Advice to our new School Director: “Keep the bus between the ditches”

The historic hiring of the first African American Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools is my motivation for writing this editorial. Moreover, I take this opportunity to formally express the hope, excitement, and anticipation that Dr. Shawn Joseph, his new leadership team, with community support, will successfully reform our school system.

Immediately after hearing the official announcement regarding a new director, I asked friends: “What advice would you give Dr. Shawn Joseph walking into a southern school district—one whose history has never included an African American school director, whose upper leadership had never reflected the diversity of its student body, where over 60% of its students were children of color, and 70% on free and reduced lunch, where failure rates were high, achievement disparities constant, and school board members polarized around critical education issues?”

Their responses were quick and to the point. One of my friends replied: “Keep the bus between the ditches.” I admit I wasn’t familiar with this saying, nor were the friends with whom I shared his advice. “Dr. Joseph is the driver now,” he said, “whose job is first to get the bus out of the ditch, back on the road, and with all deliberate speed, get its occupants safely to their destinations-high school graduation, higher education pursuits, and other career paths.”

My advice for Dr. Joseph is to stay focused on the children, their challenges and successes; be aware of the inconsistencies in the road. Don’t get distracted by detours, blame constantly leveled against parents and students and those glittering things called political favors. The traffic lights are there for the safety of all drivers, passengers and pedestrians who maybe crossing the road. Listen to teachers, and protect their confidentiality.

Drive down the road announced and unannounced. There are many who follow the rules and guidelines and many who don’t. Be aware of speed bumps, while they may not blow out your tires, they may cause injuries from the bumps themselves or your efforts to avoid them. Be deliberate as you move forward. Change does not happen overnight. Give your new initiatives enough time to work. Make certain your teachers, and administrators are well trained and parents and students have buy in. Understand the magnitude of a national problem with many fatalities.

Ditches are on both sides of the road, including: economic, social, and political.

Don’t forget our children are on the bus, desperately needing to make it to graduation. The signposts are located along the road. Pay close attention to the big and small obstructions: poverty, poor academic performance, lack of parental involvement, inexperienced teachers, lack of diversity, and inequitable funding.

Dr. Joseph, despite our frustration with failing schools, we continue to believe in the value of quality public education, the necessity of parent involvement, the power of highly qualified teachers, and the critical need for strong effective leadership.

Thank you for accepting the challenge.