Orange County School Board Candidate Matthew J. Fitzpatrick shares some thoughts on leadership.
Bashing the School District?
Recently, I read that I was attacking the institution of the School Board and bashing the School District "just to get elected". Anyone that would say something like that about me doesn't know me very well. On top of that, I don't believe shining a light on things that need to change should be classified as bashing the School District and School Board. It is called accountability...and it's called addressing underlying issues in order to make positive changes to improve the climate and culture of our school district. The climate and culture of our school district is in the worst shape that I've ever seen, and I don't see it improving any time soon with out a lot of help. I consider this to be a very important topic to discuss, so please allow me to present some of my foundational beliefs about leadership.
Why People Seek Leadership
People seek leadership for many different reasons. Some want to be famous and viewed as important in the eyes of onlookers. Others want to make lots of money, and leadership seems to provide them with endless opportunities to cash in on their connections and positional power. Many others desire to be the boss primarily because they don't want to have to take orders from others...they want to be the big dog that everyone has to bow down to. But then there are others--those who buck the entire career climbing system--because they are cut from a completely different type of cloth. I want to focus on these types of leaders that break the mold.
Leaders Out of Step
These strange leaders that I speak of feel the call to leadership simply because they see a great need...and for whatever reason, they believe their background, skills, knowledge and inner motivations have somehow prepared them to meet some daunting task head-on. Such a leader is not motivated to take the controls of an enterprise out of selfish ambition or vainglory. No, these out-of-the-box leaders do what they do because they must...an inner calling of sorts...and many times, they do what they do in a reluctant manner. These reluctant leaders often initially hesitate to take the reins because they do indeed lack the inner motivations that stir the hearts of the resume builders and career-ladder climbers--those who have their eyes ever-fixed on a spot at the top.
The Reluctant Leader
On of my favorite leaders of all time, Moses, fit such a description. While I am impressed by the splitting of the Red Sea and how he also met face-to-face with God and came away with his face shining so much that he had to wear a veil to cover the brightness...still, there's something that has captured my imagination and impresses me even more about Moses. What amazes me most about Moses is the fact that he wasn't enamored by power, fame, or leadership...his heart was different. When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and asked him to go down and set the Hebrews free from the Egyptians, Moses' response was:
“Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13)
Moses didn't want the job. In fact, Moses tried to change God's mind about selecting him for the job. Moses didn't care about doing miracles, and he had a stuttering problem...he reminded God of this when he was trying to talk himself right out of the job. Moses didn't need to be the leader in order to feel fulfilled and happy with his life. He didn't need to feel important...or have the power, riches, or pleasures that came with a preeminent position of leadership. Many would have jumped at the opportunity to lead such a large group, about 2 to 2.5 million Hebrews, but Moses wasn't stirred on the inside in that manner. Moses was different, to say the least. Numbers 12:3 says, "Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." The humility of Moses paid off, because Exodus 33:11 goes on to say, "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend." Think about it, Moses didn't need to lead, he was extremely humble, and because of such a demeanor, he was somehow granted a special relationship with God in which he spoke to God "face to face like a friend"--who doesn't want that? God is attracted to people who are like Moses...humble...God gives them a special grace. Can a person achieve such a demeanor like Moses'? Moses was different, and you have to know a little bit more about Moses' background to fully understand how and why he was different.
The Preparation of a Leader
Moses was born during a time when it wasn't safe to be born a boy. The Israelites were the slave labor force for the Egyptians, and their numbers were growing too large, causing concern in the minds of those who benefitted from their efforts. The Egyptian fear was that the Israelites would grow too large and then would join an enemy during a time of war and would fight against the Egyptians. The solution for their fears was to pass a law that all male Hebrew babies should be thrown into the Nile River when they were born. From an Egyptian perspective, the plan made perfectly good sense, but the Hebrews weren't nearly as excited about the plan...for obvious reasons.
Moses was born during this terrible time period, and his mother noted when he was born that he was an unusual child. I guess you could say he was special, different, exceptional, and atypical....probably a candidate for exceptional education. Moses' mother had a clever way of complying with Pharaoh's edict--she placed him in a basket and put him in the river among the reeds where Pharaoh's daughter bathed. As fortune would have it, Pharaoh's daughter happened to be down by the water's edge and she spotted Moses' basket.. Moses found favor in the eyes of Pharaoh's daughter, and after being returned to his original mother to nurse when he was young, he was then taken into the palace and raised in Egyptian royalty, a prince in Pharaoh's family.
