Last evening one of the quintessential summer movies aired on television. JAWS stirs people perhaps more than any movie of its generation or since. Just the subtle hint of the frightful chords of the famous theme music still gives folks my age chills up the spine. The folks at the Discovery Channel have made a sweeps week of the last week of June with its Shark week largely based on destroying the myths about sharks perpetuated by this summer classic. Shark Week notwithstanding, JAWS has consistently delivered an irrational fear within many people of sharks.
In retrospect, JAWS has several underlying messages for leaders and educators. They relate to how irrational fears creep into and distract our decision making processes. Here are a few reflections:
- Setting Course Expectations and starting our Courses: Some teachers were trained that one is not supposed to smile until Thanksgiving. Certain advanced level at the secondary and post-secondary levels purposely ratchet up expectations of their courses to get uncertain students to drop and their courses and thereby reduce class size. Like the palpable sounds of the approaching shark ….danta, danta…..danta, danta, danta (imagine Jaws theme here), students hear the whispers of how difficult the course will be and flood out like beachgoers during the false alarms July 4th in Amity.
Perhaps a better tack is to suggest the workload is undeniable, but the learning will be substantial and beneficial. Like my esteemed colleague Donna Lamberti writes in her excellent blog Wiser Today, perhaps it is better to go slow in the beginning like a marathon runner. After all, if education were a race, it certainly should be a marathon and one should start a marathon with the first mile of training slow and steady.
The interplay between the Oceanography Scientist Hooper played by Richard Dreyfus and the Ahab-esque Captain Quint played by Robert Shaw represents a significant tension found in educational circles today. Dreyfus has every new gadget and offers innovation to kill the Great White. He is like the new teacher fresh out of graduate school who comes with energy and enthusiasm but lacks experience. Alternatively Quint relies on his guile. The captain underestimates the Great White because he believes there is nothing new coming down the pike. He mocks the “college boy” Dreyfus and his new fangled means. The result of these two forces manning the same vessel is an atmosphere of distrust.. The tensions on the boat create a caustic atmosphere until a drunken spree one night seems to ease things. The somewhat contemporary homage to Moby Dick predictably climaxes with Ahab’s, -err-Quint’s demise, torn in half and eaten whole. Dreyfus fares better, but in preserving his life cowers under rocks. Only Roy Schneider as Brody stands in the gap to kill the shark. Brody’s essential trait is that he investigates all angles and withholds judgment in most instances. He is a humble hero. As school leaders, it is important to suspend judgment and decisions until all the proper research can be conducted and deeper relationships can be built. Brody is an admirable example, though early on in the film he appears to be a hapless mensch for Mayor Vaughn played by Murray Hamilton.
- This aforementioned tension between Brody and the Mayor also offered some perceptive insights into the kind of decision-making we sometimes find ourselves making at schools. The Mayor’s desires to have a profitable tourist season clash with the safety concerns of Brody and Hooper. Money, expediency, best practices and personalities collide to in a cocktail infused with fear of the unknown. While we learn later the shark is real (at least in the movie), the early scenes depict confusion and false alarms. Initially, a large but non-man eating shark was caught, temporally allaying fears. Vaughn’s false confidence and desire to will the town’s way to a lucrative 4th of July leads many to throw caution to the wind, leaving boaters susceptible to a blind-side attack by the Great White. In some schools, leaders utilize reactionary leadership. An incident leads to a crackdown and heavy-handed rule enforcement-An open position and unfilled courses result in a hasty hire that is not mission appropriate. Like the pressure Vaughn and Brody experience on July 4th, time pressures in our school decisions can cause us to act irrationally or to act with limited information. Emphasis on strategic planning, unemotional emergency
planning and reliance on mentors with cooler heads detached from situation help alleviate the potential for circuses like Amityville from breaking out at our schools.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film speaks to knowing one’s enemy. Quint, Dreyfus, Brody, Vaughn and the people of Amity are caught up in a struggle against an enemy. Unfortunately, for all but our protagonist Brody, and to some extent Hooper, folks were fighting the wrong enemy. The enemy was the shark and he was a powerful force not to be taken lightly. That is where Quint erred. Vaughn was fighting the enemy of embarrassment and the enemy found in irrational “what if’s?” What if the shark ruins tourism? What if the people lose faith in the local government? He lost focus on the shark as the enemy. In schools, the enemy should be ignorance and fixed mindsets. Sometimes we create enemies out of such factors as those who question policy, wayward students, disenchanted parents, or the “testing monster.” A school’s mission and vision should lay out its aspirations and thereby also spell out the enemy. Doing so, will help us to be like Brody and ultimately defeat the beast.
Until next time…. Happy swimming; go into the DEEP if you dare (danta, danta, danta, danta)