Education Opinion

Thomas Sobol, Educator and Advocate: A Leader’s Legacy

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 08, 2015 5 min read
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There are many good men and women in our business. But, there are few great ones. Hopefully, when we find those few, we willingly follow them, give them our respect, and acknowledge their wisdom. Our lives have both been touched by one of those great ones and he passed away last week. So, we pause to express our sadness and our respect and what we have learned from his life.

Leaders are human beings first. We can find challenges and unknown territory terrifying. The wise, gentle courageous ones, the ones focused on their work as a calling in life yet who can remain open hearted have the potential to stimulate growth among those around them. Tom Sobol, a former NYS Education Commissioner and esteemed professor emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University was one such man. He had been very ill for quite some time and, through his extraordinary will and his devoted wife’s efforts, he lived long enough to complete a book about his life, even as ill as he was. We wrote about it in 2013.

His passing struck a chord in us. Ann had worked for him as a District Superintendent when he was Commissioner. During that period, Ann also met and spent time with his wife, Harriet. Jill met Harriet more recently, after reading his book, My Life in School and invited Harriet to speak to SUNY New Paltz graduate classes. So the loss felt very personal. What was it about this particular leader that reached so many people so deeply?

Susan H. Furman, President of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote in an announcement of Dr. Sobol’s passing:

Tom was among TC’s most respected and beloved figures, admired throughout the country for his humor, eloquence, brilliance, and compassion. He was deeply committed not only to living a moral and just life, but also to equipping others with the tools to do the same. He was famed for his course on ethics and education law, in which he asked students to grapple with “defining moments” -- complex moral dilemmas chosen from real life...."Becoming moral in my view is the opposite of restraint and detachment,” Tom said in his speech at TC’s 2006 Commencement, when he received the College’s Medal for Distinguished Service. “It requires passionate engagement with other humans, stepping into all of life’s confusion and heartbreak and messiness, and losing one’s self in something larger than one’s self before the self can be defined.”

This from the post we wrote about his book in 2013:

The study of leadership, in the form of story, is usually the story of success. Its origins are mythical...we have an appetite to learn from those stories. But, seldom are the stories about us, the leaders in education. Few of us have the will or the courage to tell our story, whole, with our flawed edges, our frailties, our courage and our passion. When someone comes along who is willing to go to all those places in telling his own story, we must notice. This is especially true if that person has crossed paths with us along the way.

As a man, as a superintendent and as a commissioner, Tom Sobol’s stature is indisputable. His passion and his eloquence were inspiring. He was a scholar leader, a thinker and a visionary. He was a gentle soul who loved and felt no need to hide that love....wife, family, friends, and the children...the ones he lived to serve. He had a presence that made him magnetic and he spoke to... and with... the “whole village” when he spoke about education.

Even among his colleagues, he was able to note the good in each of them. In 1996 he wrote:

What do public school superintendents talk about when they get together? In July, we had a chance to find out when about 60 practitioners of this beleaguered calling from all parts of the nation gathered at Teachers College, Columbia University, for some R&R and reflection on the parlous state of the schools they lead. San Francisco and New York City and Omaha, Neb., and Richmond, Va., and Bemidji, Minn., among others, all sat down together and swapped their stories. And despite the group’s striking diversity, a common theme emerged.

It’s not easy being a public school superintendent these days, so cataloguing the mutual problems was easy: lack of money, too many and conflicting demands, public hostility, uncertain tenure. But surprisingly, once these matters were acknowledged, they were not what superintendents wanted to talk about. The problem that gripped their attention was the decline of community in America--and the role of the public schools in creating and sustaining that community.

Superintendents from all over the country lament a loss of social cohesion. In too many places, they say, gone are the days when people pulled together. Increasingly, superintendents deal with individuals and special-interest groups who insist on immediate gratification of their own wants and care little or nothing about the common good. The problem is more acute in the cities, but it afflicts small towns and villages as well. As people responsible for the educational welfare of all children and families, and for the effective management of the community’s resources, superintendents find themselves buffeted from all sides for doing the very thing they are hired to do--seeing the situation whole and trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. (Tom Sobol 1996, EdWeek)

Tom led one of New York’s richest school districts as superintendent and cynics wondered whether he could understand the needs of the poorest and be an effective commissioner. Over time we realized that it was his time among the richer than made him such a powerful advocate for the poorer.

As one last act of leadership, let us allow Tom Sobol’s passing to be a reminder, to open our eyes and our hearts, to grow as moral leaders who are dedicated to what is good for children. Allow his lessons to continue by recognizing that the development of leaders, all along their leadership paths, will always include growing in ways that are not about information, but about moral decisions and child focused leadership. Let not this moment be one of simply a good-bye to an esteemed leader, but a promise that his life’s work will be carried on by those of us who pick up the baton. But, let us also remember that we are not ...none of us...perfect. We will make mistakes and, if we learn and stand up again after a fall, we can serve and lead still, perhaps even better after an encounter with humility. We know great leaders are not perfect men and women; it makes them no less great. As Tom said,

Few of us have the will or the courage to tell our story, whole, with our flawed edges, our frailties, our courage and our passion. When someone comes along who is willing to go to all those places in telling his own story, we must notice. This is especially true if that person has crossed paths with us along the way.

We were privileged to have crossed paths with Tom Sobol. We noticed then and we do again today.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

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.