School & District Management Opinion

School Leaders Should Take a Lesson From NASCAR

By C. Ed Massey — October 30, 2012 3 min read
Crew members perform a pit stop on the car of Brad Keselowski during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Martinsville, Va.
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As a school board member, I often talk about the concept of teamwork—working with the superintendent and upper-level administrators to guide the school district, working with parents and community members to ensure their voices and opinions are heard, working with teachers and school staff to ensure we are allocating resources correctly. Teamwork is a delicate balance because it requires everyone to fully understand and embrace their roles, lead without overstepping boundaries, and focus on a common mission. School leaders must work together to ensure our students get the best education possible.

So how can we learn from NASCAR, a sport that’s become known for the drivers with the most flamboyant personalities? What you may not know is that the success or failure of many NASCAR teams occurs on pit road. NASCAR races are won and lost by thousandths of seconds—and the execution of the pit crew’s duties can determine the fate of the race.

Pit road is where the real teamwork is exhibited. Every pit member has a very specific task and they do their job efficiently, effectively and very quickly. In a typical pit stop, a crew of seven members changes four tires, fills the car with 22 gallons of gas, cleans the windshield, adjusts the shocks and sway bar—ideally in 12 to 15 seconds.

The crews can accomplish this work so quickly because each team member has a specific role that they perform to near perfection. One member carries the tires while another changes them; one crew member fills the car with fuel while simultaneously turning a wrench; another crew member tears off the layover windshield so the driver can have a clear view. All of this work is overseen by a crew chief who has meticulously prepared his team. If team members are successful they will share in their driver’s fruits of victory; if a team is not successful they will be subject to evaluation, adjustments and countless hours of practice so the next stop will be successful. Because winning is the name of the game, mediocrity is not tolerated.

Suppose school leaders adopted this pit crew mentality. We would likely be more effective and show the continuous improvement for which we all strive. Instead, we often find ourselves multi-tasking and stepping on toes. We are often relegated to doing the same thing again and again with no change in the outcome.

Imagine that the public represents the sponsors; the students represent the victory; the superintendent represents the driver; the school board represents the pit crew and the teachers and administrators represent the engineers, engine builders, fabricators, etc; the parents represent the fans. If any “one” of the persons serving in those roles fail, then the whole team fails. For example, the teachers and administrators together build the concept of an appropriate curriculum. The board sets policy and makes changes in policy to accommodate the curriculum and the district goals. The superintendent implements the curriculum and the policies of the board. If any of these components are mismatched or if any part of the team fails, then the goal is not reached and the victory is eluded. Only by having a quality program offering that is aligned can a district be in the race. Once the race is underway, adjustments have to be made by the school board and the superintendent. Data is utilized and careful adjustments, some large and some small, are made to affect the outcome. At the end of the race, a victory in this instance would represent the happiness of the sponsors (public) and the fans (parents). Most importantly, the students would represent the victory and celebrate in being college and career ready.

Believe it or not, we can learn a lot from the pit crew analogy: First, figure out your gift and focus on it. Second, perform your role and perform it exceptionally well. Third, resist the temptation to engage in areas that are not in your area of control, and finally, consistently and constantly strive for continuous improvement. The term TEAM is often used as an acronym for “Together Everyone Achieves More.” With pit crews this is true, and it is also a good analogy for those engaged in leadership. In education, if all participants work to improve performance in their role, then we can all work together to ensure success for our students.

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Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.
The opinions expressed in Transforming Learning 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.