are opening for in-person learning in the face of science and err-on-the-side-of-caution common sense is unfortunate to the point of tragic. Rare is the school leader comfortable enough to go out on that limb by her/himself. And even if the leader actually leads (is allowed to lead) and chooses to swim against the tide, s/he is met with lay and parent pressure not to be the only institution not to open.

Theoretical experiment: secure a school leader away from the communal pressures (lay leader pressure, parent pressure, communal pressure), and ask what the decision would be vis-à-vis virtual or actual learning. I’ve done this – non-scientifically and with all of my own biases, but with a dozen-plus experienced, thoughtful educational leaders. To a person, they admit that they would not open – but the nudge from Board members and from parents is so powerful that they have simply ceded the territory of what’s-best-for-our-students.

The irony is that if one of these straitjacketed professionals stood her or his ground, the next one doing the same would have a slightly easier time of it. The third or fourth or fifth such school leader would have an even easier time.

Clearly, those advocating for in-person learning are also compelled by the very real benefits of learning on site, with others, in physical proximity of the teacher. Socialization, the power of an old-school (literally) relationship between learner and educator – all of it offers a unique blend of nowhere-but-the-classroom advantages. And at the same time, none of those benefits outweigh the tragedy of a child’s or a teacher’s serious illness – or worse. And they likewise don’t outweigh the illness of that child’s grandparent or sibling, or that teacher’s spouse or child.

Those who have worked within our country’s day schools appreciate the extraordinary privilege they afford our students – in normal times and even in times like these. Most (but certainly not all) of those institutions can provide quantitatively safer facilities vis-à-vis COVID-19; the numbers are different than those found in (most) public schools – the ratio of student-to-teacher, the physical size of the classroom, the ability to enact different protocols. All of these definitively describe a safer environment than (again, most) public schools. But is safer safe?

To anticipate a straw man argument: no, nothing is completely safe. If we were in pursuit of complete safety, we’d never send our children to summer camp – we’d certainly never give them the car keys upon reaching the mature age of sixteen. In the end it’s a balancing act: how much freedom for how much safety; how much positive for how much potential negative.

We have presented a Hobson’s Choice to ourselves. By not allowing our leaders to lead where they believe they should go – where they believe we must go – we offer a take-it-or-leave-it “choice” to our students’ parents and to our teachers and staff. Of the educational leaders with whom I’ve spoken (all wishing to remain anonymous), not one thinks it’s best to open to actual learning. And not one believes that s/he is in the position to say so.