Remembering Apollo 13: Overcoming the Insurmountable

The Apollo 13 mission is one of my favorite stories of endurance.

Image Source:
Image Source:

On April 11, 1970 when Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise set off for their mission to the moon at speeds equivalent to 20,000 mph, they had entered a realm of record-breaking proportions.
When they were approximately 205,000 miles away from Earth, an oxygen tank exploded, and their mission to moon was immediately transformed to one of survival.
In the movie version of the story, one of my favorite scenes is when engineers at NASA realize that the astronauts need a way to filter oxygen. They gather around a table and spread tubes, wires, clothing, and other pieces that replicate what exists on the spacecraft.
A team leader says, “Listen up. The people upstairs handed us this one and we have to come through. We have to find a way to make this (he holds up a square box) fit into the hole for this (he holds up a cylinder tube) using nothing but that (points at the table full of items).”
The teamwork between NASA engineers and the three astronauts was simply amazing, and the successful return and splash-down in the South Pacific Ocean was nothing less than miraculous.

A Square Peg in a Round Hole

School leaders across our state are facing state funding challenges that seem insurmountable. With a $1.3 billion shortfall in state revenues, school districts will be cutting deeply into expenses. Most districts commit 85% or more of their funding to pay salaries. It doesn’t take a degree in mathematics to see that schools will soon have fewer employees to service the same number students.
For school leaders, the challenge is maintaining morale and purpose as we try to figure out how to “put square pegs in round holes” while landing our ships safely for the end of this school year and planning now for launching the next school year.
With all these obstacles in mind, how do we maintain perspective while navigating our schools? Here are three suggestions:

3 Tips for Managing Challenges

1. Be a part of the solution.
Just like the Apollo crew depended on their friends on the ground, take what action that is in your control. Inform parents, contact elected officials and ask them to support public schools, not just with their words but with their actions. November is a great opportunity to elect new representatives if the present ones are unable to plan, prepare, and manage state resources for economic ups-and-downs. Later this month I plan to take some student leaders with me to the state capitol for meetings with our elected officials. We are in this together, and our students are the ones most affected by education laws and policies.
2. Stay unified and focused.
Sometimes critical moments (like budget cuts) may temporarily take our eyes off our goals, but managing the urgent and still maintaining the important are vital. Even as you manage challenges, rely on the power of teamwork, remember best practices, and still reach for the personal and school goals you’ve set for this school year. Encourage team members to stay unified, and don’t let the common enemy become each other. Tough moments often mean consistent regrouping, so cooperate and communicate in reaching goals together.
3. Celebrate the positive.
Every school is different, but if you look closely, you will find students achieving amazing things and building unforgettable moments every day. For instance, last month we heralded one of our seniors who was named a National Merit Scholar. This past weekend, our varsity girls’ basketball team qualified for state-playoffs for the first time in over a decade. We also had a senior wrestler bring home a state championship gold medal, twenty-five choir members qualified for state solo and ensemble competitions, and one of our FFA students showed a pig that won grand champion at the County Stock Show. These are moments worth celebrating!
Even as you manage changes, celebrate student achievement as a way to remind others why investments in our schools pay enormous benefits for our students today and in their futures.


One of my teachers recently sent me a copy of the Apollo 13 image—an artist’s rendition of the explosion with debris flying around the spacecraft. When I look at it, I imagine the horror those three men must have felt when they realized the effects of the damage. Trapped in space more than 200,000 miles from Earth, their primary mission immediately shifted, and their very lives depended on cooperation and communication among themselves and with NASA.
Surviving difficult times is nothing new to educators, but some situations require deeper courage than others. Whatever challenges you’re facing, keep in mind that amazing feats can be accomplished when teams cooperate and communicate with the same goal in mind. Be a part of the solution, stay unified with common goals in mind, and celebrate what’s working. At the end of the day, helping our students land safely home is why our schools are here.

Now It’s Your Turn

What are other ways you can pull together with your team to find solutions even in the face of challenges? Then think of one thing worth celebrating at your school and share it with others today.

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker