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Perspective: Cooperation and thoughtfulness necessary in education leadership

Perspective: Cooperation and thoughtfulness necessary in education leadership

January 7th, 2018 by Steve Bruce in Opinion

Steve Bruce

December brought many folks' favorite function of the year — Capitol Caroling. For anyone not familiar with this event, the combined choirs of Jefferson City High School perform together with the symphonic orchestra in the confines of the Capitol Rotunda. The acoustics are amazing, and the students' performances even more so. Not one note is off key; not one voice out of sync. If you've ever heard Adeste Fidelis echo in the Capitol, I know you'll agree it gives you goosebumps. By the end of the evening when Silent Night is performed, there's not many dry eyes in the room. The evening represents something as rare as it is special — perfection.

This year marked the concert's 80th year, and I have always thought about the irony of our students performing in such a polished, graceful manner in our state Capitol, a place where politics reigns most days. Sharp elbows and hard-nosed strategy are more easily recognizable than the harmony and precision JCHS students displayed on Dec. 12.

Just eleven days earlier, through his newly appointed members to the State Board of Education, Gov. Eric Grietens finally ousted the then-commissioner of education, Margie Vandeven. Leading up to that decision, public school advocates, legislators, superintendents and school board members — myself included — expressed deep reservation and concern regarding the governor's actions toward Vandeven because of what it represented for how future decisions may be made regarding public education in Missouri. In return, the governor's office released a statement blaming locally elected school board members, superintendents and "educrats" (whatever that is) for a lack of change they believe is needed in public education.

They bemoaned the difference between superintendent and teacher salaries as an example of why change in the state's education commissioner was needed. The trouble is, staff salaries are something the commissioner and State Board of Education have zero control over, and the governor himself has stated several times he is a strong supporter of local control.

Supporters of Vandeven responded by quickly pointing out these facts. Round and round we go. Such is state politics, they say; even education it seems isn't immune any longer. Most of us don't bat an eye — it's what we're used to. But should it be? What if we were used to something else?

We can learn a lot from the students who performed on the night of Dec. 12. I'm no musician, but I do know it takes cooperation, dedication and thoughtful direction to produce a performance like I heard that night.

Each member of the choir came from a different background; each member of the orchestra possessed different experiences leading up to their performance, but that didn't matter. They didn't argue over who had the more important role — each student showed up, sang and played their own individual notes, trusting their fellow students to do the same. They understood the importance of working together in common cause. Everyone had practiced for weeks prior to the concert, and you can bet they didn't sound perfect when they started.

The students and their conductors understood the quality of their performance on one day didn't have to be tomorrow's. Lastly, each student also understood the conductors had a role to play — they directed the tempo and timing of the performance, expertly mixing in each instrument and voice, creating something spectacular and inspiring. For their part, the conductors seemed to sense they didn't need to force the choirs and orchestra together; they understood there was a passion already there, an intense desire to be the best they could be. All the conductors needed to do was provide direction to the students and lead them in the goal they all shared.

The result was a performance each attendee will remember for a long time, something harmonious and beautiful.

Every one of those lessons are applicable to the future of public education in Missouri. The good news is there is a big choir — thousands of passionate individuals trying to do their very best in their respective roles and devote themselves in common cause for our children.

Each association, advocacy group or governmental body has a slightly different perspective; each feels their approach and perspective is the best for our kids. That, friends, is where we can turn this thing on its head.

Our common ground is we each care — a whole lot — about our students and our schools, so much so we're willing to fight with each other over our own ideas and plans. Our passion can temporarily blind us to the fact we're all a part of that big choir, working toward something our communities and state can be proud of.

If a group of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds can figure out how to achieve consistent quality results together, perhaps we adults should reflect on our ability and opportunity to follow suit.

Some of you will no doubt read this and call me nave, but in my time on my own local board of education, I have learned the same lasting truth our kids know — your yesterdays do not have to be your tomorrows and if you do your best to lead with integrity, honor, courage and a dose of common sense, you can achieve some amazing things — together. State and local officials can and should work collaboratively — especially when it comes to educating Missouri's children.

Our yesterdays don't have to be our tomorrows, and our children are watching and waiting to see what kind of performance we will all deliver.

Steve Bruce is the president of the Jefferson City Board of Education. His perspective is published monthly on the editorial page of the News Tribune.