Last week I found myself at Rafferty’s, a restaurant on Nashville’s south side, across the table from Williamson County Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney. In 2015, Dr. Looney was awarded the State Superintendent of the Year from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. The year, in the words of Charles Dickens, was the best of times and the worst of times for Dr. Looney. Despite being recognized as a superlative school leader, he found himself embroiled in several public battles with Williamson County school board members. He was also named the finalist in Metro Nashville Public Schools’ search for a new Director of Schools only to turn it down at the last minute. The past few months have seen changes on the school board and while things have been just as busy, they are a little less chaotic, or I should say less filled with public chaos.
During the Nashville superintendent race, Dr. Looney and I became friends. A friendship that grew out of interactions on Twitter and has continued on with us having lunch several times throughout the year. On the occasions we get together, I find a man who is a classroom teacher at heart, and, in my experience, willing to engage in any topic of conversation without fear. I, like many others, was initially angry with him for turning down the Nashville job. However, we had lunch the following week, and he openly shared with me his decision- making process. I came away understanding that he had just changed his mind and had found that he was far more attached to Williamson County than he had realized. Some have charged that he “played the MNPS board” or that his changing his mind is somehow a failure on the part of Nashville’s school board. I reject both premises and tip my hat to Williamson County for realizing that they got one of the good ones and being willing to do what it takes to keep him.
Dad Gone Wild: Good afternoon, Mike. I need to clarify, what’s your official title? District superintendent?
Dr. Mike Looney: I prefer superintendent. The code is a little murky on that; Superintendent and Director of Schools are interchangeable, but I prefer superintendent.
DGW: I always have to ask because some districts have changed the language. They refer to head of the district now as the CEO. Which to me is a little weird. Seems like a blurring of the business world and a service entity. You are in Williamson County, and it seems that your demographics seem to get as much attention as the quality of your schools. Tell me about them.
ML: We’ve got 38,000 kids. Eighty-eight percent of those students are white. As you know, it’s a fairly affluent county, but we’re more diverse than what people think. The Brentwood area is very homogeneous, then you have Fairview which is a lot more rural, and the downtown Franklin areas – in general, Franklin – are a little bit more diverse than what people might think. Honestly, some of our elementary schools have a very transient population. I was in some data meetings just recently with one of my elementary school principals, and 24 percent of their students turn over every year. It’s something we don’t always realize. What sometimes happens is there are minority students who may come in and they stay for six months, and then go back home because of their parents’ work. But for the most part, it is a white, affluent community.
DGW: But you are starting to see greater growth in both population and diversity.
ML: Yes, I think that we are seeing the browning of America. We’re not seeing that as quickly as some other places, but we are beginning to see it, especially as it relates to the needs and learning style of the student. One of the things that is unique about our district is that we are a beacon for families that have students with special needs and exceptionalities. So the rate of growth in students with autism, or other needs that require additional services, is surpassing our traditional growth rate because we have a reputation of doing a good job.
DGW: Interesting, because often times people tend to look at your demographics and use them to discount some of your success, but you still have plenty of challenges.
ML: The fascinating thing to me is that the district that I came from before this was a small rural district with a large African American population, and the challenges were exactly the same. It was about helping students, helping families, hiring good employees, and figuring out how to deal with the budget issues. That’s not unique to Williamson County, and it’s not unique to any other school districts.
DGW: I was talking to Dr. Ron Woodard, who is a former principal who made the transition from an inner city school to a predominately rural county, and he made a similar observation. At the end of the day, kids are kids, and you end up seeing a lot of the same trends and challenges.
ML: I think the one thing that is different from my experience is, think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Kids are going to make mistakes, but did they come to school with the fundamentals in place to be successful? For the most part, our kids come to school fed, they’re dressed, they have their physical needs met, and that is different in different locations.
DGW: Good point. You’re ex-military, right?
ML: Yes, I’m a retired Marine. I was actually injured in the Corps and retired. So this is, in some respect, my third career. After I retired from the Marine Corps, I went in to private industry. I worked in private industry for about six years. The interesting story behind that is I was actually on vacation in Germany when my company was sold, and so when I came back, I worked for the new owner for three days. It was a privately held company and their vision – I was in general finance for that company – and their vision of good business practice and mine immediately clashed. So we parted ways. At the time, I was working on my MBA at Jacksonville State. My wife was a teacher, and her principal conned me into subbing at her school because my MBA classes were in the evening. That’s actually how I got into the field of education, as a substitute teacher.
