School starts this week, and so, like many other parents, I have taken the requisite “school-supply-shopping-trip.”  For those who have never had the experience, I envy you. Armed with lists provided by my children’s school, I scoured the internet for the cheapest prices, best sales, most available downloadable coupons, and store most likely to not throw us out when boxes of paper clips and tacks are inadvertently spilled out by my 4 year old.

Since I have five children, I first pillaged the supplies from last year thinking that somewhere in the scores of folders and binders that still resided in their old backpacks, I would be able to recycle something.

But, this year, the teachers must have pooled their ideas and decided to get a bit more precise. Instead of 5 folders, now my son needed five specific folders. No paper, just plastic. Exact colors. None of the 26 folders I spread onto the living room floor were usable.

The search for supplies became even more daunting at the store. My eighth grader became convinced that while 5 subject notebooks came in many colors, purple (the color required for her science class) was not one of them. My third and fourth graders had to open each folder on the shelf to find the right ones:  some with pockets and prongs, some with only pockets, some with only prongs. My seventh grader, loaded down with four binders, rattled off the subjects they were for as she dropped each one onto our ever-growing pile: Math, English, Social Studies, Computers. Before I could question it, the binders were followed by a flurry of dividers, reinforcements, reams of paper, and a pencil case.

Four binders? I remember when school supply shopping consisted of begging my mom for the “Trapper Keeper” with the cool plastic sliding latch. That with a pack of dividers, pencils, erasers, and a case, and I was done.

“What five subjects could you possibly need in Math?” I asked.

To remain cutting-edge, teachers are hell-bent on providing their kids with so much enrichment that the students’ abilities to manage and organize their supplies become a lesson in small business administration. Each subject requires its own unique set of supplies beyond a simple section in a notebook. And while I drew the line at the two USB drives required per child, as I crossed off each item that was thrown in our cart, I found myself rethinking my mortgage and embracing homeschooling.

When we finally checked out, I assessed the damage and revisited everyone’s lists. My 8th grader settled on a blue five subject notebook that she will convince her teacher is really an off-shade of purple, the 7th grader practiced carrying all the binders and notebooks and decided that she would need a larger backpack to carry everything from class to class, and the supplies for the two in 3rd and 4th grades , the rainbow of colorful folders and notebooks, fit perfectly in the 5 inch binder and two 3 inch binders that they needed.

I didn’t even know they made 5 inch binders.

As for the child going into pre-k, we escaped from the store with only one box of erasers and paperclips spilled out in aisle 12.

I realize that the teachers who created these supply lists have the best intentions, and I am eager to discover what the different colors will represent for the year. However, perhaps it is time for teachers to remember that a complex organizational strategy is an oxymoron. The old adage “Less is More”, particularly in the current economic climate, is probably something they should consider when making supply lists that double as doorstoppers.

My son was excited about our shopping trip, though. Taking the receipt that easily could wrap around all five of my kids, he exclaimed, “Look! It’s a jump rope!”

But alas, it was too long.

Gardening in the Minefield: A Survival Guide for School Administrators   

by Laurel Schmidt

Gardening in the Minefield by Laurel Schmidt is one of the most widely-read books in the field of public school administration. Since its’ publication in 2002, the book has sold thousand of copies and has been added to required reading lists of numerous graduate schools. Schmidt has more than thirty years of experience in public education. During her career she has been a special education teacher, a principal, an educational consultant and currently serves as the Director for Pupil Services for the Santa Monica – Malibu School District in California. Her most significant contribution to the field of education, however, was the publication of Gardening in the Minefield.

Schmidt’s book consists of 16 chapters and comes as close to serving as a pre- administration game plan as possible. One of the strengths of Gardening in the Minefield is the practical and reader-friendly manner in which it is presented.  Schmidt offers insight on important aspects of school administration such as hiring procedures, evaluations, monitoring instructional practices and assessments, maintaining school grounds, as well as understanding the greater socio-political establishment and how it relates to the local power structure. In addition, the book offers several easy-to-use checklists and forms to help any administrator become more efficient. Although the entire book is interesting, there are several chapters that are exceptionally important.

Chapter 2: The Vision Thing

Chapter two of Gardening in the Minefield focuses on establishing a clear mission for the school. Schmidt maintains that the vision or mission of the school should originate from the administrator, but in collaboration with the entire faculty. She places great emphasis on the concepts of togetherness and buy-in among staff members as the catalysts for long-term success.

The school vision should permeate throughout the hallways and be as recognizable as the building itself. Students, teachers and parents should be able to both visibly see the vision statement on the wall, as well as see the vision coming through in school activities, parent meetings, and the general attitude with which the staff exhibits toward its students and guests.

