​Dena R. Cushenberry 

Superintendent, Warren Township in Marion County, Indiana 
The Center for Appreciative 
Organizing in Education ​
​It was going to be a long day.
On the agenda: work on my annual report to the board, one-on-one meetings with my senior staff, and an evening at the local church to discuss violence prevention and what the schools and community are doing about it. 
But when I think back on why this day in particular helped to define me as a leader, I think to the afternoon spent with my administrative team. I introduced the new staff and our goals for the session. And then, most importantly, I posed to them the question of leadership.
“Read through these questions,” I told them, “and check off if you’ve ever experienced something similar.” 

  1. Did you go to college on a scholarship?
  2. Did you go to college on an academic scholarship?
  3. Did you go to college on an athletic scholarship?
  4. Did you pay your own way through college?
  5. Were you raised in a two-parent family?
  6. Were you raised by a single parent, mother or father?
  7. Did a grandparent raise you?
  8. Did you know your father?
  9. Do you know someone who is incarcerated?
  10. Do you have a family member who is incarcerated?
  11. Do you know someone who has committed suicide?
  12. Have you considered suicide?
  13. Do you know someone who is homeless?

It was a tense few minutes. The air in the room thickened.
“If you answered yes to at least a few of these, then you probably know our students better than most,” I said.
Because everyone in that room needed to ask themselves what those questions and our answers were telling us about the children who walk through our halls each and every day. What do they want from us? What do they need from us as their leaders?
That night, I drove over to the church. Our talk on violence prevention quickly evolved into a discussion about race and student safety. Other talks like that one are planned throughout the country this year in response to the ever-intensifying and ever-ongoing national conversation. And if we’re going to be responsive to what it is our students need, then we’re going to need to be a part of that conversation.
The day ended at 9PM, when I finally sat down to dinner. A long day, indeed, but one which asked the questions of us that we’ll need to be able to answer for the students waking up at 6AM tomorrow.
Next Up: Making the Tough Call