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GRAVES: Confucius: A little ‘work’ OK

Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent  Though I am not a Confucian, I am someone who truly loves a great quote. (Perhaps that makes me a “quoteophile” though that term’s absence in the dictionary makes such a claim dodgy at best.) Regardless, Confucius, who lived more than twoand-a-half millennia ago, is one of those incessantly referenced people in the very apex of the pantheon of the quotable. Which, I suppose, makes hearing one of his paraphrased quotations a quotidian experience. Well, enough of that. Here is one of my favorites from Confucius:

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“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

I love this quote for the same reason I love most of the quotes I collect in a desk drawer — it has an important message. The message, as I interpret it, is not to spend your life working in a career you hate. Like most quotations, however, it uses overstatement as a means of emphasis. If I really accepted the full import of the reference, it would suggest that if I ever feel like any aspect of or any time spent at my job was “work,” then I should look for something else. But I’ve never found that to be true. I love my job, but like every other job I’ve ever held, there are aspects of it I don’t really enjoy.

One such that I face every late summer and into the fall is the drafting of the Mitchell School District Report Card. I love data but I hate collecting it. I love the pithy, wellillustrated communication of information but I sometimes grow frustrated with just how to communicate it. I love having put together the district report card each year but I also find disappointment when it is less than enthusiastically received (especially when met with one of those eye rolls by one of my own principals).

One could argue this less-thanenjoyable aspect of my job is actually self-inflicted. After all, no law or policy or ethical norm requires me to put out this 36-page document, a.k.a. birdcage liner, each year. So why do it?

I do it for any number of reasons — it creates a historical record for the district, acts as a tool of marketing, provides great volumes of data for local media, etc. — but my main reason for creating it is for my own utility. Every year, it forces me to stare any number of indicators of success and failure about the District I serve. It is an admittedly imperfect but still unflinching mirror into which I must look every year. If I write it, I can’t look away. I cannot ignore, neglect, or disregard the data there. It neither dissembles nor dithers and I cannot duck or dodge what it has to say because I am saying it to myself.

And here’s what it had to say this year:

1. Enrollment is up again this year and up significantly, though whether that is the case due to a demographic echo of the Baby Boom, the attractiveness of our community or the quality of our schools is a matter of interpretation.

2. The impact of the national Great Recession is dimming locally, as evidenced by the decline in the percentage of our students eligible for free/reduced price lunches. Poverty still stalks far too many of our students, but at least that number is smaller than in recent years.

3. Our indicators of student achievement (math and reading proficiency rates, high-performing schools, average ACT scores, graduation rates, college freshman GPA, opportunity scholars, regent scholars, AP coursework) are all strong. Our students tend to do significantly better than South Dakota students and dramatically better than students nationally, on average. But the work is not done. Each and every one of these indicators could be higher and we need to find the methods and means to push them higher in each of the coming years.

4. We offer a diverse curriculum, allowing students and their parents to select a number of directions in which to take their education, an education provided by a more and more highly educated faculty. Yet, in an educational environment increasingly open to virtual and distance educational opportunities, that diversity needs to expand more quickly than it has or is.

5. Our schools enjoy positive and safe climates. Yet school disciplinary issues still exist and some students do feel bullied at school and at home as a result of interactions at school.

6. The financial condition of our school district is sound, yet we need more work to eliminate the already declining opt-out request ($400,000 in 2013, $200,000 in 2014) while finding ways to improve teacher and staff compensation.

Hopefully, these statements don’t seem overly general or even glib. The devil, of course, is in the details. And if you’re wondering where to find those details, well, Confucius didn’t say it, but have you checked the bottom of your birdcage?