DGW: What district was that in?
ML: That was in Randolph County, Alabama. You may remember that county because it was infamous for racial strikes back in the early 1990’s. The principal had forbidden a biracial couple from going to the prom. The federal court system got involved, and he ended up being sued. Somebody burned down the high school. That was quite a mess at that time.
DGW: So how did you go from Randolph County, Alabama, to Williamson County, Tennessee?
ML: It was not a planned progression. I had to start off being a classroom teacher. I started my first teaching job, aside from being a substitute teacher, in Pell City, Alabama. I taught 4th grade, and then I taught 5th grade. The principal and other people around me encouraged me to get into leadership. I suppose it was because of my military background.
DGW: That makes sense.
ML: I think it was a combination of my military and business backgrounds. You see things differently when you have a different variety of experiences. You might see how to do things differently, more efficiently, and certainly you learn a lot about leadership. I became an assistant principal in Calhoun County, Alabama, and was quickly promoted to principal, and then four years later to the central office to be assistant to the superintendent. Then I was recruited away from that position to lead the curriculum department in Montgomery, Alabama. There was a change in leadership, and I applied for the superintendent job and was one of the finalists. I was led to believe that I was the heir apparent. It didn’t work out that way, but I quickly was able to secure the superintendency in a relatively nearby district in Butler County and was there for about 6½ years. I loved every day of it, did a lot of good things there, and one day a headhunter called me during the search process here in Williamson County. They had already gone through a search one time unsuccessfully, and so I liked my odds and I liked what I heard from the headhunter and came up here and the rest is history.
DGW: You talk about being a classroom teacher, and I remember something that struck me from one of our previous conversations. You talked about how, as a principal and superintendent, you still go in the classroom to observe teachers and will sometimes teach a little bit of a class yourself. To keep yourself in touch with the classroom experience.
ML: I tell teachers during our new teacher orientation that one of three things is going to happen: either I’m just going to sit there and pretend I am a student and kind of look at things through a student’s lens; or I’m going to walk around and ask questions and might even take pictures of the students’ work and interact with the students; or I might say, hey teacher, will you sit down and have a cup of coffee and let me try this? I think you have to be a teacher first, and it allows me, in some respects, to remember what teachers have to go through every day. It’s a tremendously hard job, and the further you remove yourself from the actual work of the classroom teacher, I think the harder it is for you to remember what’s important.
DGW: That’s another thing Dr. Woodard and I talked about – how quickly you forget what goes on in the front lines when you step off them a little bit. You start making decisions based on the way you think things should be and take less into account of what actually happens.
ML: There’s a big difference between what sounds good in theory and how it actually looks on the ground. I mean the military works the same way, right? You learn that it’s really important to understand what the troops are going through to the fullest extent that you can.
DGW: I read a passage probably about 10 or 15 years ago that described where Napoleon, whenever they were riding into battle, would ride up and down the line talking to the troops. He’d sit at night with individual groups of soldiers and explain to each and every one of them their role and how it fit in the overall scheme, what the hoped-for outcome would be, and why their role was essential. I try to practice that when I can. But it often seems like we don’t do enough of that; we just make demands without ever really explaining how it all fits together.
ML: And I’ll tell you, I’m guilty of this somewhat. I aspire to do better all the time, but it’s really easy to let the bureaucracy of leadership, especially in public schooling, to consume all of your time and forget that you’ve gotta get out in the field. You’ve got to, to the fullest extent possible, have the pulse of what’s happening in the classrooms and in the buildings and make sure you surround yourself with good people who have a similar vision and similar priorities. It’s a family, it’s a work family, and the way to be successful is to communicate and understand the requirements of the work; you have to have empathy.
DGW: In talking with teachers from Williamson County, I think it’s safe to say that you have more support than most administrators.
