By Dr. Paul Young
Father's Day is just around the corner. With that in mind, principal Paul Young considers what his dad might think about the state of education today. Down-home stories and common sense prevail in this principal's touching tribute to his dad.
Dr. Paul Young is the former principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio. As the president of the National Association of Elementary School Administrators (NAESP), he represents nearly 30,000 elementary and middle level principals in the United States.
He's been gone now more than 30 years, longer than the time I shared with him while growing up. It's taken me many years to fully come to grips and deal with the lingering influence he has over my thinking and adult actions. Unlike many others, I can't ask him what he'd advise when in tough situations. Nor can I reflect with him about many of the decisions I've made. As our world becomes ever more complicated and I am called upon to advise others, I spend more and more time considering what my dad might think about contemporary issues were he here. I know he'd have strong opinions about education issues since that was the profession of most of his sisters and sisters/brothers-in-law. And if he were here, he would spare no words advising me how to do my job as an elementary school principal.
My dad wasted few words in the late 1960s about his concerns for my desire to become a music educator. Many times driving to and from Ohio University, he'd find ways to express his farmer's skepticism about musicians. He warned that my college education would likely lead to nothing, certainly not a real job, and that the crowd I associated with would do me harm. I was always his rebellious son, the different one, eager to get far away from our small family farm and never return.
We always seemed to be diametrically opposed. He never understood the hippies or the protest movements of that era. He thought my hair was too long. He didn't like the Beatles or the music I liked. I would always accuse him of being old fashioned and out of touch with my interests. He told me once during one of our arguments that, "You don't think I'm very smart now that you're 18, but you just watch, by the time you're 22 and on your own, I'll get a lot smarter." Unfortunately, that's about the time he died. He was right, and it's taken me years to comprehend the potential wisdom and experience he had to share with me.
Today, I imagine the conversations we'd have were he alive. I'd listen eagerly to his conservative, independent advice that I'm sure would be enlightening and helpful in my work. Here's what I've dreamed he'd say about
"You know, Paul, when you wanted to win the blue ribbon at the county fair with your sheep, we had to make sure they were pampered and fed just right so they'd catch the eye of the judges. Remember, we'd give them prescripted amounts of high-quality feed and alfalfa. You'd weigh them, but also feed them daily so they'd grow. You gave them lots of tender, loving care. Today, that's where testing programs in schools are failing. You weigh (test) but you don't always properly feed (teach), nor do some people care. Some things you can't control -- but don't expect to win the blue ribbon if you don't give your students everything they need to grow. It doesn't cost anything to provide tender, loving care. Your job is to find the feed and pay for it like I did with your sheep."
"Remember us breaking those wild heifers? You were sometimes afraid of them, but I'd always show you how to tame them. No different with your kids today. Spend time with them. Let them get to know you and trust you. Know their names and things about them. Give them pet names and have a sense of humor. Know what sets them off, and change the environment around them to control their behavior. Get ahead of them and direct what you want them to do rather than react. Beating them will just hurt them and make them angrier. It takes rapport. They have to feel like they belong. Over time, you'll come to like them and they'll always be your favorites."
My dad also taught me a personal lesson about discipline when I was about three years old. I had decided that I enjoyed hearing myself talk during church services and had ignored his warnings to be quiet. After he'd heard enough, I was taken out of the sanctuary by his hand, with my feet hardly touching the floor as we headed toward the basement. There, I got a few swift swats on my rear. In tears, I howled, yet I learned very quickly to get control of myself and certainly not to argue or disappoint his expectations. I remember him asking if I wanted to come back for another session. I learned quickly. He didn't work with me as he would the cows, and he'd explain that his expectations were different.
Faced with the situation in church while being observed by his peers, he loved me enough to take quick, decisive action. My paddling might have hurt at the time, but I learned to respect his authority. As I grew older, I always knew to behave at school. He'd say, "If I ever get a call from that school principal about the way you misbehaved, you can expect to get a punishment at home much worse than anything they'd do to you there, no questions asked!" I had no doubt he meant what he said. I now respect his strength of will, decisiveness, standards of behavior, and ability to get my attention.
With my own daughters, when they were young, I learned that firm, consistent discipline and expectations were important. I wish all parents could have experienced and learned my dad's discipline tactics.
"Change is constant in the world of farming. The seasons change, but never the same way or at the same time each year, and I always had to adjust what I would do each day according to the weather. Those who couldn't anticipate got way behind, misjudged, and perhaps lost a crop. Remember how we'd rotate the plantings in fields to allow nutrients in the soil to be replaced? Change was refreshing and expected."
