Rick Searing | INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE (IB) EDUCATOR AND DIPLOMA PROGRAM COORDINATOR at PORTAGE NORTHERN HIGH SCHOOL

STORY 269 MAGAZINE

Define leadership.
The ability to get a group to come together around a goal.

Who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?
My wife has always had the ability to keep me focused and to be able to separate the things that are really important and non-negotiable from the things that might seem like an attractive option in the spur of the moment—an option that maybe in the short term looked great, but in the long term might not be where you really want to end up. One example I can think of is when we first moved to Michigan. We relocated from Arizona in 2002 to Kalamazoo. As I was looking for different positions, there were a few that seemed like in the short run they would be good positions to have, but in the long term it wouldn’t have led to the kind of success that I think we’ve had since we moved here. (She) pointed those kinds of things out to me.

In terms of a professional impact, the first principal whom I worked for at Portage Northern and our former IB Coordinator would both be two people in the same industry who I’ve been always able to t get solid advice from, to help solve problems, and (to get) guidance when I’ve had questions about what would be the best way to solve a problem, address it, or think creatively about solutions to what we were trying to do.

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?
I think the most important day-to-day decisions are the ones where you’re setting an example. (You can’t) say that “these are your expectations” or that “these are things that you want everybody else to value” but do not exhibit those things yourself. Are you treating everybody with respect? Are you listening to others? Even in small interactions, things that sometimes seem routine or mundane, you’re always being watched. You’ve always got 32 sets of eyes on you in the classroom or you’ve always got colleagues that are around to see if you’re doing what you’re asking.

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
For me, listening and being collaborative are really at the core of how I try to lead our IB Program. (I try to) make sure that everybody has input and try to provide the support or the structure to (integrate) new innovative ways to do something even though it might not be traditional or a way that people would expect for something to be taught or even maybe necessary.

What’s the biggest challenge that you see facing leaders today?
The biggest challenge for those of us in education is the idea that we want kids to be more and more and more prescriptive about what they need to know and when they need to know it and how they need to know it. (We are) losing the idea that we should be teaching our kids to be innovative and creative and to come up with solutions. Not just: “I can tell you the first 27 elements of the periodic table” or “I can rip out whatever theory in physics or chemistry.” (Students need) to be able to innovate and solve problems and be creative and be flexible. To me, that’s the biggest challenge that we have in education.

We know that our test scores are going to be all over the (newspaper) about how many kids were proficient in math and how many kids were proficient in English. But what’s important is whether they can problem-solve, be innovative, and be flexible. We can’t even fathom what most of the stuff they’re going to see will be in their lifetime. The world today doesn’t look anything like it looked 50 years ago.

Is there one behavior or trait that you are seeing derail more leaders’ careers?
The unwillingness to trust others and to listen. Maybe education is a little bit unique versus some other industries as you must have a degree to be a teacher. Most people who are going to be here for any period of time have a master’s degree or greater because basically the state law says that if you don’t get a master’s degree within a certain amount of years then you don’t get to continue to renew your teaching certificate. So, I know that every single one of the colleagues whom I work with is a professional and highly skilled. I feel comfortable trusting their opinions, collaborating with them, and listening to them. Destructive behavior would be not valuing my colleagues’ expertise, not listening to them, and not being willing to say that I’m wrong or that somebody else has a better idea or solution than I have.

What do you do for fun?
I like to play a lot of golf. My wife and I cycle quite a bit. I coached golf at Northern for a few years. I was a golf coach out in Arizona before we moved to Michigan. Luckily, my kids like to play.

What’s your “go-to” spot to eat lunch in Southwest Michigan?
In the summer, I can’t think of any place better than the patio at Bell’s.

If happiness were the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
The work that I’m doing right now. I enjoy working with my colleagues in the educational field. And I love being around young people who have innovative ideas and tons of choices in front of them. I enjoy helping them explore what their real true interests are and how to move along the pathway to meet some of those goals. I enjoy seeing the kids in Portage go an incredible different number of ways—from getting emails from kids who have gone to universities; (undertaken) start-ups; been featured in magazines; are doctors, nurses and lawyers and in all kinds of professional fields; and kids who decided right out of high school that they wanted to go to West Point or into the Armed Forces. I’m lucky. I’ve always worked in a field that I love.

