As superintendent, a favorite analogy to a task I despised doing was having a root canal. For example, I would rather have a root canal than travel to Phoenix to lobby legislators for school funding.

After a recent root canal, I can no longer link root canal with things I loathe. I was so impressed with the treatment performed by my endodontist and family dentist; I will use the root canal as an analogy for my school leadership vision. Specifically, I will drill down on two lessons learned that are critical to keeping schools and teeth healthy: creating a client-centered culture and providing cutting edge tools and technology.

Thanksgiving weekend, and after my first soccer goal against the grandkids, I felt a pulsating ache in my molar. Saturday morning and I am in the fetal position on a chair.

My wife began trying to call a dentist. I mumbled the odds of finding a dentist on a holiday weekend were about the same as winning the lottery. We bought a ticket that night! Dr. Joseph Larsen answered his phone and indicated that he would see me immediately.

Although it was a challenge without his assistant, Dr. Larsen conducted a full exam. He indicated that my problem could be complex and might require a root canal. He provided pain relief meds and made an appointment for first thing Monday.

After additional tests at that appointment, he determined I needed an immediate root canal. He had his staff call multiple endodontists to see if they could get me an appointment. I am thinking the chances of getting an appointment today would be way beyond lottery odds, more like the Legislature-fully-funding-schools odds. Wish I was back in the superintendency because schools would be getting funded; Dr. Larsen’s assistant was able to get me an appointment with Dr. Paul Hobeich in 20 minutes.

As I rushed into Dr. Hobeich’s office, his assistant greeted me with “We are expecting you.” Dr. Hobeich treated me with kindness and expert skill that saved the tooth.

The lesson is that school leaders must strive to create a similar client-centered culture. Client-centered culture requires a mindset that our students are the center of the school universe.

For example, client-centered means that all parents are treated with kindness and respect when they call and or visit a school. Client-centered means that every high school senior, top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent has equal face time with their counselor as they develop their college and career plan.

Drs. Larsen’s and Hobeich’s dental offices looked nothing like my first dentist’s office. I still remember the funky burnt smell of my tooth being drilled on by a devise run by a series of belts. Did I mention the enamel shrapnel going up my nose?

I asked about some of the new technology being used to make my pain disappear. The answer included digital radiography, intraoral cameras, curing lights, ultra-high-speed drills, and lasers. Most impressive was the microscope Dr. Hobeich used during the procedure.

My walk away lesson was that although schools have made progress in technology, school leaders must continue to create classrooms with the cutting-edge technology necessary to promote high-level learning.

Unfortunately, too many of today’s classrooms look and smell like my 1960s dental office.

Besides making me feel better, my dentists unknowingly threw down a challenge. Transform our schools so I can make this pitch to legislators, our schools are like getting a root canal — client-centered, where students and teachers use state-of-the-art technology to save the future.

Nicholas Clement was superintendent of the Flowing Wells Unified School District and now serves as the Ernest W. McFarland Citizen’s Chair in Education at Northern Arizona University. Contact him at