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bob maginnis 4/26/01

April 26, 2001

A superintendent needs to inspire



At least until most of Washington County's veteran teachers retire, William M. Brish will be the school superintendent against whom all others will be measured.

Brish, who died in 1999 at age 92, was superintendent here from 1947 to 1973, an amazing 26-year run during which a host of schools were built and innovative programs like TV teaching were started.

I met Brish in 1997, to interview him on the Bi-Racial Commission of Hagerstown, something he began with a few local businessmen in 1965 to defuse the racial issue locally. Gentle persuasion, rather than confrontation, was the way that group tried to make progress in housing and public accomodations.

Brish was still sharp then and I got a flavor of the leader he must have been. A retired educator told me that anytime Brish asked him to do something, it did not seem like a a command, but a request for a personal favor. Another told me that in the meetings he attended with Brish, the superintendent did not win his points with bluster, but by suggesting, with his expressions and his body language, that he was deeply distressed that someone would not see the worth of his argument.

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What makes one person beloved and another not? I ask the question because of the impending departure of Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr., and the soon-to-begin search for his successor. Bartlett was not beloved, even though school system moved up substantially in the state rankings and got some decent raises, albeit with some help from the governor.

There's one view that says that after Wayne Gersen, who was not a taskmaster, that to implement the strategic plan and turn the system around, someone like Bartlett was needed. This point of view says that his job is done now, and that the system needs a different kind of leadership.

I would argue now, as I did when Gersen left, that the system needs someone who leads by inspiration rather than through fear, because people who are afraid are always looking over their shoulder and not ahead to the creative things they might do.

That's not to say Bartlett did lead by fear. For all the talk about him being an intimidating character, the evidence that came my way was mightly slim. A couple of educators related to me that he'd told them off in private, in a manner that suggested he was mighty angry. But I didn't hear that anyone had been fired, demoted or transferred to some undesirable job.

All of that is beside the point now, except to note that apparently getting someone a raise won't buy their loyalty if they aren't inspired to give it anyway.

Money, insofar as it is an acknowledgement of a teacher's worth, is a good thing, but it's not the only thing. Seeing that raise show up on the paycheck is nice, but it doesn't change the fact that teaching is a difficult profession.

Given what it demands in time and commitment, it's more like a religious vocation than a regular job. What teachers want from administrators is an acknowledgement that they're being asked to do a great many things that teachers weren't asked to do in the past, even while keeping those dratted test scores up.

What teachers want to know, is that there's somebody in the central office rooting for them, somebody who's not watching them like some all-powerful hall monitor, but observing them like a mentor who's ready to do what's necessary to help them and the system succeed.

Now at this point some readers may be saying that if what I'm writing here is true, these teachers are a pretty needy bunch. And besides, you may say, don't they get summers off, too?

First, they need summers off because if they didn't get that time to relax and recharge, they'd burn out. Because the job is like being an actor who's constantly on stage, facing an audience of children who came to school because they were told they had to.

In your job or mine, if we want to sit for five minutes deciding on the right word or the right way to do a job, it's no problem. Teachers don't have that luxury; zone out for five minutes and the class heads off in 20 different directions. And getting them back on task is no easy matter.

We do expect our superintendent to be an administor as well, a CEO capable of handling a large budget and thousands of people. But our next school superintendent also has to be a person who can persuade. Over the years I have seen people who did things because they had to and people who did things because they were persuaded they were the right things to do, Give those choices, I would certainly prefer that my child be taught by teachers who felt the system is raising them up instead of holding them down.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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