Who is at the helm of the ship your child is in?

Most of my six siblings and I have spent our careers in public service. Our mother worked at New Smyrna Beach Senior High School in Guidance; we all graduated from that school. Our father served in the Navy, and in NASA as a rocket designer–he helped put men on the Moon and bring the Apollo 13 astronauts to back Earth. One of the things we learned from him is that in order to do your best and most efficient work you need to know who and where you are. Not always such easy things to do. He was also a storyteller, and often used story to teach us lessons. One tale I heard years ago has come to mind more and more frequently as I’ve seen what’s happening in the public school systems in Florida.

A U.S. Navy battle group was moving through the Red Sea. The movement was part of a several-days exercise involving the regular Navy against the Seals. In the middle of the night, a group of  Seals crept aboard the lead ship in the group, and with great drama took over, zip-tying the officer at the helm and his crew members and throwing them to the deck. Congratulating each other, the Seals took their time declaring victory and radioing back to their superiors just which group was the better warriors. After several minutes, the commanding officer looked up and said, “So who’s driving the ship?”

The battle group was moving full speed ahead under cover of darkness in foreign waters. With nobody at the helm of the lead ship. The regular Navy officer knew exactly who and where he was. And he told his captors to free him, so that he could drive the ship. Since they didn’t know how.

We are on a ship with nobody at the helm. Obviously, the lawmakers in Tallahassee don’t have a clue about how to fix the crisis in education. Non-educators spend public comment time at Board meetings berating Board members and telling them what to do. These parents certainly don’t have the expertise to make informed decisions regarding education; they’re consumers of it, not experts in design. Half of the Board members don’t even read up before the meetings; sometimes, they don’t know that they’ve already voted on the issues being discussed.

Nobody is at the helm at the state level. At the local level, we have a new guy at the helm and several new Board members. Some know what they are doing; most don’t. We’ve had massive turnover in district administration, and more of that is coming. In Exceptional Student Education alone, the top administrators have taken early retirement, a new director has been brought in from out of state and is trying to learn the ropes before the hat is officially passed in June. Nobody is at the helm.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some terrific educators who are here and who are staying. Mr. Russell is, in my opinion, one of them. It takes time for him to learn his new job. But, some very vocal and nasty citizens want a search, mostly because that involves a panel including citizens and they want to be on that panel. It’s about ego. And if they get their way? You guessed it, nobody at the helm. Again.

What happens in this sort of situation when we are steaming full-speed ahead into the darkness is, things collide. People get hurt. Money gets wasted. And the children pay the price. The trickle down is obvious: when the ship is uncaptained, whether it’s a school or a district, a state or a nation, large mistakes are made at even classroom levels which heavily impact the lives of children. I witnessed one this week which knocked me back into my chair, breathless. Witness the mess in another Florida district, with fights erupting daily in the cafeterias of the high schools.

My suggestion is, think about who and where you are. Get involved, more than ever, in your children’s educations. Volunteer in the schools. Check the helm. Meet with the principal. If you see mistakes which astonish you, catch your breath, pick yourself up, and get in to see somebody you trust at the district level. Remember, the chain of command is a structure designed to work in harmony. If a link is broken, a chain can’t hold. In this climate, start at the top. Only employees are required to go up the chain. You may get backlash, broken records, and those you contact at the top or their gatekeepers may need to do the work of going down the chain to solve your classroom or school-based issue. But, you do this for your children. Know who and where you are, who and where the educators who know what they are doing are, and keep an eye on the helm. There’s stormy water all around.

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