Furthermore, he'd explain, "The farmers in our area learned from research and shared best practices. We improved or we didn't make top profit. If you couldn't change, you'd find yourself in bankruptcy. Appears you educators better do the same. It appears that it takes you too long to embrace good changes. Everyone wants the status quo and worries too much about self-protection. If you do the same things year after year, expect the same results. I'd move teachers around, talk more about what works and what doesn't, and view change as a positive in your work. My animals and crops were always different and required that I change to get better results. I had a routine, but it was just a guide that changed when necessary to get the job done. When things became too routine, the fun went out of the work, and the results suffered."
And, of course, he frequently cited the old adage: "To get a mule to turn, you first have to get the mule up."
"Don't you remember our Farm Bureau Council meetings and the adult farmer classes at school? I was always learning. You thought you really knew something when you went off to college and got a degree. Some of those people you were in school with never learned another thing after they got that degree.
"I attended gatherings at school and was involved by learning from other farmers because I wanted to learn as much as I could to stay current and get ahead. I knew farmers everywhere, and when one needed help, the rest of us were always there, no matter how busy we were. We had our self-respect and reputations to uphold. Looks as though you folks could learn a lesson or two. You should always try to learn new things everyday. If there is a meeting of your peers, be there. Get involved. Know those who do what you do. Learn from each other. Lead. You might even compete. It will be good for you.
"Remember those farmers in our area who stayed to themselves? They contributed nothing to the community and never amounted to anything!"
"Paul, all the money in the world won't buy you happiness. We're not wealthy, but we're not poor, either. We have this land. Count your blessings and make the most of what you have. Don't expect anyone to hand you anything. If you really want something, you'll have to work for it. Money can be the root of lots of evil."
He also chided me for wasting lots of the money I did earn. He was a conservative. Yet he wanted his children to have a good life, and he knew that a college education was a ticket to earning much more money than he could earn farming. He'd be proud that all four of his kids earned advanced degrees.
"I've always voted for school tax increases, even though farmers are strapped and asked to carry a heavy load with property taxes. But I want what's best for you kids. My parents made sacrifices and got all my sisters through college during the Depression years. Somehow, your mother and I will manage the same for you. You do the same for your kids. The best investment of your money will be in your own education. I don't know why some people don't understand this."
Even though my family lived in a century-old, modest house, dad was a supporter of bond issues that helped provide our school district with new buildings and athletic fields. "You kids deserve to go to a school that has modern facilities like we see in the schools around Columbus. I went to a one-room schoolhouse for the first eight years of my education, and that's not good enough today! We have to keep up with those in the big cities. I have no idea what you'll live to see in your lifetime, but I've seen the development of tractors, cars, electricity in houses, telephone, television, and airplanes. You have to have a good education to be able to keep up. And there are so many more kids in your generation. Time's are a changin' and those who think you can learn what you need to get ahead in a one-room school or an outdated, overcrowded school are off the mark.
"And how do you use these gadgets you call computers, faxes, and cell phones?"
As a teacher and principal, I've needed survival skills to persevere challenges and threats from parents, administrators, board members, community members, and legislators. Dad many times shared a favorite story about Bessie the cow.
"A retired farmer once had an older cow named Bessie that fell into an abandoned well. Despite her crying for help, the farmer, by himself, was too old and feeble to pull her out of the well. He had long ago sold his equipment that would have enabled him to manage such a task. Considering that the well was no longer used and the cow's advanced age, he decided to shovel it full of dirt, burying Bessie at the same time. As he labored tediously shoveling the dirt into the well, he sadly heard old Bessie's moans.
"Then, the moaning and crying stopped. As the dirt continued to pile around her, Bessie had decided to stand up, shake off the dirt, and always take a step up. After days of shoveling, the old farmer had finally filled the well. But Bessie, continuing to shake off her impending troubles while moving up one gradual step at a time, walked away from what would have been her burial."
Were he here, I know Dad would remind me that I could choose to be buried by my troubles, or work my way out, one step at a time, like Bessie. Today's challenges sometimes seem insurmountable. But Bessie made it, and so can I. Bessie made a way out of no way.
"I thought you wanted to be a music teacher? Why did we waste all that money on you? I told you that you'd be better off to get a degree in something else!"
Ironically, the day my father died, he attended a band concert at Ohio University. Although we never talked about it, I think he was beginning to understand and accept my passion and love of music. And I know he would have been a great supporter during my years as a band director. He would have been especially pleased that my bands marched on the same high school football field that had been financed and constructed with bonds paid by his neighbors and fellow farmers from our local school district.
