Posted by: Jamie on Mar 23, 2011
For twenty-two years, I have worked to increase student success in America’s public schools. I’ve traveled hundreds of thousands of miles. I have worked in hundreds of districts in dozens of states. My goal is always the same: to help educators, parents, business leaders, and community groups work together to create schools that unfold the full potential of every child. I have enjoyed many rewarding moments—more than I would have thought I deserved. But on July 13th, in a hotel ballroom in Charlotte, I entered a new phase in my career. And it began with a peak experience.
On that date, I was honored to receive the Learning and Liberty award, presented each year by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) for “outstanding efforts to improve school/community relations.” The presentation of the award by president Tim Hensley was very gratifying. But I will never forget what happened next.
Months before, I had decided to release my new book at NSPRA’s annual conference. A room filled with school communication professionals seemed the perfect place to introduce a book with the title, Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for America’s Public Schools. As the day approached, however, fear began to temper my enthusiasm.
For the better part of seven years, I had labored alone, writing and rewriting the manuscript. I was seized with despair, too many times to count, convinced that no one would ever read a single word. My initial printing would be used for kindling in my fireplace. There were, of course, other times when I saw myself sitting on Oprah’s couch after winning the Pulitzer Prize. And it was those blissful daydreams that kept me going, which proves that delusion has its place in the creative process. The emotional tug of war continued unabated through the final weeks of writing, editing, and proofreading. By the time I landed in Charlotte, doubt, anxiety, hope, and anticipation churned in my stomach and raced through my chest. The moment of truth was at hand.
I was scheduled to receive the award during the morning’s general session. The agenda was straightforward. Tim would call me up on the stage, and make the presentation. I would accept the award, deliver a keynote address, and then walk to the conference bookstore prepared to sign books.
Everything went according to plan until I stepped off the stage. Immediately, I was met by a group of people (A-types all) who had jumped the gun, purchased the book, and now stood at the bottom of the steps—books and pens in hand—waiting for me to sign. Any thought of my leaving that room went right out of my head. These were my people! They had bought my book! I was going to stay there with them until I learned their names, their children’s names, where they came from, and their hopes and dreams.
Floating in euphoria, I stood in the aisle talking, shaking hands, and scribbling paragraphs of appreciation in every book. I had no concept of time. What broke the spell was a sharp tug on the back of my jacket. As I turned, my wife, Jeanne, leaned in close and whispered in my ear the sexiest thing she ever said in all our years of marriage.
“Hurry up, big boy, there’s a crowd waiting in the lobby.”
Up the aisle we went. And, sure enough, as the doors opened, there was a long line of people, all holding at least one book.
I took my place in the appointed chair, and signed and talked and thanked happy customers for the next ninety minutes. I smiled so much my face hurt. Gone away were my doubts and fears.
Later that night, Jeanne asked what I thought of the day’s events. I said, “It felt like Christmas, the 4th of July, and the night my beloved Penn State won the national football championship all rolled into one—only better.”
Months have passed since that wonderful day. I have had the good fortune to repeat the experience many times. The bliss is always palpable. And while my appreciation for these moments and the people who make them possible has not waned one bit, I have become much more interested in the conversations that my ideas are generating across the country. These conversations contain great power. They are about our schools and the ever-increasing list of academic, social, and medical problems we ask them to fix. They are about the growing role of government in defining the standards our schools must achieve. Most importantly, they are about the tremendous power that is inherent in strong school/community relationships. In the long run, it is these local conversations that can lead educators and their allies to create cultures of achievement where individuals and community groups work together to remove all the obstacles to student progress.
I am eager to help advance “The Great Conversation” in districts and communities across the country. My speeches, articles, and interviews now focus on the critical need to:
- Strengthen school/community relations
- Raise public awareness of the importance of creating schools that unfold the full potential of every child, and
- Connect the dots between high levels of student success and an improved quality of life of everyone in the community—whether or not they have children in school.
To help me, I am pleased to have hired my son, Aidan, as Director of Communications. A recent graduate from the University of Iowa, he is helping to sell my book, manage my speaking tour, and cultivate a working relationship with the media.
In the months to come, I intend to add new posts to this column as often as time allows. I seek to help school districts secure the four Prerequisites of Progress: understanding, trust, permission, and support. Community understanding of the challenges facing our schools. Community trust that America’s teachers and administrators are working hard to prepare all students to thrive and prosper. Community permission to make the changes necessary to accomplish the goal. And community support throughout the restructuring process. I warmly invite you to contribute your ideas, questions, and suggestions in a joint effort to produce a new future for our schools and our communities.