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Education Desk: Remembering Patrick Dolan

Dave Heninzel

Patrick Dolan played a major role in shaping the relationship between public school teachers unions and administrators in school districts across the nation, and especially in Illinois. But if you’ve never heard of Patrick Dolan, don’t feel bad. Dolan did his work mainly behind the scenes, in meetings with teachers unions and school administrators. What made him remarkable was that he created peace between these often adversarial parties.

“Pat Dolan was known in education circles, in particular here in Springfield, for bringing school districts and labor unions together,” says Diane Rutledge, former superintendent of District 186 schools. She now lobbies on behalf of large districts across the state.

“He was a really interesting piece of glue that kept us working together really for the betterment of our district and certainly the students in it,” she says.

So was he a mediator, who helped during contract negotiations? No. Dolan was more than that.

“Well, Patrick Dolan was just a visionary,” says CindaKlickna, president of the Illinois Education Association. It's the statewide teachers union -- basically the group that would be on the other side of negotiations with the folks Rutledge represents. Klickna is responsible for bringing Dolan to Springfield to work with teachers and administrators more than a decade ago.

“I actually saw him speak at an IEA board meeting back when I was on the IEA board in the early ‘90s," she says. "And his whole presentation really interested me. And then we, together -- the union and the district -- had a 'Night with Dolan.' It was at Southeast High School. We served hot dogs. Ended up being called Dolan’s Dogs. We had maybe 800 teachers and administrators attend.”

Mary McDonald was one of them.

“I was really a teacher in a classroom, and I was working on various committees with the union. At Dinner with Dolan. we had about 700 people show up at Southeast High School in an auditorium, and Patrick basically showed his frame of how you improve schools through a collaborative approach and partnership. The union has work to do and the district has work to do, and all of that is around student-centered learning.”

“He talked about what roles different people in the district have and how they can work together,” Klickna says.

“And what was interesting about that: We didn’t know who this crazy guy really was," McDonald says. "We had not really read his book yet. We were just learning from his mapping about some other approach than what we had been used to.”

Dolan impressed both the teachers in the union and district administrators, including Bob Hill -- who was superintendent of Springfield schools at the time of the Dinner with Dolan meeting.

“He had a credibility, because he was smart and he was passionate and he was truthful, and all the kinds of things that, when one person is teaching another and asking someone to follow their lead, he did all the things that build credibility,” Hill says.

Crucial to that credibility: Dolan didn’t appear to favor the union side or the management side.

“He clearly was a consultant to organizations that were more associated with teachers, or with labor as opposed to management, but he did it in such a way that he simultaneously made all parties uncomfortable, and challenged all parties, and spread both the credit for success and the responsibility for getting it around," Hill says. "He was tough on teachers and the union.”

The philosophy he espoused emphasized seeing education as a system of interrelated parts that had to work together. He used a paper flip chart and colored markers to illustrate his vision.

“He was famous for triangles,” Rutledge says. “I say that jokingly, but whenever he did a professional development seminar, he would always have a flip chart and started with triangles and just kept doing all his notes on that. It helped us see that it took not just one of us but all of us working together to make something work.”

To Dolan, everything was interwoven.

“He would talk to you about his family as a family system. Everything was systems for him," McDonald says. "And we learned as much about public education through his conversations about his own family and how he learned to be a father not from his father but from his children. And that’s sort of the way he thinks teachers could do -- learn to teach not from academics, but from the children in the classroom. It’s the dancer of the teacher and the child together is what makes the heart of teaching work.”

In the late 1980s, McDonald became Dolan’s partner in the Consortium for Educational Change -- a non-profit organization that he launched as sort of a midlife second career, after doing similar collaborative coaching with corporations.

“He started school in a Jesuit school," McDonald says, "which he always told me taught him to think. He always said, ‘I didn’t learn to think at Harvard. I learned to think from the Jesuits.’ The other piece of that was he always brought a social justice frame to everything he did. So everything he did was always ‘How can I help the largest number of people I possibly can?’

“The second thing he ended up working with was labor management and cooperation in large, large industries. So I heard for years stories about 25 years as a consultant. He would work with Ford, he would work with air traffic controllers. If there’s any national major strife in labor management, he was there. And he was a good neutral voice for both labor and management. And at some point he took that learning and moved into public education.”

Why would someone who made a career out of working with major corporations turn to public education? Hill says he knows the answer to that.

“Because he absolutely believed that the success of our public school system was at the core of our success as a society,” Hill says. “And that if we couldn’t find a way to be successful at educating the kids of -- you name it -- the community of Springfield or the state of Illinois or the state of California or the nation, I mean he believed deeply that that was as important work as he could be in. And I think he was able to come to that work and say: I’ve worked with a lot of people, in a lot of important endeavors, and I’ve got street creds there. And a lot of people listened.”

These days, there’s a lot of talk in education circles about public schools failing to prepare graduates for modern-day careers, especially with industries. But that, Hill says, was not Dolan’s concern.

“No, absolutely not,” Hill says. “This was at a very, very different level. His interest was: We have a moral imperative as a society to educate our children. All of our children. From the poorest of the poor, from the under-represented kids, from the kids who don’t traditionally do well in school, and it’s our moral imperative to educate them. And the system that we had from the start of doing this work, and the system that we still have, falls short of honoring and fulfilling that moral imperative. And the way for us to do that is to build a different kind of a system that approaches its work differently, does its work differently, and has a chance to succeed at doing that. It had nothing to do with producing workers for GE. It was at a way more profound level than that.”

Hill told me he loved Dolan, and felt lucky and honored to have known him.

“We’ve lost a person who shared our calling and shared the journey of our life’s work with us,” Hill says. “For me, he was a mentor, a teacher, a friend, a role model, and a lot of fun to be with. You get a handful of those people in your life.”

At the age of 77, Dolan had finally decided to retire, so McDonald has been collecting snapshots and stories for a book she planned to present to him at a party.

“We were getting ready to celebrate his accomplishments, and that was all going to happen on December the 8th,” she says.

Dolan was an avid hunter, and it’s deer season, so Dolan recently took his bow and bagged a 9-pointer. But during the trip, he fell and sustained an injury that landed him in the hospital. There, he caught a staph infection that proved fatal. McDonald says Consortium for Educational Change will continue Dolan’s work.

“I don’t know that my torch is as good as his, but I think that there’s a light that I can shine,” she says. “And if there’s 50 or 100 or 1,000 of us that were touched by him, that light will shine in all of us.”


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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