Moses spent the first forty years of his life living large in Pharaoh's palace. As Pharaoh's adopted son, Moses could have whatever he wanted. Life was good. For whatever reason, at the age of 40, Moses started thinking about his suffering people, the Hebrews. Moses had nagging thoughts in his mind that stung his conscience regarding the painful toil of his people. Moses wanted to help, but he didn't really know how.
One day, Moses was out observing the terrible toil of his people when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses' blood boiled at what he saw, so he took matters into his own hands. He looked to the left and the right to make sure no one saw him, and then he killed the Egyptian and his body in the sand.
The next day, Moses was out once again observing the suffering of his people. What he saw this time was a little different. This time he saw two Hebrews fighting each other. Moses tried to intervene by talking some sense to the one in the wrong, asking him, "Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?" The one in the wrong replied, "Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses became afraid because what he had done to the Egyptian had become known.
When Pharaoh heard about what Moses had done, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled into the wilderness to escape, and came to the land of Midian. Moses was fortunate enough to meet the family of a priest of Midian who had seven daughters who were shepherds taking care of their father's sheep. On the day he happen to meet them at the watering hole, Moses protected them from the other shepherds during this chance encounter and helped water them, and by doing so he not only won the heart of the father, but he also won the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. Moses' new life in the wilderness was now just beginning.
Phase Two: Moses in the Wilderness
Moses was forty years old when he escaped Egypt and went to live in the wilderness. Moses got married, had a couple children, became a shepherd, and he seems to have really took to this new way of living...walking among the mountains, leading sheep around, and somehow, slowly, putting his past palace lifestyle of being a privileged and powerful prince behind him. He lived out in the wilderness with his family for forty years. Moses also remembered what had happened before when he tried to help his people...he made a mess of things and actually ended up committing murder. Moses had left that life long ago, and he didn't want to go back. Even though his heart was torn for his suffering people, he just didn't know how to help them, and he had already tried, and failed miserably in the process.
Developing Ability and Humility
The void in Moses' heart was already somewhat filled when God asked him to go set the Hebrews free. That's the challenge of preparing the perfect leader for a certain task...how do you create within a person the ability to lead, and yet somehow keep the desire for power and position at bay? How do you develop humility and ability at the same time? It is surely a threading of the smallest of needles...and this was precisely God's dilemma with Moses. Moses now had the training of a ruler, and the training of a shepherd, and he learned to adapt to life in the wilderness. On top of that, Moses had a distaste for oppressive leadership that he had observed and learned all too well when he was in a position of power. He was the perfect leader for this new people group who would need to be led through the wilderness to the promised land. But, now, Moses didn't need to lead in order to be fulfilled...he was satisfied with his retirement property in the mountains with his family.
The Adjustment Bureau
The dilemma that God faced with Moses is comparable to the storyline of the movie The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon as the lead actor, David Norris. (Spoiler Alert--don't read this paragraph if you don't want the movie ruined for you.) David Norris was a politician who was prepared for a position of leadership from a very young age. The chairman (God-like figure in the background who came up with plans for everyone's life) had a plan for David to be a successful Senator and then the President. Throughout much of the movie, the Chairman's agents are working to keep David Norris away from the girl of the movie, Elise Sellas, who was played by Emily Blunt. The reason the "agents of fate" are working to keep them apart is explained by one of the main agents who broke from protocol toward the end of the movie. The agent, Harry Mitchell, played by Anthony Mackie, explained why the Chairman's plan did not call for them two to be together:
"Because she's enough. If you have her, you won't need to fill the void inside of you with applause, votes, and dreams of one day making it to the White House."
David Norris was willing to give up his political career just to have this one-of-a-kind ballet instructor, Elise. The Chairman was inspired by David - his willingness to give up everything he had accomplished in his career - and the Chairman ended up changing the plan. The last line from the movie is insightful:
"Most people live life on the path we set for them, too afraid to explore any other. But, once in awhile, people like you come along who knock down all the obstacles we put in your way. People who realize free will is a gift you will never know how to use until you fight for it. I think that's the Chairman's real plan, and maybe, one day, we won't write the plans, you will."
There it is...the storyline of the movie and the story of Moses' life...when someone's void is filled and they no longer need applause, power, or position in order to feel fulfilled, they may not be so inclined to get involved in the rat race of leadership and the dream of ever-increasing promotions.