ML: (Smiling) It depends on the issue. I would say that we have some awesome teachers in Williamson County, and I feel privileged to be part of their team. I hope that they think of me as a reflective and supportive leader, but as with all things in leadership, it’s not necessarily about making people happy; it’s about trying to do the right thing and making people understand why what you’re doing is the right thing to do. It’s about hearing their voice, genuinely listening, and I’ll say the same thing is true for the students. It’s important for teachers to do that with students, and it is important for me to do that with students. One of the things that I do is I have a student committee. Visitors from every high school come visit on regular basis, and I let them tell me what’s working, what’s not working, and give me info about how to change stuff.
DGW: Good stuff. What kind of things have they brought to you?
ML: Well, the most recent thing that we are working on is that they want to participate in the teacher evaluation process. They tell me that when I or a principal walk in the room for an evaluation, things change – conditions, learning conditions change – and they want to be able to give accurate feedback about what they see on a regular basis when there’s not a formal evaluation taking place. It makes sense to me. I don’t know that it has to be part of the evaluation itself, but I do think if we really value voice, then we should give our students a voice about what’s working and what’s not working for them.
DGW: Playing devil’s advocate here – some of the most impactful teachers that I’ve had, if you would have asked me, at 16 years old, how impactful they were, I would’ve told you a different answer than I have now with some separation. In some cases, I think it should be like that. These days we are all about immediacy, but some lessons are like fine wine – they and we need to age a bit. It’s like a really good book. Often while reading it, nothing seems relatable, but then several years later you recall a passage that has become particularly relevant. As I get older and life changes, the light bulb goes off, and I think, “Ha, that’s why they wanted me to do that or that’s why we diagrammed those sentences.”
ML: I think that’s a fear that educators have, but the truth of it is I think you have to ask the right questions. Does the teacher care about you? Do they have empathy? Do they go the extra mile for you? Can you go to them for help? Those are very different questions about whether you like the teacher versus did they assign too much homework or are their tests hard. I think it’s really a conversation about does the teacher have these attributes? And does the student feel safe when they have to go to the teacher for help? One of the things I talk about is building relationships. I encourage my teachers to be able to make a relationship with the students and their families to the fullest they can professionally. If you don’t know the student’s birthday, if you don’t know they had a soccer game last night and the team lost, if you don’t know their dog died, or mom and dad are getting divorced, then it is going to be really hard for you to relate to that student. There’s truth in that students really don’t care about what you want to teach them until they know you care about them.
DGW: It’s funny how much the world has really changed since you and I grew up. I think we’re about the same age; I am 51.
ML: I am 53.
DGW: I think back about what my parents’ reaction would have been if I came home and told them that my teacher didn’t love me or didn’t care about me. My mother would have probably told me to shut up, get in there, take notes, and learn. The world is a different place. I do think that the building of relationships is very important, and I think it is valuable to learn early how important relationships are. I think too much we get caught up in the learning of, I want to say, facts, the learning of stuff that can be measured, and we don’t teach kids the value in making relationships.
ML: Interestingly enough, when I talk to employers, when I talk to the business community, one of the things that they often talk about is that we do well academically. You ask them what needs do they have that we’re not meeting as it relates to the workforce, and they always, they always say critical thinking and the ability to work with others. Which is about relationships. So I think relationships are central to success.
DGW: Looking forward, where do you anticipate the district heading and what kind of challenges do you anticipate facing? One of the things I’ve always admired about you is that you start addressing needs ahead of time. You tend to be more of a driver than a reactor.
ML: So our biggest challenge, quite frankly, is the growth that we’re experiencing. In the next five years, we’re going to grow by about ten thousand students. Managing all of the different areas of operations to prepare for success for those arriving students, students of diversity, students with special needs and talents, having enough classroom space, recruiting the right team members to make sure that we’ve got all the teachers in front of those students, being able to offer bus service in a timely fashion – preparing for the ensuing growth is where the greatest pressure point is. Then, quite frankly, the landscape of public education continues to shift. We’re operating in many ways on quicksand or shifting soil, so being able to adapt to the ever-changing environment and managing change I think is certainly a priority. I honestly am not worried about our achievement because we do well at that. It’s about making sure that we’re offering a well-rounded experience for everybody, a place where employees want to come to work. One that inspires loyalty and where the students can maximize the opportunities that we put before them to grow as much as possible, whether it’s in academics, arts, or athletics. I’d also say navigating the political labyrinth that exists in this state right now, as it relates to philosophical positions about how to best go about this challenging business of educating the youth.
