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To Improve Our School District, We Asked a Rabbi and Two Pastors

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Andrea Castañeda Better Conversation COVID-19 School Leaders school leadership Tulsa Tulsa Public Schools

To Improve Our School District, We Asked a Rabbi and Two Pastors

To Improve Our School District, We Asked a Rabbi and Two Pastors

2022 arrived in America’s public schools not with a bang, but rather, a long and tired sigh.  Students need stable, high-quality schools more than ever, but everyday staffing is desperately fragile. Schools strain to create safe, predictable environments for learning while we absorb unpredictable behaviors born of relentless stress. And of course, COVID lingers, offering neither the hope of an end nor the clarity of endemic status. 

To lead school systems through 2022, we need the clarifying lens of true wisdom. In our pursuit of wisdom, Tulsa Public Schools invited two pastors and a rabbi to share their thoughts on the topic. This is what we heard. 

Worthy work cannot be completed in a day

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.

 ~ Ethics of the Ancestors 2:21

As educators, we operate against an internalized ticking clock. We know that every moment matters: our students will never get another chance at this class, day, semester, or year. Third graders will never get another chance at reading proficiency. Seniors will never get another chance to learn essential skills. The depth of student need and our responsibility to meet those needs demands urgency. 

Yet we are living through a collective trauma, and we must search for the balancing point between the fastest and slowest amongst us. That balancing point will feel wrong—both too fast for some and too slow for others. And when we encounter that difference, we should try to resist the shallow satisfaction of judgment. We can shift the framing of our work this year, away from the expectation of a heroic (and apparently endless) marathon and toward a long and steady relay. Each of us will have days during which we need respite, and each of us will have days when we carry a doubled load. Lasting and worthy achievements for kids will most likely be reached through many handoffs amongst a committed collective. And while we may not finish the work we start today, it is our responsibility to lead with a broad, generous, and gentle understanding of ourselves and others.

Choosing what to change requires as much courage as change itself

Hard choices are always hard, but right now they are made harder because we know that every decision makes us a target for merciless, energetic criticism. If we choose academic recovery over emotional trauma, we are ignoring the whole child. If we prioritize stabilizing staffing by closing schools, we are ignoring the urgent needs of students. The inescapability of public purity testing of almost every decision preys upon our confidence, courage, and stamina.

The original serenity prayer asks not for the courage to change what we can, but for courage to do something even harder: to choose what must be altered.

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

~ Reinhold Niebuhr

In 2022, 100 educational leaders would likely have 100 different conclusions about what must be altered. Those differences of opinion are partially the product of our polarized context. Polarization is—by design and not accident—paralytic, tempting us to either choose nothing or everything as a means of avoiding criticism. But if the Serenity Prayer is right, success for our students this year will likely come to the school systems that pursue a small set of well-chosen priorities with courage, conviction, and discipline.

We cannot know the road ahead. That is not a failure.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end … But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

~ Thomas Merton

Even the most capable amongst us have likely abandoned our sense of certainty: about our instincts, our decisions, and the future. Too often, our important decisions feel narrowly justifiable and our plans flimsy and provisional. But having doubt in a time of doubt is not evidence of a failure of leadership.

After two years of a global pandemic, we can more easily see that we are, at best, powerful actors but not architects in the shaping of our world. Our inability to see the road ahead is not a cause for despair or self-judgment. Being a powerful actor in our world does not require omniscience; it merely requires a daily rededication to our calling. Each day, we can remind ourselves that our work matters; we can connect with our team, students, and communities to reset our compass. We can live with savlanut, the prudent patience that knows each day, well-lived and in whatever form it takes, accumulates into an impact on the world. 

Notice the power of good company.

After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.

~ Rachel Naomi Remen

It is easy to feel that leadership in 2022 is a daily burden, and doing so will almost certainly narrow our field of vision until we see only detractors, failure, and fault. Conversely, good company allows us to lead with renewable hope. We can all take the step of noticing the good company around us. Good company sometimes fills rooms with cheers and rises to our defense, but more often, it hides in the quiet that exists all around us. Rabbi Marc Fitzerman of Tulsa’s Congregation B’nai Emunah, Pastor David Emery of Tulsa’s Harvard Avenue Christian Church, and Pastor Ray Owens of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Church are our good company.

In Tulsa Public Schools, we continue to strive toward wisdom. We strive to be intentional, not impulsive in our decisions; discriminating, not expansive in our priorities; confident, not dogmatic in our positions; and gentle, not judging of everyone’s human limitations.

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