Reflecting on My Own Preparation...For Such A Time As This
I look at myself and I try to find where I fit in all of this. I didn't hear an audible voice tell me I was supposed to run and win a seat on the School Board. I didn't have any vision or dream encouraging me to pursue a job that is a 50% pay cut. No...I have none of those things to draw inner encouragement from. What I do have is faith...and I looked at my experiences within our school district--teacher, dean, experience at both middle school and high school, private and public school experience, an assistant principal at two high schools, the district athletic director for all of OCPS, and now an Assistant Director at Orange Technical College. When I try to understand my career, it makes sense if I look at it from the perspective of being prepared to be a School Board member. When I look at my inner motivations, I have a deep passion to help students and teachers succeed, and I've never seen such a time when they need more support from the District and School Board level than now. My distaste for the Marzano system of teacher evaluations has been honed over the years...and now it is razor sharp for such a time as this. There are many other issues in education that I have experienced firsthand, and I can bring this unique blend of experience, knowledge, and passion to the School Board. It all seems to make sense...even if it means a 50% pay cut fir me. But still, there's one other area of preparation that seems somewhat similar to Moses' preparation.
A Distaste For Palace Life
Just as Moses had a taste of palace life at its worst, I am also acquainted with the palace life of the RBELC (The Ronald Blocker Educational Leadership Center). I spent two years down at the Bronze Building. I am not enamored by the building and the positional power it represents. I remember all the School Board Updates and Newsletter Memos I had to write in order to "justify my job". I never got into the art of impressing the School District or School Board by my clever combinations of words. Most of the things that I had to do as the District Athletic Director weren't things that the School District wanted advertised or promoted, so justifying my job was difficult--it would have been better assessed by how much stuff I was able to keep out of the newspapers. No one has to explain to me what life is like at the School Board...I had to handle the athletic and extracurricular complaints of the entire school district...and I was fortunate enough to be working with some great school-based individuals that cared about students and knew how to do their jobs. I will approach handling other issues at the School Board level in a similar manner--what is best for students, teachers, and schools.
I want to make something crystal clear, here, to make sure people understand my motivation for running for the School Board. I am running in order to make things better, to fix a broken system, to bring an educationally informed voice to the School Board. I want to help fix problems that the School Board and School Community can't even see or imagine. What does that mean? Well, allow me to explain myself with a memory that that can clarify what I am talking about while also addressing a few questions that were referenced at the beginning of this blog.
Seeking Fame at the OCPS Hall of Fame
I remember a time right before the end of the school year in 2015...I was a member of the OCPS Hall of Fame Selection Committee. We were charged with creating the event and selecting the first inductees. The night of the event was a Friday night. I was informed that I was going to need to pay $50 to attend the event, and that I would be sitting at one of the head tables as a member of the selection committee. But there was one problem...Trackfest 2015.
Trackfest was the annual all-county middle school track competition. The event took place on Friday night and all day Saturday. It was quite an ordeal. The Middle School Principals' Association (MSPA) was the sponsor and guiding authority of the event--with Middle School Principals attending all day on Saturday to help with tickets, crowd control, and events. It was a long, hot day with lots of excited middle school student athletes and their families. The coaches and the Athletic Directors could handle the event portion, but they needed help with crowd control, student discipline, and event ticket-taking. There was just one problem.
The Middle School Principals' Association was no longer meeting on a monthly basis during the 2014-15 school year. From what I had gathered at the time, their meetings were hijacked by the District Office, so they no longer met as an association to work through problems and issues together...to collaborate and support one another. There were quite a few MS Principals that were not happy about this new arrangement of centralizing all power to the district level. As a non-violent, passive protest, many of the MS Principals reasoned that since the MSPA no longer met as an association, they didn't really exist anymore, so maybe Trackfest should no longer take place. I didn't want to see such a great event go away, so the Middle School Athletic Directors came up with a contingency plan to have the event with minimal support from the MSPA. Many MS Principals wholeheartedly supported this exciting day of competition between the schools, so they were going to come out to support their students no matter what. But the reality was this, the event would have been tough to pull off without administrative support--you cannot focus on conducting an event this large while managing athlete/crowd control issues at the same time. I made those at the top aware of my dilemma in the event that things would somehow go sideways during the days of the event. It was decided above my pay grade that all middle schools should have administrative support at the event. This solved the problem of administrative supervision, but I had other problems that still needed to be navigated.
Bridging the Growing Divide
On top of all of this Trackfest background noise, the OCPS Hall of Fame event was on the same Friday night as the opening of Trackfest 2015. I was in the middle of the perfect storm. The MSPA was now being directed to provide administrative support for the Trackfest weekend events, so Middle School Principals were being required to give up their Friday night and Saturday for this special athletic competition. How would it look if I missed the event? The divide between the District Office and school leadership would have become even wider, if that were possible. My heart was to try to minimize further separation, so I decided that I would not attend the OCPS Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in order to make sure Trackfest ran smoothly and the MSPA felt supported by the District--it just would not have looked good if they were giving up their Friday night and I wasn't...even though I would have been either way.