DGW: Speaking of that, one of the things that sucks the air out of all conversations is talking about charter schools. I’m at the point now where I really embrace the concept that we can oppose them all we want, but if we’re not producing schools where people want to send their children, this will be an endless battle. How are you going to look at a parent and say, “Hey, we are not going to have charter schools, but you have to send your child to this under-resourced school.” Instead of focusing on keeping charter schools out of Williamson County, you seem to focus on keeping schools that everybody deserves, ones that are equitable.
ML: Well, quite honestly, we’re trying to steal some of the principles that charter schools have created. I really think it’s about the quality of the school, not the type. Charter schools are, I think, a result of our inflexibility to be responsive to the needs of students. The best way to keep away competition is to do a really good job at educating children, and so our focus is on making sure we are doing exceptional work. Therefore, we are giving a top-tier education to our students, and then there’s not a need for a charter school. There are challenges, obviously, that charter schools create. I think they create more bureaucracy and overhead and separate management systems. You take limited resources and you spread them thinner. I drive a Chevrolet. I’m satisfied with my Chevrolet. If they ever stop performing at a high level, then I’ll go to another manufacturer, but right now I’m satisfied with Chevrolet.
DGW: A blogger from Pennsylvania who is one of my favorites, Curmudgucation, always says parents don’t want more choice, they want more quality.
ML: That’s right. I believe that.
DGW: The only time you want more choices is when you’re not getting quality. I think that we need to focus on our existing schools, and that sometimes we get away from this in these other arguments. I think the charter discussion is an important one, but the focus needs to be on playing offense and not defense. Now, let’s talk about your skydiving business.
ML: I am the owner of Music City Skydiving. It’s my passion. I think it’s how I keep my sanity on the weekends. Actually, I’ll tell you the truth – if I don’t get to skydive on the weekend, the next week I’m a little bit grouchier than normal. It’s like I missed the adrenaline rush. I just love being outside and interacting with people from all walks of life.
DGW: And how long have you had that company?
ML: I’ve been in skydiving for a long time, but I actually purchased the business a year ago, the entire business. I owned a segment of the business for I guess, two years, but had an opportunity and jumped on that.
DGW: That sounds exciting. So, anything that we missed? I know our conversations are always a little wide-ranging.
ML: No. I will tell you I appreciate reading your blog, and hopefully this’ll be interesting one for other readers. Also, the more the community comes together and has conversations about doing what’s right for kids, the stronger we will become.
DGW: That’s one of the reasons why I started doing these interviews. I think it’s important that we remember when discussing these issues, that we are arguing, sometimes quite passionately, with real people, and we never lose sight of that.
ML: I am disappointed when we don’t debate public policies because I think you end up with better public policy after debate. I’m a flawed individual, I have flawed ideas, and my ideas can be perfected or be replaced with better ideas during debate.
DGW: What I tell my kids is don’t get upset if somebody challenges your beliefs. Because if your belief system can’t withstand challenge, then you need to modify your belief system or you need to study your belief system more deeply.
DGW: And I’m not one of those people who thinks that we should all come together and hold hands and that there’s no room for passionate disagreement. Education is too important a subject, and so I don’t mind the passion. But at the end of the day, we do have to remember that there are parents and family members and people who love every one of us. We need to make sure that we don’t completely lose sight of that, and that’s why I started doing these interviews.
ML: And I’m sorry, but I’ve never met a parent who says I’m going to send you my worst child and keep my good ones at home. So they’re sending their best to us every single day, and they’re doing the best job they know how to do. They all have different levels of ability and skill, empathy, passion, and compassion, but they’re sending us the best. They’re doing their best, and it’s about us having empathy for one another and lifting the boys and girls to a higher level.
We pay our bill and head out to the parking lot exchanging pleasantries about the family. He apologized again about being late. He’d been in the office working, since it was a holiday, he was able to concentrate uninterrupted. Again I waved him off and said it was understood. As I pulled out of the parking lot, it struck me that once again after leaving a conversation with Mike Looney I felt like I knew more then I did before the conversation. The man truly adheres to Dewey’s principle that education isn’t preparation for life but rather life itself.