Thomas Sobol: 'My Life In School' Is a Book Worth Reading
The study of leadership, in the form of story, is usually the story of success. Its origins are mythical. From Greek times to this week's Oscar's, we have an appetite to learn from those stories. But, seldom are the stories about us, the leaders in education. Few of us have the will or the courage to tell our story, whole, with our flawed edges, our frailties, our courage and our passion. When someone comes along who is willing to go to all those places in telling his own story, we must notice. This is especially true if that person has crossed paths with us along the way.
The recently published "My Life In School, A Memoir," is the autobiographical story of Thomas Sobol. Back in his day, the sharply intelligent and deeply reflective octogenarian was a suburban superintendent and New York State Commissioner of Education. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he returned to Columbia to end his professional career as Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice. He is now Professor Emeritus.
The preface states the purpose for writing the book. "I have not written a treatise. This book is not a research study, not an academic argument concerning education ideologies, or a recipe for curing whatever ills assail us. It is one man's subjective, imperfect, but honest effort to lay open the substance of his lifetime of professional experience, hoping that you will find a thing or two that raises a useful question" (p.xiv).
In the book he reveals that he was not the first choice of the Board of Regents for Commissioner. Bravely, he discusses his feelings as he entered the role knowing that he was the second choice. He had come from the field of K - 12 education, and suburban school systems, at that. The same three complex issues as we wrestle today are part of his story: standards, equity and funding. His left of center principles and a philosophy of inclusion led to hate mail "which was so vitriolic and profane that I could not get myself to finish reading it" (p.11).
With honesty, he reflects on his lowest moment, "For a long minute I thought I might go home. I realized that my car was in the alley beside the building and my key was in my pocket. All I had to do was get myself up, go outside, get in the car, and go home. But I didn't do that. Something stronger than public embarrassment wouldn't let me go. I put the thought aside, and gradually immersed myself in the piece I had been writing" (p.11).
He shares his recollections of his childhood, his time at Harvard, and his experiences in the Korean War, all which help us to understand his development as a human being. He reveals his frailties as a husband and father. He explains his deeply held beliefs about what public schools have the potential to be and what opposition public schools have to face in order to reach their true intended purpose. He talks about his successes with humility and his failures with equal sensitivity and compassion.
This book is not about a time long, long ago. It is about our yesterday. In the introduction, his longtime friend and colleague, Charles Fowler summed it up by saying, ""I think that you'll enjoy this book (which Tom typed with one finger while confined to his bed), because it's full of stories, hope, and humor. We still have so much to learn from the dedicated, ethical, caring, and articulate educator and leader, Tom Sobol" (p.xi). Tom Sobol gives us an unusual opportunity to not only look at what he dreamed and how he tried, but how he felt along the way. How many of us have stood up for what we believed in with butterflies in our bellies and fear in our hearts....but did it anyway? This book offers us a bold and heartfelt story of the long and winding road leaders walk. We need more stories to help us feel less alone in our journey. We need stories that teach and cause us to remember our passion and purpose, to remember our love for teaching and teachers, for learning, and learners of all sorts. Tom Sobol's book does that.
NB. In the interest of full disclosure, Ann Myers was the last District Superintendent in New York State appointed by Commissioner Thomas Sobol.
Sobol, Thomas. (2013). My Life in School A Memoir. New York: Public Schools of Tomorrow.
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