Jim Sneeringer's
2001 Teacher Welcome

When I was a child and my mother discovered me engaged in some foolish or forbidden activity, she would put her hands on her hips and say "Young man! What's the big idea?" 
She was challenging me to think about what I was doing.  That expression, “What’s the big idea,” is so commonly used that we don’t think about its meaning at all, but actually, it's a very good question   Any organization that wants to be successful must constantly ask itself

  • "What's the Big Idea?"
  • “What is our purpose?”
  • "What are we trying to accomplish?"

It is important to keep in mind the central focus of our work.  Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”  We may be working very hard, but if we miss the Big Idea, our efforts will be wasted.

Let me illustrate with a story. A woman had been plagued for many months by a project that she never quite got around to.  She had a back porch that desperately needed painting.  She had bought the paint she needed, but every day something prevented her from getting started on that project.  One day, she was talking on the telephone to her daughter, who lived in a distant city, and in the middle of her conversation, the doorbell rang. It was a handyman who said that he was in the neighborhood, and he needed work, and he wondered if she had any work for him.

She was thrilled! This was the answer to her problem.  She said, "Yes.  Go around back.  There's a porch that needs painting.  You'll find several cans of paint on the back steps.  Just go back there and get started, and I'll come check with you when I'm off the phone." 

The conversation with her daughter continued for quite some time, and just when she hung up, the handyman appeared at her door.  He was finished with the job. 

She asked what the charge was, and it was far less than she had expected to pay. She made out the check and handed it to the man, and as he took the check, he said, "Just one little thing, ma'am.  That's not actually a Porsche back there, it's a Mercedes."

All our efforts are fruitless if we miss the Big Idea.  Our hard work may miss the mark if we lose sight of our goal.  What is our mission?  What is our purpose?   Where are we going, and how are we going to get there?

We may begin our work with the Big Idea in mind, but it is easy, over time,  to lose sight of our primary mission, as we are distracted by secondary issues. 

This is illustrated by a situation that occurred many years ago at the University of North Carolina. It used to be standard procedure for all the mail for the university departments to be delivered to a central location, and it was the responsibility of the individual department secretaries to walk there each day to pick up the mail. It was very inefficient to have the secretaries gone from their desks for that block of time each day, impacting the work of the departments.  The solution was to establish a campus mail service.  Mail carriers were hired to deliver the mail from the central post office to each of the departments on campus.

Over the years, however, the campus mail service began to perform many additional tasks, like sending out bulk mailings, recycling packing peanuts, and maintaining a centralized posting system.  There came a day when the campus mail service announced that it was overworked with its various duties, and said that it no longer had the resources to deliver the mail. They asked that each department secretary come each day to the central post office to pick up the department's mail.

The campus mail service forgot its mission.  They lost sight of the purpose for their existence.  They lost the Big Idea.

In Leander ISD, we work very hard to keep the Big Idea foremost in our thinking. 
We have written down our Purpose, our Vision, our Graduate Profile, and the Ten Ethical Principles, and we strive to have them always guiding us.  We have curriculum standards that state where we want to go, and Profile Tests to tell us where we are starting from, so we can chart our direction of travel and measure our progress.

So, let's talk about the Big Idea.  As long as I've been here, the board's first priority has been the same – academic excellence.  Somehow, I don't think you're surprised.  After all, we are a school district.  If learning is not our mission, what would be?  Still, if there exist mail services that don't deliver mail, one can conceive of schools without learning.  No matter how obvious, it's always important to talk about the mission, and strive to do it as well as we can.

The board wants every student to be prepared for adulthood by understanding the lessons of the past and the issues of the present, by learning how to think critically and knowing facts to think about, by mastering skills and being exposed to the arts and the sciences.

A second longstanding board goal is the shaping of character.  To that end, we teach and uphold the Ten Ethical Principles.  In my opinion, developing excellent character is even more important than academic achievement, even though our primary focus as educators should be on learning and academic excellence.

In practice, the two are tightly linked; for example, a person who has high academic achievement but deplorable character is unlikely to be successful either in business or in his personal life.  Academic excellence may be our emphasis, but shaping good character must also be part of our plan. 

I would like to pause here for a moment to thank all of you who have infused the Ten Ethical Principles throughout our curriculum, whether by teaching their meaning, or by encouraging those who demonstrate them, or by practicing them in your lives.  Many of you have modeled these Principles by befriending a student who needs some extra love, by telling stories that illustrate character, or by drawing examples from literature, public figures, or friends.  Keep up the good work, and continue to look for even more creative ways to promote good character. 

So this is the Big Idea: academic excellence and excellent character.

These are our goals:  knowledge and virtue; learning and integrity

In addition to reviewing and refining these longstanding goals, the board and the administration continue to ask

  • "What could we do better?"
  • "How could we improve?"
  • "What is the most important thing we could do this year to increase academic excellence or promote adherence to the Ten Ethical Principles?"

Some of the fruits of this self-examination in the past have been profile testing, emphasis on character education, the curriculum audit, and written curriculum standards.  We are committed to excellence in our service to the parents, children and taxpayers of our district.

As a part of our research into striving for academic excellence, we decided to dig deeper into a well-known but surprising statistic: Namely that smaller schools tend to produce higher academic achievement, even more so than smaller classes. Kathy Wood reviewed the research for us, and the common thread seemed to be that relationships are stronger in smaller schools – people are more connected.  It seems that learning is promoted when students, parents, teachers and administrators know each other well – when there is a sense of community.

And here is where I want to especially commend all of you.  For you see, even though our schools are large, you all have done a wonderful job of making each school into a strongly connected community, where parents are welcome, where most students, teachers, parents and others know each other, and where students are encouraged and challenged in the context of these relationships. These relationships earn you the right to guide and challenge your students.  I believe that we are seeing small-school benefits even in our large schools, and it is due to the commitment, the dedication, and the grace that you bring to your profession. 

Let me offer some evidence.  The other day I was thinking about the letters I have received in my time on the school board. We get some complaints, of course, but they are outnumbered by letters that compliment or praise one or more of you.  That is really impressiveThink about it!  How often will someone take the time to write a complimentary letter?  Not very often!  How many satisfied patrons are represented by those letters we receive?  Lots!

You are doing an outstanding job.  I've seen it myself.  You consistently strive to work for the best interests of our students, to cooperate with their parents, to help each other out, to keep up with what is happening in your disciplines, and to live up to our 9th ethical principle:  Pursuit of Excellence.

Also, while each of you organizes and presents information to your students, you are also coaches, who gently and firmly encourage each student to learn and to develop the discipline necessary to succeed in life. The secret of any kind of coaching is to encourage and challenge each student to the limit of his or her ability. Your challenge, of course, is to know where that limit is for each child, and so you must get to know each child.

It's an incredible privilege to be associated with a super team like y'all, and an even greater privilege to speak to you today.

In summary, the Big Idea of Leander ISD is the shaping of a responsible adult through learning and character, academic excellence and the Ten Ethical Principles.

Those are our goals -- what we want to happen, and what is happening. We want our schools to be places where each student is respected, encouraged and challenged to become all that he or she can be.  I salute you for the excellence you bring to the task at hand.  I look forward to even greater success in the future.

Thank you.


Pol. adv. by Jim Sneeringer Background photo by Nara Vieira da Silva Osga