What is Holding Us Back?

Submitted by

Dr. Patrick Crawford & Dr. Patrick O’Toole

Archived Articles

Every wonder why more school leaders don’t embrace and act on the principles of Mass Customized Learning (MCL)? Since Chuck Schwahn and Bea McGarvey published Inevitable I’ve not heard one person argue against the vision and the logic behind the need to transform education.  Although there are a few school leaders in Pennsylvania and across the nation who are purposeful about tackling the challenges of significant change, too many leaders are satisfied with continuing the industrial age model of education or tinkering with the current system.

Recently I received a reflection paper from Dr. Patrick O’Toole the Superintendent of the Upper Saint Clair School District  (USC).  Dr. O’Toole is an outstanding leader with an exceptional career.  He was recognized as Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year in 2017.  After 39 years in education and a very successful career in June 2018 he will retire.

USC by every measurement and perception is one of the best school systems in Pennsylvania and in the Nation. Chuck Schwahn and the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center (PLDC) has worked with the USC leadership team in the areas of leadership development (Total Leaders) and Mass Customized Learning for more than ten years.   The reflection paper is a requirement for a Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership course facilitated by PLDC.  The title of the course is  “The Total Leader Embraces Mass Customized Learning.”

The following is a copy of Dr. O’Toole’s final reflection paper.  With Pat’s permission I want to share his thoughts on what is holding us back.  As you read Dr. O’Toole’s reflection paper consider your leadership “comfort zone”  and if you are giving yourself enough credit as a skilled, knowledgeable, experienced leader capable of implementation and execution of a Mass Customized Learning system in your school.



Total Leaders (TL) and Mass Customization for Learning (MCL) Reflection
Patrick O’Toole


Our latest session with our friends, Pat and Jay, from PLDC, coincided with my status of nearing the end of my tenure at USC.

These sessions produced conflicting reflections from me: one of satisfaction for what we have accomplished with TL/MCL and one of regret for having not done more in the way of implementation. Perhaps a better descriptor than implementation of MCL is execution of MCL principles since MCL is not a program to be implemented.  But both implementation and execution require the same leadership skills.

My core reflection poses the question: Why do we – along with just about everyone else in our field – struggle so much with implementation and execution? I narrowed this question to just USC, asking the big question: Why do we as USC “Total Leaders” struggle with implementation and execution? We have invested in professional development.  We have resources few districts have. We have systems and people in place for curriculum, instruction, and assessment work. We have exceptional technology. We have a supportive community.

As USC leaders, we tend to answer this big question with our rationale – our story:  “It is hard (harder? hardest?) to change a successful system like USC.”

While this may be true, it is a little too simple and perhaps too easy an answer.  Moreover, it doesn’t jibe with the many things, historically and presently, that USC “total leaders” have done that changed already successful programs and systems. IB for instance was a huge implementation/execution risk for our predecessors.  PLC implementation represents an intentional break from the common isolated instructional systems found in most schools and thus disrupts the traditional teacher routine.

I don’t claim to have the answer to this big question.  But my quest for an answer forced me to reflect upon my own behavior as a “total leader” and to put myself in the place of other USC “total leaders”, reflecting on the question: What is holding us back?

Perhaps the reason we resist change, to quote Chuck Schwan, is this:  It is simpler to “just have school.”  Let’s face it, what’s better for all of us than a day at school with no conflict, no surprises, no disagreements, not strategic thinking, a normal start time, a normal lunch time, and most of all, a normal ending time.  This ideal day spent just “having school” allows us to interact with great colleagues and students who are mostly happy and often inspirational as they go about their daily routines of teaching and learning.

In short – and excuse me for being trite – but this is our leadership comfort zone.  It is also the comfort zone of those we lead.  So, to be charged as the one – the total leader – who causes disruption to this comfortable day and/or this comfortable existence for many is not a very “comforting” place to be as a leader.

There are exceptions to this circumstance, I’m sure. I have observed leaders who find “comfort” in disruption.  But from my experience, these leaders sometimes struggle with the critical processes of planning and follow-through.  They actually enjoy the act of disruption.  And when they’re through with one disruption, they chase the next disruption which is often the next shining light, another new program or a job at a new school district, in their quest to disrupt more.

I recognize that my first answer – we have a quest for comfort – is a bit too simplistic.  So, I thought more and arrived at a second rationale for our hesitation to implement and execute.  I concluded:  We don’t give ourselves enough credit for our knowledge, skills, experience, and vision as educational leaders who have the capacity to effect positive change.  We are sometimes content with helping others implement or execute change, but we often sell ourselves short in believing that we can take the lead in executing and implementing productive change.

So, this is perhaps my final piece of simple advice to all of us as Total Leaders at USC:

We should acknowledge that “having school” is comfortable and even fun. Conversely, leading change can be lonely and not a very comfortable place to be. But we were appointed as leaders of USC for a reason, and we have a rich legacy to uphold. Moreover, as Total Leaders we have skills, qualities and capacities, beyond that which we may give ourselves credit, to execute and implement meaningful educational change in order to more effectively serve our constituents.

Therefore, in summary, we must step out of our comfort zone and put to productive use the “total leadership” skills, qualities, and capacities that we possess to implement and execute meaningful educational change that customizes learning, nurtures potential, and delivers excellence to all of our students and the community of USC.

Thanks Pat.  Thanks Jay.  You are both good friends, teachers, and coaches who inspire me to be the Total Leader of our quest for a more customized learning experiences for our students.


All my best,

Pat O’Toole