Don't You Want to be Famous?
I informed the person in charge of the event that I wouldn't be able to attend due to Trackfest. I also wasn't very excited about having to pay $50 to attend--that may not have seemed like much to someone with double incomes in the 6-digit range, but for this single income family man, $50 translated into a lot of groceries for the week. I don't mind playing a part in OCPS fundraisers, but taking cash out of my empty pockets for who knows what, made my decision to support Trackfest and the MSPA that much easier. That's when I got the question: "Don't you want to be famous?" I replied, "I'm already famous enough." At least in my eyes. The Athletic Directors, Coaches, Teachers, Extracurricular Sponsors, District Officials, School Board Members, and many Principals knew who I was...and, for the most part, they knew that I supported them, I cared about them, and I was always available if they needed help on something. I wasn't very famous with people beyond my small circle, but I didn't need to be. I missed working with students at a school, but now my job was one where I mostly worked in the background, supporting people who were on the front lines...I was trying to make their jobs a little bit easier in the end. If I was in the spotlight, it usually meant something went wrong. Maybe that's why I have built up an inner-aversion for the spotlight.
Now this is Happening
I missed the First Hall of Fame event, but Trackfest went smoothly. A few weeks later, after I applied for two Principal jobs and didn't even get an interview, I was called upstairs to my boss' office. I was informed that a decision was made above him that someone else would be moved into my position and they really didn't know where I was going to be transferred to. I don't know if my transfer had anything to do with me not showing up to a District function or not--I know an empty seat at such an event was not smiled upon...I was informed of that when I was at another event earlier in the year. To be honest, I didn't like the way things happened, but looking back, I believe that it was supposed to happen in order to prepare me for such a time as this...with valuable experience in Career Technical Education.
To close out this long diatribe about "Overcoming the Need to Lead", I would just like to say that I won't do "anything" to just get elected. I don't find a 50% pay cut very attractive, and I am not particularly enamored by the inner workings of the RBELC. And to top all that off, over the past 6 months, I've received an education in politics that I never intended to become acquainted with...in fact, it is now much easier for me to understand why, many times, when people vote, there often aren't very good options to pick from. My reasons for running are quite simple. I am running because it appears I've been prepared in many ways to serve in this leadership capacity in order to help our school district. I have experience with private schools, virtual school, homeschool, middle schools, high schools, technical schools, and the district office. I've been a parent, teacher, school-based administrator, and a district-based administrator. I've worked with academics, athletics, and the arts for many years. I've worked with every school in our district regarding extracurricular programs and Title IX issues. I've received a very unique education in preparation for this position on the School Board.
On top of my preparation, and probably more important, I have a sensitive ear for suffering. The story about Moses reveals that God heard the groanings of the Israelites...here it is in Exodus 2:23-25...
"During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them."
God Cares about Students, Parents, Teachers, and Administrators
Just like in this case with the Hebrew slaves, I believe God hears the groaning and suffering of people. I believe God cares about students, parents, teachers, and administrators. He sees our struggles. He especially cares about those who take care of children--"the least of these". I believe that God prepared me in a unique way to speak forcefully about many of the destructive things going on in education at the present moment--both at the district level and at the state level. Call me a bit loony if you like, but somebody in our School District needs to step up and speak up, even if it means a 50% pay cut. It's time to put paychecks, promotions, positions, and pensions on the line to save our students, teachers, and schools. I know there are many out there that are silently supporting me...even from the administrative level. There are also quite a few that are beginning to step up in a vocal manner. The way I see it, we need everyone to care about education--everyone has a part to play. There are a lot of people out there that have been pushing for change much longer than I have, and we can learn much from their knowledge and experience. But the real revolution that I seek is still in the classroom, where the students and teachers meet, and learning takes place. If you are a teacher, I would certainly love for you to help with this education movement, and become actively involved in our campaign. But the reality of the matter is this--the best way to become involved it to continue to strive to be the very best teacher you can be for your students--and I'm not talking about perfect Marzano evaluations. Keep caring about your students, keep preparing the very best lessons possible, and keep collaborating with you fellow teachers in support of one another. In the end, we have to be able to show the voting public and the powers-that-be, that there's a better way to do things, and your example in the classroom is the best evidence for such an argument. Strive to be your best every day, regardless of the opposition you both face inside and outside of your classroom. Continue to believe that hope is on the way.
