Smooth teacher contract negotiations. A productive school board untouched by underlying issues and agendas. A school climate characterized by trust and respect. This edu-nirvana can be found in Port Washington-Saukville, Wis., thanks to Superintendent Michael Weber--who approaches education leadership by infusing the traditional and the spiritual.
Weber's staff development programs are one indication of his unique style, says Miles Turner, executive director of Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. This fall, there was "Recapture Your Spiritual Energy to be at Peace with Yourself and Others," a session that nearly all of the district's 400 staff, as well as five board members, voluntarily attended.
Some might question the spiritual in school, but Weber's focus on open communication, peace and compassion allays occasional concerns, says board president Patty Ruth.
"To be an effective leader, you need to know about people," says Weber, who has immersed himself in a broad range programs during his career.
Since 1983, Weber has been on a quest to understand people, relationships and attitudes. He's read some 800 books on the topics and authored his own, as well as launched a human relations consulting and counseling service. It all feeds into his "day job" and his mission to improve students' lives.
"Administrators don't make the district. Teachers do," Weber says.
"If I can help staff members become stronger, I can help every single child."
One of his personal efforts to help is a monthly "Lighten Up" focus group. Interested teachers, staff members or parents get a district-provided copy of Weber's book selection. A memorable one: Wayne Dyer's Wisdom of the Ages (HarperCollins, 1998), which revives lessons from Buddha, Mother Teresa, Emerson and other "teachers."
The leader's "How to Deal with Difficult People" workshop offers practical advice on keeping negativity at bay. Humor, one tool used in that task, is weaved through all of his programs. "It can cut the tension in the room instantly," says Weber.
A Dash of Time Management
Managing a six-school district while also personally teaching staff development programs is a massive undertaking. Weber also runs the counseling and consulting business that he and his wife established in 1990.
It is essentially a non-profit organization whose slogan--"Take a break, you deserve it!"--is ironic since Weber himself wears so many hats. "I could cut myself in half and still not cover everything," he admits. "Consequently, I'm very structured with my time."
One night a week is reserved for family. One week each July, he's off to a cabin retreat to plan programs. On weekends, he rises at 5:45 a.m. for reading and research. As for sleep, he gets five or six "solid hours" a night.
In his waking hours, Weber has been quite effective. Deb Dassow, a high school teacher and the chief union negotiator, says the trust among teachers, administration and the board helped negotiate a new health plan with an increase of just 4 percent. Neighboring districts are averaging 35 percent health care hikes.
Meanwhile, student performance has edged upward since Weber came on board. ACT scores have risen by nearly one-quarter, graduation rates have climbed and dropouts and habitual truancy have fallen.
Overall, says Ruth, Weber has changed the district's climate. "Students are more respectful and people recognize that this is a good place to be."
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.