But now I'm a principal. What would he say about principals?
"You folks don't realize it, but you have more influence in this community than any other people. You have tough jobs, but you can really make things happen. You see all the kids and get to know all the parents. Everyone knows you and looks up to you, whether you realize it or not. You are a part of everything that is going on. You've got what I consider to be the best job in the school. Son, you better not forget where you came from and disappoint me!"
"Leadership is all about influence and relationships. It is about leading people to change. Remember the strategies I taught you when we were moving our herd of sheep from one part of the farm to another? I hoped I was teaching you a lesson that you'd discover useful later in your life."
Many people think of sheep as dumb animals, but quite the contrary. They are smart, alert, conservative, and they stick close together. And within each herd are natural leaders. Where the leaders of the herd go, the others follow. When the leaders go through a gate into a new field, the other sheep quickly trail behind.
"Paul, you instinctively knew how to relate with the leaders of the herd. Maybe it was because you always had a fond spot in your heart for the sheep on our farm. You always seemed to be able to identify and connect with the leaders, influence them to go through the gate into new fields, and the others would follow. Moving the sheep to new pastures was never that difficult once you understood how to work with the leaders, was it?"
Dad was a great mentor. I just didn't know it at the time. He liked to repeat the old sayings such as "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink" or "you can take a boy out the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." As a teenager, I thought those adages and others were silly, and I'd laugh at what I thought was country nonsense. Now that I am close to the age he was when he died, I recognize what he was trying to impart to me and the importance of mentoring our children and those with whom we work.
He was always clear in what he wanted us to do, especially his sons. He was always teaching us what he thought we needed to know and be able to do as farmers. But I didn't want to be a farmer. As the second son, I didn't get to drive the tractors. I wasn't considered old enough or responsible enough for important tasks. I didn't like being dirty. So I resisted. I missed some great learning opportunities and life lessons because I was stubborn. Like the wild heifers, Dad had to handle me in a different way. I'm sure I was a source of much frustration. I required a different approach and tried his patience. But I hope I was fun!
As soon as we were old enough, Dad would delegate responsibilities to each of us. Looking back, I realize we learned many valuable lessons and skills. He explained what to do, why, how to do it, how to get started, and he stayed with us until we were independent in our work. Then he weaned us. For my two brothers, it was succession planning. To all of his children, he imparted knowledge and insights that have shaped our adult lives. He had a strong personal rapport with each of his children -- even me, despite my lack of interest in farming. If we listened, he was always teaching. And now, I clearly see how he, too, was learning. He changed and adapted as much as we did. He maintained a youthful appearance and approach by living life through his children. He was probably as capable an educator as any of his siblings who attended college and enjoyed distinguished careers as teachers.
The quality of his teaching, delegation, coaching, and mentoring was measured when he died. His family survived a crucible that has devastated numerous others. He had instilled values and character that enabled each of us to move on with our lives.
Had I wanted to be a farmer, he would have made sure I was a good one. So he had to do more. The values, character, and work ethic I have as a musician, teacher, and principal were molded and influenced by a farmer.
Today, I'd love to engage him in a conversation about his favorite country sayings. Maybe the boy got out of the country, but it's clear, "an apple never falls far from the tree."
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
"Last night, one of the sows had a litter of pigs but I'm not sure one of them is going to make it. She had seven healthy, good-sized piglets, but the eighth one is a runt. Go get a bottle and fill it with milk, we'll have to feed him by hand. He'll never survive the night with the others if he doesn't get fed this way. I know it might be easier just to knock him in the head and throw him in the creek, but just maybe he'll come out of it. I've seen too many farmers do that, but I can't. I know if we get him off to a good start, he'll grow. He'll bring profit at the market just like the others if we don't give up on him now."
My dad saw the value in every animal. Likewise, he liked people and always rooted for the underdog.
The afternoon he died in May 1972, he had seen all his children, including me, at the band concert at Ohio University. We were all doing well in school. Life was good. But after returning home, he and my younger brother found a cow lodged in a ravine on the farm. He could have chosen to leave the cow where it was. But unlike the farmer with Bessie, I'm sure that never occurred to him. He wouldn't leave a mature cow to what would have been certain death anymore than he would a runt piglet. Tragically, as he and my brother were working to wrench the cow out of the ditch, the tractor he was driving upset, killing him instantly.
He was the principal of our farm. He wouldn't leave anything behind or in peril, nor will I.