Before you knew Dr. Romules Durant as superintendent of Toledo Public Schools you knew him as the hard-hitting linebacker at the University of Toledo.
Before you knew Dr. Lonnie Rivera as superintendent of Oregon Public Schools, you knew him as the Mid-American champion wrestler from the University of Toledo.
Both men have come a long way from the football fields and wrestling mats on the east side. Dr. Durant grew up in East Toledo and graduated from Waite and Dr. Rivera grew up in Bono and is a Clay grad.
So, how did they rise above other state and national candidates to lead our two largest school districts?
Both men cite their involvement in sports as one driving force. Dr. Durant grew up in a household in which his father coached little league football and his mother cheerleading. “Football became a family structure that glued us together,” he recalls.
For Dr. Rivera, a wrestling scholarship was the only way he could afford college. At first, wrestling was his passion, but, as he matured, he also discovered a love of learning. “Athletics opened up a world to me that would not have been available…I discovered that I really enjoyed college. I began to think more about the degree than wrestling. The two became intertwined as I quickly learned that I had to excel at both if I wanted to continue to graduation.”
Balancing a full course load with collegiate sports forced both men to adopt organizational and planning skills they might not have honed, were it not for the passion they had to compete. These skills have become integral to their success today. Dr. Durant says, “Good planning makes good practices, good practices make good execution, good execution makes good outcomes.”
Athletes also assess their performances after every competition. Having a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and how they match up to your competition’s is crucial to devising a good game plan. It is also crucial when leading a school district in the age of open enrollment when students have more choices.
Dr. Rivera said, “To get to the top of your game takes a lot of preparation, working on the weak parts of your game and accentuating your strengths. The same thing holds with the district. We have a lot of really good assets, programs and processes and we want to make sure we accentuate those while, at the same time, work on our weaknesses.”
While wrestling is an individual sport, football is a team game and Dr. Durant shared his thoughts on how to motivate his staff. He claims he was an introvert until his performance on the field led to him being named a captain. That role called for him not only to lead by his actions but also to become a vocal leader so he could move players in the right position and devise strategy and communicate it.
Leadership takes more than talk. You need to be passionate about your mission. Dr. Durant said through his actions he sends the message to his staff and his students that he will do anything for them. That means long days, forging relationships with businesses, community organizations and the public. It also means having an understanding of and being sensitive to the obstacles teammates, students and staff must overcome to achieve excellence.
Dr. Rivera adds you need to show your teammates you care and lead with a sense of humility. “You hope that everything you do will inspire others to be better than who they are. Somebody’s always watching.”
When Dr. Durant made the decision at age 19 to become a superintendent he set on a course that allowed him to see a school district from the bottom up. He started as a teacher, then moved up to dean of students, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and, finally, superintendent. It was a journey with a purpose. “You need to know the walk of all shoes before you can make a decision to know how your decision will impact individuals from the student level all the way to the classroom and district wide.”
He tells his administrative staff, “Never forget the shoes you were in because what was appreciated then is appreciated now…That’s what grows support because the small things are big wins in life when dealing with relationships with staff and support staff.”
The same is true in the violent game of football. If you are asking someone to sacrifice his body for a cause, you better show you appreciate the effort.
In education, as in sports, you can do everything right and still lose. Perseverance is a required and acquired skill. Dr. Rivera said, “You learn not to quit. In wrestling there were days when I did everything I could and didn’t win. But, the next day I had to pick myself back up and do it again. You learn that tenacity. You can’t give up. You have a team depending on you. I now have 3,800 kids depending on me.”
One of the most important lessons Dr. Durant learned from sports may surprise you—the importance of statistical analysis. Everything is measured in football. Statistics help predict what an offense or a defense may do in a given situation or the probability of success given the skills, tendencies and alignment of the opponent. Dr. Durant used statistical analysis in rearranging the district from K-6 to K-8 elementary schools.
“You don’t do that kind of disruption unless you have some hard-core data. We learned sixth graders in elementary were out-performing those in the middle school setting.”
There are other ways to learn all these lessons. Sports is just one training ground where young men and women can learn organization, planning and scheduling skills; self motivation and how to motivate others; how to set goals, hone focus and develop a good work ethic; and how to overcome obstacles and inspire teammates and stakeholders.
Learning is a life-long process and both men are quick to point out it is important to continue the process and learn from others.
Dr. Rivera said, “You need to be able to remain coachable. No matter what position you ascend to, you never learn it all. We’re students and teachers at the same time. There’s always more to learn.”
Dr. Durant agrees and he adds coaches deserve a player’s respect. “The schedule means something. Why lift weights at this time? Why eat at this time? Why is practice done the way it is? Why have 48 hours of preparation? Why are we required to understand the mission, vision and core commitment and wear them everyday?
“Understand this, these are Fortune 500 CEO coaches who are instilling transferable skills that can lead you into your industry to lead others.”
The last word? Both men say you have to put in the time. No exceptions. Dr. Durant said, “The only thing equal between us all is, we all have 24 hours in a day. What you do with your 24 hours will separate you from the next person.”