If you could go to dinner with three people who would they be?
President Obama. Joe Maddon, the manager of the Cubs. Bob Poole (who represents the IB program for North and South America).

I would love to have dinner with President Obama. I’m a huge Cubs fan; so I would add Joe Maddon, the manager of the Cubs. The third person is somebody that probably isn’t going ring a bell with anybody, but it’s somebody that does a lot of work with the IB program. I just don’t have enough time to pick his brain and talk with him. His name is Bob Poole. IB splits the world into three regions: A North and South America region, a region for Europe and the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. Bob is the eyes and ears and does all the community relations and development and governmental relations for IB in North and South America.

What are three things that you cannot travel on business without?
I like to have a good book when I’m on the plane. Something that, when I know I’m going to be stuck someplace for three or four hours, can hold my undivided attention.

I like to make sure I have a good data plan, especially if I’m out of the country. Usually for me on business travel, it’s not a physical thing, but just to have an open mind because when I do travel I will end up going to conferences like what I went to in Toronto.

Because I’m an IB educator I get assigned (to evaluate how other schools) are meeting the standards and practices of being an IB school. There are many ways that you can teach and, oftentimes, (ways) that are not what you expect. It’s important to just say, “When in Rome, be Roman and, when in France, be French.” Just look around Kalamazoo and the different varieties of schools—Kalamazoo Christian or Loy Norrix or Portage Central or Mendon. They can be IB schools with completely different cultures and ways that meet what the IB program asks them to do as an IB school and that’s okay. When I do travel for work, I have an open mind and realize that the way that we do it in Portage is not necessarily the right way. It’s just one way among many.

Briefcase or backpack?
Briefcase. I guess it’s more like a satchel. It’s not an over-the-shoulder backpack so I guess it would be a briefcase if you had to qualify it.

Who would you most like to meet?
I would like to meet the Pope. We’ve always been practicing Catholics, and the new Pope, (with his) new ideas and willingness to look at things from different perspectives, seems to really have brought a new vibrancy to what’s going on in the church. I would like to meet him.

How do you get your most creative ideas?
Most of the time creativity and new ideas for me come through collaborating with colleagues. When two people work together, they create and work off each other’s ideas and come up with new approaches and solutions to problems that they wouldn’t have come up by themselves. I’m not the kind of person that is going to go sit by myself somewhere and solve a problem all by myself. I’d rather be in a loud room with five or six colleagues and have an active discussion and then innovate in that sense.

What inspires you?
What inspires me every day as an educator is knowing that there’s a group of students waiting for me in the classroom or a group of colleagues that I’m working with who all really believe that teaching and education, public education, is like a pure form of social justice. We’re helping level the playing field for kids that have come up from diverse backgrounds, economic conditions, and ethnicities, races, and religions. Sometimes a classroom or a teacher is the first place where kids have somebody say, “Hey, you really could do that,” or “You really do have these opportunities.” You get the opportunity to engage with all those people and help them all sort of, in the most idealistic sense, realize that they’re smart, can do things. and that the sky’s the limit.

What are your daily routines that keep you developing as a leader?
I read a ton. One of the apps that I like to use a lot is Flipboard. It randomly selects things that you wouldn’t have normally come across and read that are applicable in one way or another that you can share or implement or at least process.

What is your favorite leadership book?
The one that always sticks with me is from back when I was doing my education leadership degree at Northern Arizona University. It is Leadership is an Art by Max DePree.

What was the last book that you read that had an impact on you?
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s about how too many times we make snap decisions because we think that everything needs to solved immediately or there’s an immediate response or it should be immediately corrected so that things will proceed on a better course. A process of slow thinking is better thinking than (making) immediate judgments. It’s something that has a lot of relevancy with our kids in school because there’s such a pressure on the kids with standardized testing when you have a certain amount of time on the ACT or the SAT to answer questions.

