Project Hope Over Despair

January 20, 2012

In the movie, Saving Private Ryan, a World War II Army lieutenant, played by Tom Hanks, is leading his squad on a mission somewhere in France and facing a number of problems. His superior officers order him to bring back Private Ryan but they don’t know where he is. Hanks is behind enemy lines and keeps losing men. Some of his troops are untested and all are inexperienced in this type of assignment. They are understandably demoralized and ask whether he feels the same way.


Does any of this sound familiar? As you enter the new school year are you still confused about APPR? Worried about the impact of the new property tax cap? Still trying to figure out how to do more with less as a result of last spring’s budget? Not as refreshed as you’d hoped given summer training and September floods?


Back in the movie, Hanks tells his men that their assignment is noble, that Mrs. Ryan will surely be grateful to see her son again and, besides, if he was going to complain, it certainly wouldn’t be to them. Since you, like Hanks, are leading your school community into unknown territory, people are bound to ask you this fall whether you are unhappy about uncertain goals, unrealistic timelines and inadequate resources.


Since the leader’s job is to inspire and to bring hope, and since complaining does not do either one, I thought I would use this column space to suggest a few possible responses when people ask these inevitable questions. I would suggest you say:


We make a huge difference. We know this to be true from our own experience. Didn’t many of us become educators because we were inspired by the example of great teachers we once had? Though it doesn’t happen as often as it probably should, haven’t we each been touched by former students thanking us for the positive influence we have had on them? Educators help others to unlock and realize their potential. By definition, this is what teachers do (and we are all teachers).


For many years, I have taught graduate school, first as an adjunct and later as a full time professor. Consistently among the most enthusiastic students in my classes have been the career changers. Lawyers, engineers, nurses, insurance and retail people—all were motivated to make a positive change in mid-career by becoming teachers. It wasn’t about money; it was about meaning. Educators make a huge difference for individuals, and the common good.


People want us to succeed. Adults, almost without exception, care about young people. They may think that schools teach the wrong things or that someone else should foot more of the bill, but parents, empty nesters and senior citizens alike really do want children and their schools to succeed. Parents, most of them harried and with many concerns, depend on the schools to protect and enhance their children’s well-being.


Community support for facility improvements and annual budgets has been remarkably high given this economic climate. In virtually every community, the general public celebrates student volunteers, supports its sports teams and honors their high school graduates in June. We should never forget this reservoir of good will.

We are where the action is. No matter how much the state and federal governments try to dictate what gets done in education as well as how it is to be accomplished, their reach always exceeds their grasp. Despite their many attempts, the fact remains that it is in local schools where everything happens since this is where the people are and education is a people business. And since every local community is different, context is crucial. So the heavy lifting is necessarily done by school boards and superintendents trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable demands within their school communities, by district and building leaders crafting programs to address many needs with limited resources and by teachers differentiating their instruction and support among their diverse classes of learners.


In today’s complex and rapidly changing educational world, leaders are under greater stress than ever before. But leaders are more essential than ever before, to take risks and to mobilize their communities to confront nebulous, and sometimes frightening, challenges. Like Tom Hank’s Army lieutenant, this is your role. No complaining allowed, at least not publicly.

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