The Needle in the Haystack

Dr. Kimberly McLeod | 12/30/2015, 2:15 p.m.
Some leaders will search for the needle in the haystack – and find it! Others will take an entire haystack ...

Some leaders will search for the needle in the haystack – and find it! Others will take an entire haystack and spin it into gold. Many students are like the straws of hay, a potential untouched clearly sitting in front of an academic leader searching for a needle in a haystack. Discarding hay into other piles, drop out piles, under achieving piles, special education piles, suspension piles, irrelevant piles, don’t know what to do with piles, while searching for that needle in a bushel of hay. Chances are, as you read this, you may have been that straw of hay in someone else’s hand. What is your testimony?

I am NOT saying that those that can find a needle in a haystack are not good leaders, quite the contrary. It takes discipline, patience, perseverance and persistence to find a needle in a large stack of hay. However, who gets to be the person that defines and judges what is “good” and what is “bad”? Certainly, I am not the one to accept that challenge – nor do I care to. However, I will ask the question not of “good” or “bad” but rather, what is effective and ineffective as a leader in today’s schools. You can have “good” leaders that are incredibly ineffective. “Good” leaders are not as valuable to me as effective ones.

I challenge common schools of thought with the belief that there are practicing and emerging leaders that can take an ordinary bale of hay and spin gold. I believe that there are leaders that exist that defy odds and create individual genius, by transforming environmental deficits into cultural capital. I know many will read this and vehemently disagree with me. Many will say, those leaders don’t exist or how difficult it is to spin gold from the “kind” of hay in current school and political cultures. For those that BELIEVE that to be true, what you are really saying is that YOU are not able to do that. However, just because YOU are not able to do that does not mean it can’t be done – or isn’t currently being done. Nor does it mean that you will not ever be able to do it. However it does mean that where there is a belief gap, there will also be a vision gap and as a result an achievement gap, is sure to join the gap party – along with an economic gap, health gap, skill gap, etc.

Without defining or labeling what is good or bad, I will voice my opinion on what is effective and ineffective. What if the building leader of your child’s school told you this:

Two out of three eighth-graders at our school won’t be able to read proficiently.

Nearly two-thirds of our eighth-graders will score below proficient in math.

Seventy-five percent of our students will not be proficient in civics.

Nearly three out of four of our eighth- and 12th-grade students will not be able to write proficiently.

And if your loved one is African-American or Hispanic student there is a 40 percent chance they will drop out.

Then they close by saying, but maybe –just maybe- your child will be that needle in the haystack.

Umm hmm. Yeah. Ineffective. Good is irrelevant.

Those statistics are an overview of American schools from NAEP 2011 and 2012. Chances are your loved one is already attending that school. If your loved one’s building leader told you that, you would want a leader that can spin gold too, because there is a greater chance that your child will be a straw of hay, and not the loan needle in a haystack. You would want a leader that can ensure that every student in that classroom has the assets and cultural capital they need to create effective life outcomes.

Let’s have a moment of truth. I believe most school leaders want effective schools that produce desired outcomes, but it’s not easy. The difficult journey can produce tiredness, burnout and a deficit model of thinking, however, it can also produce golden haystacks – resilience, perseverance, discipline and wisdom because while it may be difficult, it is POSSIBLE. It. Is. Possible.

The first step is see your belief perspective for what it is. It’s like going on a diet, you know things can be different – where there is belief, there is no doubt. It’s not a matter of if you can change your weight or health, the question is will you persist and persevere and do what needs to be done to change your outcome - DAILY. You must see each child as capable, competent, and contributing –without doubt.

Secondly, you have to think different. You have to give up your deficit mindset and see the child/system and the potential of the child/system at the same time. You must adjust your mindset to see the hay and the gold simultaneously – as one.

Lastly, you MUST do different. To go on an effective diet, you can’t keep eating junk. You have to change your dietary practices to get a different result. You can’t keep doing things they way they have always been done. Your goal is change changing hay into gold. I believe in the potential of educational leaders because I have to believe. I must believe, because there is no other acceptable alternative. I teach and train many others that believe as I do. What is your belief and what outcomes does your belief produce? What will be your story?

Dr. McLeod is the president-elect of the Texas Alliance of Black School Educators she has presented as a keynote, and an invited speaker for teachers, administrators, school board trustees and students in a number of districts, national and international conferences. She is an expert consultant in the field of cultural responsiveness.

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