It's a Small World
Where in the World is Theodore Blaesing? It's the newest twist in educational games.
Since 1998, this White Bear Lake (Minn.) Area Schools' leader has spent three weeks each in Germany and Japan, soaking up ways to improve education at home. He learned American T-shirts are worth their weight in gold. Skateboarding is an international teen language. And he could save a ton of money by having students and staff clean their schools at day's end.
The Fulbright-sponsored travels also taught this 27-year education veteran and former state Superintendent of the Year that American education hasn't been left out in the cold.
"It was an over-the-top experience," Blaesing says. At first, his 1998 German trip left him sputtering: " 'We'd never do this, and that wouldn't fly in America.' Then I realized we're more alike than different. For instance, they're more rigid, yet we design our ... curriculums to start separating kids and send them down different paths. Someone from Mars couldn't describe the difference."
Visiting Hashimoto, Japan, in 2001 allowed an even deeper look into a foreign system. As in Germany, the superintendent attended classes and met with educators. But this time he stayed with a local family. Tours included colleges, cultural sites and industrial facilities. Through online journal entries, White Bear students could follow his adventures and observations.
As for the schools, Blaesing landed assuming his hosts would bow at the altar of inflexibility and cold testing. After all, he says, the U.S. is "transfixed on 'Gee, our kids aren't performing as well as kids in--and fill in the blank: Hong Kong, Norway, Sweden, Japan...'
"I saw wonderful teaching that allowed kids to be creative, to take knowledge from one level and apply it at another," he says. Asian educators were sensitive to the system's pressures. Administrators fretted over tenured teachers who stopped growing and over how to reward the brightest teachers.
"We deal with the same problems," Blaesing notes, "but our schools reflect the cultures in which they operate. ... For us to assume they should embrace our way would be a horrible mistake." Still, international educators are intrigued by how American schools handle diversity. "Including all kids is mind-boggling. They very much want to open their systems to emulate ours," he says.
School board vice chair Sandy Rummel says Blaesing makes the perfect ambassador. "Our kids come with greater needs. The demands from everybody are higher and resources fewer. Yet Ted keeps this optimistic, positive focus."
A New Mission
Blaesing readily admits to a changed leadership approach due to his travels. "It's OK to have a degree of tension within your organization," he says. "Consensus is wonderful, but I don't think it's the best way to build a free and open education system.
Exit interviews with seniors in White Bear Lake show they yearn to better understand other countries, so Blaesing is paving the way for a new world cultures course. Some day, he'd like to establish an elementary magnet school built on world cultures. And he's calmly prepared for any internal flak that may result.
This unflappable manner hasn't gone unnoticed. Local Chamber of Commerce President Patricia Brannan says she's seen it in the superintendent's approach to school board referendums and other controversies.
But like any leader, Blaesing has had worries. "My biggest fear about taking these [travel] opportunities during the school year was, What are people going to think? 'The guy can traipse around the world wandering into other schools--why doesn't he wander in our own once in a while?' "
Instead, he received a single word of feedback from all corners: "Cool."
"Here we superintendents are leading an organization whose primary purpose is learning. For Heaven's sake, we need to demonstrate that ourselves," he says. "Take advantage, drink and absorb as much as you can from the pool."
Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis.