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Veteran educator's advice: 'shoot for the moon'

The co-author of What Every Superintendent Needs to Know told a packed audience at Friday's general session what every school leader needs to know: you can lift up your schools to new heights only with a lofty vision and a tireless, passionate work ethic.

Friday's general session headliner Jim Burgett - a school leader for the past 25 years - conveyed that message through aphorisms, anecdotes and advice, setting the theme with a quote from Les Brown: "Shoot for the moon. If you miss, at least you'll land among the stars." But he followed the quotation with an old Japanese saying: "Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare."

Thus, he advised: "let the Conference change you, but don't just go home changed, do something: make this conference the start of something big."

Burgett also shared a personal anecdote about his own childhood, when he had become the man of the family at age 13. Overburdened with responsibilities and concerns, he happily met up with a school counselor who changed his life. Nicknamed Mr. Ben, the counselor at the junior high school in Highland C.U. District 5 held informal counseling sessions with him almost every day. "He taught me how to get along with other kids ... how to mediate family problems, and deal with my problems," problems that most 13-year-old youngsters never face. "He taught me more than I ever knew."

Burgett reflected on his gratitude that the Highland "school board had shown the foresight to employ counselors like Mr. Ben - while not even knowing me, they had provided for kids like me, and in doing so, had made the difference of survival for one kid," Burgett said.

Drawing upon another experience, that of co-authoring the book, What Every Superintendent Needs to Know, Burgett said a savvy editor had discerned the four themes that run through the entire book, even though it was penned quite independently by three co-authors. The themes are: Pride, Passion, Vision and Commitment. "No leader can achieve the best without those four components," he said.

While admitting that "times are tough, with all the talk about ISAT, Iran, and I Quit," he advised school administrators, board members and school business officials to "get over it, don't let it prevent you from providing an excellent learning place for your kids."

He also admitted that school districts in Illinois are facing a monumental financial crisis, with 76.8 percent in deficit spending at the end of the 2003 Fiscal Year. But there is a way out, he said: "If you're in one of those districts or not, you need to be 'squeaky,' as in 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease.'"

To begin with, school leaders must motivate others to seek funding change, Burgett said. "If each of you gets two or three people to write a letter, that's 50,000 letters. Can you imagine the impact it would have on legislators if they received 50,000 letters one week demanding fair and decent school funding?"

Burgett urged listeners to go to the next school board meeting with a plan to promote change. "Stop talking, start squeaking," he said. "If you don't, cuts will ensue. We'll lose music, we'll lost art, and athletics. We'll lose the likes of Mr. Ben," he added.

But money is not the only answer to the question of how to improve local schools, he said. One proven answer is simply to "develop a work ethic of doing more and being nicer." That was an institutional consultant's suggestion one time to a large hospital, Burgett said. After all, it is the attitude that is special in great institutions, he said, such as at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the motto is "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."

"Try it. It works," he said.

"[Country music artist] Josh Logan said it best: 'You raise me up.' Mr. Ben did it for me. You can do it for your schools," he added.

Burgett concluded with an anecdote from the Armenian earthquake that killed 30,000 people in eight minutes back in 1989. The father of one endangered schoolboy had rushed to his son's building only to find it flattened. Devastated, all the father could think of was what he'd often told his son: "I'll be there for you."

Recalling that promise, and spying the corner where he dropped his son off every morning, the father rushed to the area where he knew his son's classroom would be, and began digging. Other parents told him "it's too late." But he didn't stop digging, he only glanced up at them and said "are you going to help me?"

The same basic advice and answer were repeated many times over to other parents, a fire chief, and a policeman. No one helped, but the father kept digging.

"He dug for 8, 12, 24, 36 hours," said Burgett. And in the 38th hour, with his hands raw and bleeding, he pulled back a boulder and heard the voice of his son, Armand, saying "Father, I told them you would be here for me." Armand and 13 other children had been trapped alive under a wedge of concrete.

"The father had never given up hope, and neither had his son," Burgett said. "Because of that commitment the children survived."

"I doubt if anyone in this room did not feel that same commitment when they started to get involved in their local schools," Burgett said. "But the secret is to keep that passion," he concluded.

Burgett's presentation was preceded by the bestowal of the Risk Management/David Binotti Award to John Garleb, board president of Valmeyer CUSD 3. The district was honored for reducing Workers' Compensation costs.

In addition, representatives from Valley View C.U. District 365, Romeoville, and Elmhurst C.U. District 205, were top winners of IASB Service Associates' Education Environmental Exhibit Awards. The awards for school design were shared with just one architectural firm, Wight & Company, of Downers Grove.

Prior to the awards presentations, the audience enjoyed a short introductory speech from Donald Kussmaul, the President of the American Association of School Administrators. Kussmaul, who recently retired after 25 years as superintendent at East Dubuque District 119, shared a list of daunting demographic trends highlighting the challenges facing America's children and tomorrow's schools.

Kussmaul warned: "we must take care of democracy because it cannot take care of itself."



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