Chapter 5: Hire the Best

Chapter five is arguably the essence of what being an administrator is all about: hiring the right people to succeed. Every hiring situation is unique; there are always different positions, different applicants, and different circumstances which affect the hiring process, but the bottom line remains unchanged: hire the best applicant. Schmidt offers tips on how to expedite the hiring process and increase the likelihood of making a quality hire. For starters, she recommends studying every resume and application as if they were the Rosetta Stone. A few extra minutes of reviewing a resume, could potentially save time in the long run. Schmidt also mentions the fact that she never hired alone. Although the final decision should be made by the school’s administrator, some level of input should be sought from other stakeholders. The act of using consultation of staff members before hiring only further supports the idea of team-building and involving multiple stakeholders. The one fact that school administrators must always remember is that they will be responsible for their employees’ actions and results. As John Maxwell noted, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

Chapter 8: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Maintaining a pulse on the instructional and assessment occurring in the building is the single-most important activity that a school administrator can practice. Among the many responsibilities of a school administrator, the most important role is that of instructional leader. Schmidt emphasizes the fact that every decision that is made affects the instructional atmosphere of the school to some degree. All decisions made should be based on the essential question: What affect will my decision have on student achievement?

One of the crucial practices the author promotes is the organized and routine method of observing teachers. To give credence to the title of this particular chapter, what occurs in the classroom is truly where the “rubber meets the road.” Education is certainly a field that is result oriented. Parents, legislators, and school administrators examine test scores with a fine-toothed comb for two basic reasons. First, society understands the importance of improving student achievement and parents, for the most part, have an innate desire to see their children succeed. Secondly, there is an enormous amount of accountability placed on those who play key roles in the educational decision-making process.

There is a simple flow-chart like concept that best explains the educational accountability model. Legislators are responsible for creating policies and mandates that set the standards of achievement and the timetable in which these standards are to be met.  School administrators are responsible for interpreting these standards, communicating them to all stakeholders and organizing their staff and students in such a manner to meet the goals. Teachers, however, represent the only group that has the initial and most direct impact on student achievement.

Since teachers represent this powerful and initial effect, the instructional processes implemented in the classroom are of the utmost importance. Schmidt insists that since school administrators are ultimately responsible for their school’s performance, administrators must take time to visit classrooms on a daily basis. More specifically, she suggests that school administrators schedule a block of time each day to visit classrooms for the purpose of observing the teaching and assessment practices occurring. This observation of teaching practices goes to the heart of professional development and the overall improvement of student achievement. Giving teacher feedback about their performance and results is vital to facilitate change and foster the culture of on-going improvement.

Chapter 10: The In-Box Never Sleeps

The life of an educational decision maker is a hectic one. School leaders inevitably find themselves at the mercy of the interests of various stakeholders. Leaders must listen to and acknowledge the concerns of those with whom they are involved, but Schmidt argues that successful leaders have the ability to sift through this vast array of concerns and prioritize and ultimately address the most important issues.  This sounds like a fairly simplistic approach  

in dealing with the many issues that arise, but the fundamental  idea Schmidt attempts to establish is that school leaders must be protective of their time. The author used the analogy of an in-box that continuously keeps receiving e-mails; no matter the number of e-mails accumulating, there is just one recipient. Effective leaders have the ability to respond to the onslaught of demands that come across their desk in not only a timely manner, but also in an intelligent manner.

Chapter 15: Warpaint

The concept of war has often been used as means to explain philosophies of leadership within numerous industries. Schmidt utilizes the war analogy to describe the mindset that school administrators must use when making educational decisions in regards to the micro-political landscape. The author implies that effective decision makers understand that often times leaders can win battles, so to speak, with powering through mandates by intimidation, but lose the war. The act of dictating to employees can lead to an undesirable perception among staff members in regards to the leader’s true level of influence.

This particular chapter also highlights ten key areas that can be potential deathtraps for a school administrator. These areas include: school safety, discipline, reprimanding employees, special education, and most obviously test results. The decision-making process is never more crucial, than when dealing with these aforementioned issues. Prior to making decisions in these areas, Schmidt instructs school leaders to weigh the pros and cons of their potential decision and predict the subsequent ramifications. Proper documentation, attention to details, and maintaining a consistent personality are all characteristics of a quality leader.

To review, Gardening in the Minefield has become one of the most read books in the field of educational decision making. Laurel Schmidt exhibits the unique ability to articulate the anxieties experienced by school leadership and offers suggestions to logically and professional address them.  With the never-ending addition of so many federal and state mandates, the educational landscape is accurately described as a minefield, but Schmidt’s book does offer advice as how to best navigate this treacherous terrain.        


Schmidt., L. (2002). Gardening in the minefield: a survival guide for school administrators. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.