for political service
Elaine Renick, Linda Stewart
honed leadership skills
working in the classroom
When I left the news business and became an educator, I saw something I had missed all those years writing about schools.
The skills and traits of effective teachers closely match those of effective public officials.
I think many of us assume public leaders should be lawyers or business managers. I know I have been guilty of that assumption. After all, government is complicated and who better than a lawyer or business manager to sort things out?
How narrow-minded of me.
Time and wisdom revealed that while lawyers or business managers make good campaigners, they often stumble on the job.
What trips them up? In a word, ego. Frequently they get so competitive that they miss obvious, practical solutions the rest of us see easily. So instead of solving problems, they argue and posture.
Their egos keep telling them – you must win, you must defeat your rival, your image is at stake. Win the case. Grab that contract. Raise that bonus.
Governing just isn’t that simplistic. It’s not a court case or business deal. It’s finding practical solutions – solutions that work in a wider world. The world inhabited by public officials is not just about clients and it’s not just about customers. It’s about public service – the good of the community.
The win-no-matter-what mentality so often seen in politics today contributes to government’s inability to solve problems. We end up arguing in anger about the same issues election after election – jobs, taxes, the economy, education.
This mentality may also be a reason why campaigns often get sidetracked onto wedge issues based on personal feelings. I’m right, my opponent is wrong. That’s all there is to it.
Sound a little familiar?
Educators simply don’t have time to wallow around like this. They train in the art of getting things done. Now. The children they love depend on them for a successful future, and with something that precious at stake, you can’t waste time indulging yourself. Every moment in the classroom counts. Every moment brings a new chance to teach.
I asked two proven public officials with backgrounds in education to discuss how teaching prepared them for leadership.
Elaine Renick and Linda Stewart are incumbent Lake County Commissioners, wisely endorsed by the Orlando Sentinel for the Aug. 24 primary election. Together they have 47 years of education experience.
Mrs. Renick, who spent 15 years in Illinois, Missouri, and Texas teaching high school English and psychology and serving as a school psychologist, earned the complement “tough but sensible” in the Sentinel endorsement.
Mrs. Stewart, a 32-year veteran of Lake County classrooms, taught at Clermont Junior High, Roseborough Elementary (where she went to school as a girl), and Round Lake. The Sentinel praised her for making “good decisions amid a dreadful economy.”
How did working with students prepare them for leadership? How did it help them gain the ability to deal with disruptive people and obstacles encountered along the way?
“I actually see the two professions as very similar, and I have often remarked that I still feel like a teacher. In both positions you have to be able to articulate a position and explain things in a way that is easily understandable.
“Whether you are a teacher or you are a county commissioner, you have to be able to communicate effectively with every type of personality.
“You also have to have patience and the ability to really listen and put yourself in your students' shoes. Trying to understand all perspectives is also critical in government, as well. You have to be a problem solver. A good teacher would never just give up. A good leader doesn't give up either.
“And, as a teacher, you are a role model. You set an example. Government must lead by example as well. Last but not least, a good teacher has to be emotionally strong. You want that in an elected official too. Both professions cause a lot of sleepless nights with worry, but the strong keep going.”
“You must be compassionate, caring, and committed to be a teacher. I took those characteristics with me to better serve the citizens in Lake County.
“Just as a teacher must be responsive to the needs of every student, I believe a commissioner must be responsive to the needs of every citizen and must work hard to help in every way possible.
“I had 32 years of practicing patience. I learned from disruptive students that their behavior resulted from something much deeper than the actual disruption they caused. I learned to be a good listener and try to understand their side of it. I learned not to judge because I hadn’t walked in their shoes.
“I worked hard to stress the importance of honesty and integrity in each of my students. The best way to do that was to set the right example. Honesty and integrity are important to me.”
Teaming up to support students
I also asked them how County Commissioners, even though they don't run the schools, can pitch in to ensure students receive the best possible education. Neither said "not my job." Instead, they both stressed the crucial link between education and successful communities.
“The success of our county goes hand-in-hand with the success of our school system,” said Commissioner Stewart, who teaches Junior Achievement.
“It is vitally important that each commissioner make it a priority to stay in communication with the school system. They should be aware of what is happening and open to any ideas to better the educational experience. They should be ready and willing to help.
“When I learned of the Robotics program and went to see it in action at a competition at UCF, I was so excited that I called some school board members before I even left the competition to tell them about it. I then became involved in getting funding for it for Lake County schools.
“I was also aware of how valuable field trips to Trout Lake Nature Center were to students, and I worked with Trout Lake and the School Board to get funding for those field trips. I worked with a second grade classroom to help them produce a public service announcement on water conservation.
“The importance of our school system just cannot be over-stated.”
Commissioner Renick agrees that Trout Lake Nature Center and robotics are useful to students, and adds that many students use the county-supported library system, also supported by cities and Lake-Sumter Community College.
“But probably, the most significant contribution is in the realm of safety,” she said. “The county supplies part of the funding for the sheriff's program to keep resource officers in the schools.”
As a teacher, I have seen the value of these officers, and it extends far beyond keeping order. They are skilled at helping troubled students face their problems and get back on track. These officers can give students the boundaries they need now to avoid trouble later on. Helping keep these officers in schools is one of the smartest, most practical things the County Commission does to support students.
Lawyers and business leaders will continue to run for office, and because they have money they will often end up in positions of authority. Some will succeed, others will flop. But government belongs to voters, and voters can do something to improve the caliber of public leadership. The example set by Commissioners Renick and Stewart shows why more educators should run for office.
The presence of educators greatly improves the mix of elected leaders and reminds everyone that motivation for leadership must be based on service rather than self-interest.
Life in the classroom, focused on supporting people, communicating well, and getting results, provides an ideal training ground for political leaders.
This realization brought to mind a favorite quote. It comes from one of the world’s great teachers, a man with legal and political power who used it to build schools and colleges throughout his country, a country now reaping the benefit of this investment.
Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective… - Ghandi