Anytime you have a question about something you can pull out your phone and Google it and get the answer right away, but that’s slow thinking I think. An area where I think that we can all get better is looking at different perspectives, bringing in different viewpoints, processing it all, synthesizing it, and then coming to a conclusion.

What’s the App on your phone that you can’t live without?
Google.

How do you maintain your and your team’s daily motivation?
With students and colleagues, it’s about building relationships. There’s going to be days that you’re going to come to school and it’s not going to be an “A” day for you in the classroom, or an “A” day for you as a leader. But when you have built solid relationships with the kids in your classroom or the people you work with, then it’s going to make you rise above. Maybe you’re having a bad day or in a bad spot or you’ve got six emails or parents that are breathing down your neck that you don’t want to deal with, but it makes you (focus on) the greater reason why you are doing this. There’s going to be days when we’re going to be teaching stuff that’s not very interesting or we’ve got to teach because you can’t do “Y” if you don’t do “X” first. But if you build good relationships with the kids in your class or even with your colleagues, then they’re willing to say, “I understand that this might not be exactly what we want to do right now, but we need to do it so that we can push through and get to the next spot.”

What are you doing to ensure your continued growth as a leader?
I like to visit other schools to see ways that they implement the IB Program. There are annual conferences for IB that bring in lots of speakers. I enjoyed being involved with the First 50 program at Southwest Michigan First, because it took me outside of the education realm. I got to meet people from diverse backgrounds. Even though the challenges of education or non-profits (or manufacturers) aren’t exactly the same, lots of times, the themes can apply. The challenges we’re facing with standardized testing and test scores (have similarities) to those (faced by) a colleague from Stryker using analytics to make business decisions.

What excites you most about the future of Southwest Michigan?
I’m excited that we have so many creative, outgoing, innovative people in this area. When I moved from Phoenix, we just picked the Kalamazoo area on the map because my wife grew up in Portage and we had young kids. It seemed like there were good schools and a nice community. We pretty much moved here blind and, over the past 15 years, have really realized there is an amazing group of dedicated professionals, young people, a vibrant community, and lots of locally owned businesses. It’s a place where I can’t ever imagine leaving and I just feel honored to have accidentally picked this spot to raise a family. Our daughter liked it so much that she had lots of other options but decided to go to Western Michigan University. I’m excited that maybe she’s going to stay here for the long term.

What do you think are the most pressing challenges are facing leaders today and why?
If we’re talking about the education world, to me, the most pressing challenge is this idea that we can standardize education: if we just use the right analytics and we use the right data, then we can make all kids come out perfectly in terms of this measurement of this standardized test. I don’t want to downplay those things, because it’s important that kids know how to read and write. As a parent of kids who are of college age, it’s important that they score well on (tests) to go to the schools (that will help them) achieve their career goals. At the same time, (I caution) believing that the instruments are the answer. (We should not) lose creativity and the innovation. I think that’s one of the things that we do the best in our schools. There are lots of other countries in the world that have always been ahead of us in how smart their kids are in math or this or that or the other thing, but somehow a large portion of the innovation has come from the U.S. I think that’s a function of our public school system.

What’s one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
The thing that bothers me the most is when you have leaders that are very authoritarian and say, “This is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it and you need to fall in line and I’ve got the solutions. Just listen to me.” I know that certainly there are times when a decision needs to be made. We can’t just sit around and collaborate and come to consensus over everything. There is a time where a leader needs to make decisions, take responsibility, and have the wherewithal to say, “This is the direction that we’re heading in and why.” When you have somebody purely authoritarian, it breaks down trust, it breaks down communication, and it breaks down all the things that (I believe to be the) most important parts of leadership.

What is your “Life Quote?”
It’s not really a life quote or even one that most people would be familiar with. The IB program has a learner profile. The learner profile is a set of 10 characteristics that are at its core. It includes things like (being) caring, inquisitive, reflective, principled, informed. That’s the standard by which I am measuring the kids in my class, our program, and myself.

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