Education Opinion

Sam Berns’ Courage Offers 4 Lessons in Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 26, 2014 4 min read
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Sam Berns died on January 10th. He was 17 years old. Challenged by Progeria, a disease so rare, spellcheck thinks it is a misspelled word. Sam was recognized for his outlook and courage. He was the subject of an HBO Documentary and was sometimes referred to as the real-life “Benjamin Button.” The Boston Globe reported his parents, both doctors, had turned their professional focus to gaining a better understanding of the disease. His mother and her team was credited for isolating the gene that causes the condition and developing medication that has since contributed to extending the life of those with the disease. Sam believed he “won the parents lottery.”

In October, Sam delivered a talk about his “philosophy for a happy life.”

There are deeply moving lessons to be learned from watching and listening to this young man. His challenges were much greater than the ones most of us face, but his outlook brings lessons for us all. Sam’s goal was to live a happy life. His four-part philosophy for living a happy life reads like this:

  • Be OK with what you ultimately can’t do, because there is so much more you CAN do
  • Surround yourself with people you want to be around
  • Keep moving forward
  • Never miss a party if you can help it

What does this have to do with leadership? It is about perspective. How we bring ourselves to the challenges we face makes a difference in how we, and those who follow us, experience them. Are we OK with what we can’t do and delighted by what we can do? Have we thought through how we really feel about, for example, the implementation of the Common Core? Are we sure or worried or confused or excited? Are we ready to take it on, however imperfect the first steps may be, or are we wishing it would go away? No matter the answer, the key is to know the difference between what we can and cannot do about it. It resonates with St Francis’ serenity prayer. We will benefit if we can, “Be OK with what you ultimately can’t do, because there is so much more you CAN do.” Once we decide what we can and cannot do, what we will and will not do, we are left with a clearer direction for the work we have accepted as ours.

Sam’s second suggestion for living a happy life is to surround yourself with people you want to be around. Especially after a day or week at work, surrounding ourselves with family and friends who are like-minded is part of what helps us let down from the stress of our work. Breaking away from that habit is difficult because it brings a great deal of discomfort. But, professionally, we have to think carefully about our desire to be with the like-minded and be wary. A mistake often made in schools is the tendency to surround ourselves with those who think as we do. We may listen to the news that leans to the right or the left whichever feels comfortable for us and protects us from really listening to opposing views. But in order to “keep moving forward” in education, we have to welcome all perspectives, even those that are different from our own. Making the boundaries permeable between the “in group” and the “other group” in schools takes courage and is necessary. It allows us to begin uniting the spirit within a school, finding common values, and bringing together the energy with which to move forward.

Moving forward is also very important. We are human and in that humanness, we all bring talent, knowledge, opinion, and passion to our work. We bring our worries, frailties, health or illness, wakefulness or tiredness with us as well. Each aspect of what we do in our schools can be improved. How we teach, grade, assign, schedule, discipline, treat each other, treat the students, their parents, all can be done better tomorrow than were done today. How we do that rests with the leader’s ability to listen to all perspectives, bring the entire faculty together, make thoughtful decisions, plan for sustainable implementation, schedule data collection for review of the decisions, and do it all with transparency. It also demands knowing the difference between simply movement and moving forward.

Never miss a party if you can help it.” Sharing the joy of successes is a party in our work. So many have been held back from these celebrations either because of meetings, or worries, or evaluations. It isn’t just about another day at work for the teachers, a job well done, recognition of attendance at an event, a contribution in a meeting, success with a new technology, a new teaching method, etc. are all grounds for celebration of teachers’ efforts. It isn’t just about graduation for the students, it is in the smaller more everyday moments: games, plays, concerts, art shows, club meetings, a right answer...all are celebrations of students and their talents. We must make the time to be there to share the joy of these events with the children who are working at becoming better players, actors, artists, debaters and citizens. If we miss these “parties” we rob ourselves of the fuel we need to bring all the rest together in our schools. And Sam Berns wouldn’t want us to miss a day of being happy. That’s how one builds a happy life.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.