Not Seeing the Whole Staircase
As a disclaimer, I would like to say that all of this doesn't mean I'm going to win. Even if I believe I've been prepared by God for such a position, it may be that I was just supposed to run and drive some discussion...along with driving some people a little crazy. God may have something else for me, and I still have no idea what I am going to do if I win or lose...that's what faith is for..."Taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." ~ MLK Jr.
I think James 4:13-17 is becoming a life verse for me...
"Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them."
The Good I Ought to Do
I know the good that I ought to do...I believe it was to run for the School Board and speak for the suffering students, parents, teachers, and administrators. If God has another plan for me other than this...believe me, I am all for it. I could easily be satisfied like Moses with 10 acres and a mule...with my beautiful wife and kids...living in the foothills of the wilderness, minding my own business.
So, when I say I won't do "anything" to get elected, please believe me. For those one or two that have read through all of this...thx...on to the next diatribe...
Bonus: For Those who have a taste for the extremely hot spiritually spicy food for thought...all others, I would skip this section.
Trying to Fill the Void
I believe all of us have a void inside of ourselves that we try to fill up with various things that just don't satisfy. Some try to fill it up with money, power, fame, pleasure, etc...whatever we try to fill it up with, it's never enough. Leadership seems to offer the perfect "object" of affection to fill up this common, inner void. But those who run after "the need to lead" discover along the way that no level of leadership or salary amount is ever enough...they'll always need more. Leadership, power, fame, and pleasure will never fill up the void. Many famous people end up turning to hard drugs once they discover that the fame they have achieved isn't enough. I believe a destructive lifestyle is actually a sign of lost hope in filling up the void...they have achieved and received everything they could have possibly wanted out of this life and it simply isn't enough...something is still missing. The destructive habits they've developed over the years while in hot pursuit of filling the void end up becoming a nose-dive that they cannot pull out of on their own...they need a Savior.
The One Who Fills the Void
Jesus filled the void in my heart. When you invite him into your life, he transforms your entire being from the sub-atomic, spiritual level. Jesus was the ultimate leader who overcame the need to lead...I don't totally understand how it all works, but he left a kingdom to come to this earth...born in the humble station of a barn, laid in a trough, surrounded by animals and all the stuff that makes animals smelly. He waited patiently to begin his ministry...waited until he was 30 years old. When he was tempted by the Devil with kingdoms and all the glory that this earth had to offer, he rejected it all straight away and said that a person should worship God alone. He often did miracles away from the crowd because he wasn't looking to simply amaze people and gather a following...he had bigger things in mind. He sought to teach his truths to the poor and those rejected by society and the religious leaders of his day...and he did it because everyone is the same, of equal worth in God's eyes, and all are in desperate need of a Savior.
His first followers weren't religious people--they were smelly fishermen, zealots, a tax collector, and even a reformed prostitute. Jesus didn't care what the elite thought...he cared about people. It says that large crowds followed him, and they wanted to make him King, but he wouldn't entrust himself to them because he knew what people were like. His own brothers chided him, "No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." (John 7:4) He was described as speaking the truth no matter who was listening, and he answered just about every trick question that was asked of him with a wisdom that astounded even those trying to trap him. He once told a large group of followers that they were only following him for free food. Another large group left him because they couldn't understand a tough teaching about eating and drinking him--calling them to a deeper commitment, somewhat similar to a football coach telling his players that if they want to improve the have to eat, drink, sleep, and dream football.
When he told his followers that he would be rejected and crucified for the sins of the world, one of his closest followers took him aside and sought to correct such a crazy idea--they were on the verge of big things together. Jesus rebuked him in front of all of his closest followers and told him he had the thoughts of the devil, not of God. Jesus prayed to his father if there was another way...but then he submitted to God's will, not his own.
When he was brought before the Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate, he was asked if he was a king. Jesus replied that he was a king, but his kingdom was not of this earth. If it was of this earth, his followers would have fought for him. Jesus gave up his life...paying the high price of sin in our place...a price he did not owe because he was without sin, but a price that we all owed...and the price of sin was death, or separation from God...a reality that we all live in to some extent in this world. This debt can only be completely satisfied by the one who owed no debt. When a person accepts Jesus' free gift of life, and Jesus comes into their heart, overcoming the need to lead becomes possible. Power can wreck a person's life, and absolute power can wreck an entire country. Jesus is the one that can fill the void. Jesus can help one overcome the need to lead. Jesus can take a greedy, selfish, overly ambitious individual and turn them into a servant-leader. That's what we need in our school district, and if I am fortunate enough to win a seat on the School Board, that's what I will strive to be.