First in a two-part series
Ron Dykes stands next to a school desk, about midway back in the room. He faces the flag of the United States of America. His hand is over his heart as he repeats the Pledge of Allegiance. Later in the day, he will cry, and a teacher will walk over, put her hand on his shoulder and tell him everything will be all right. As it turns out, she’s right.
The scene described above is not the photo shoot that produced the picture to the left. It is the day that the photo recreates. It is young Ron Dykes’ first day as a Washington County Schools student, and it indeed happened in that very room, many years ago.
The current director of schools’ first day as a student took place in a classroom that has since been repurposed as the board chambers in what is now the county school system’s central office. It is a remarkable coincidence, a symbol of coming full circle for a man who has learned, taught and led in the county system.
Dykes will retire at the end of this month. His successor has already signed her contract, and, assuming the budget process goes as expected between now and the end of June, little is left for Dykes to do beyond packing his belongings. He may leave one or two items for his successor to find, whether it be two envelopes or just a small sign that reads, “The best way to kill an idea is to take it to a meeting.”
Over his last few months in office, Dykes has agreed to several meetings with News & Neighbor, some on the record, some off. We have discussed topics ranging from leadership to academic standards to local politics and funding. The one constant was the theme: “What I’ve learned.” After spending a decade as a high school teacher, 16 years as assistant director of schools and more than eight years as director, Dykes has garnered a few lessons worth sharing.
News & Neighbor began our exit interviews by asking what the Ron Dykes of today would tell the younger version of himself who walked into the director’s office just over eight years ago.
“Communication is the key for a successful tenure,” Dykes replied. “That’s communication with various groups, everything from your own staff to the troops themselves to elected officials to governing bodies. It is so important when you are attempting to set a vision or drive a budget, even an educational philosophy, to provide a succinct, lucid rationale for a decision or a request. That rationale must be extremely transparent. It must be supported by data. And you must remain long enough to answer the inquisitive. You simply cannot live in a bunker.”
“Communication is the key to winning partners,” Dykes continued. “It’s all about partnerships on various levels. You must develop partnerships with other leaders. That requires you to delegate. You must get the instructional staff to believe we are going down a particular path and truly have purpose. You must maintain a supportive role in this communication. You must maintain accountability. And you have to have your finger continuously on the pulse of all components.
“It’s very important to present your ideas to the general public, to civic organizations, to the elected bodies and open committees. So the first idea would be, ‘communicate and communicate well.’ Be quick to listen and slow to respond, but when you respond, do so with due diligence of investigation and reaching a consensus decision based upon thorough study.”
Dykes’ idea of communication is not the one-way model of communicating his ideas to those around him, he said. Instead, it is a model based on communicating with those around him.
“My principals and supervisors and I meet monthly. Every time we meet, I’ll have a series of bullets under a topic called ‘instructional leadership,’” Dykes said. “The whole premise of each one of those deals with the difference between leadership and command.”
Communicating to someone is true command, Dykes said, and there are times where a command decision has to be made. But for the most part, Dykes said, “I give them the analogy of attacking a hillside fortress. A commander will get those troops to follow him up the hill one time simply because he’s in command. Maybe even twice. A leader on the other hand, will have the troops believing in the mission at whatever cost and will have them psychologically in tune so they will charge the hill not merely because he’s commanding them to, but because they want to.”
Mastering the art of communicating with those around you is part and parcel of mastering leadership, Dykes said. “It only comes about by individuals believing in your message and your sincerity, observing you in a leadership role and knowing that when something fails, you will have another methodology, another idea, and you’ll be there every single time in a supportive role to insure that eventually they’ll be successful. They’ll believe in your judgment, your wisdom, your experience. That is the true difference between leadership and command.”
Another lesson from Dykes’ early days as director was a hard lesson in detail, preparation and perseverence. When he arrived as director in March, 2008, two new schools were set to open simultaneously in August. Only then did Dykes learn that, “the only funding that existed was for the bricks and mortar.”
Each school needed new administrators, new counselors, new janitors, new coaches – the list went on and on. “The bottom line was, it takes about $600,000 per year each to staff and operate Grandview and Ridgeview,” Dykes said. “That means the schools needed $1.2 million that had never been provided.” Dykes “realigned” funding from the 12 other schools to support the two new schools. “We have been in that $1.2 million hole every year for eight years since,” Dykes said.
Next week: Respect for all, advocacy for students, aligning educational opportunities with the needs of the workforce, prioritizing resources and drinking from a fire hose.