To try to articulate exactly what makes a great leader is a complicated, if not an impossible task. From my experience, the job of a leader, and especially of a principal, consists of countless priorities, fires to put out, and an endless juggling act of various stakeholders. Even with that in mind, thinking back on my previous leaders, both effective and ineffective, I believe that a few primary skills can be focused on to separate the best from the worst. An effective leader focuses on improving staff morale, modeling comfortable failure, and ensuring the leadership team is coherent.
The most important role of a principal is to ensure that the school is a community working together. Our current model is crushing our teachers. Cox, Chambers, Parmer, Jackson, Dial, Strizek, Wang, and Kaiser (2017) found that 17% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years (p. A-7). Between social pressures against Common Core Standards (CCS), Value Added Model (VAM), and contention of districts and teacher unions, the stress on teachers is almost palpable. As a principal, it is critical that we make every effort to ensure our teachers feel appreciated (Senchel, Sober, & Hope, 2016) for the hours they put into the essential work of teaching students. I spent two years at a school where the principal did not have this priority, who believed that teachers were satisfied despite what they shared with me and others on leadership. During that time, the school saw increased turnover, including veteran teachers leaving for other opportunities or retiring earlier than planned. In my current role, I work with a principal who prioritizes staff morale. Our leadership team is encouraged to thank our staff for their hard work regularly. In addition, the leadership team does staff events whenever possible, including Pancake Fridays. The first Friday of each month, a group of the leadership team cooks pancakes for the school staff. As a result of these various efforts, the staff morale has greatly increased in the school. During the previous two years, we started the year with 40 or more new teachers, filling the positions of those teachers who left voluntarily. Based on our recently received intent to return forms, we are only anticipating four teachers leaving voluntarily.
After staff morale has improved, a leader can focus on the second most important job of increasing the instructional capacity of the teachers. According to Fullen (2014), a principal can’t sustainably be the instructional leader for the staff. A great leader can model the necessary mindset to allow for innovation and experimentation in the classroom. To accomplish this, a leader must be willing to make decisions and more importantly, willing to admit when that decision was not the right one. People learn from failure, by making mistakes and not making them again. As a leader, we can be the example of comfortable failure in our schools. This is accomplished through trying new ideas, reflecting on the results, and admitting when the results are not what we hoped. When you model this for teachers, they feel more comfortable to do the same in their classroom, which in-turn makes students more comfortable to make mistakes as well. In this way, we can indirectly impact student learning.
A principal cannot be everywhere at once, and so they need to build and cultivate a team that can carry out the work of supporting teachers and their priorities. The most important part of this process, Lencioni explains (2002), is building your team up to be comfortable with conflict. At my previous school, the principal was unwilling to address members of the leadership team when they did not meet goals or complete assigned tasks. As a result, productivity of the leadership team decreased, staff stress increased, and dissatisfaction of many of the leadership team members increased. This was the biggest reason that I left that school and came to work for my current principal. He tasked the leadership team with reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and has since used that book as a basis for leading the team in tough conversations. As a result of his modeling, team members are more comfortable addressing each other when work goes uncompleted, or when team norms are not followed. The result has been increased productivity and accomplishment of goals.
My greatest strength as a leader is building trust and improving staff morale on a campus. I am well practiced at planning and launching community building activities and programs at a school. At my last school, I created a series of staff shout-outs that could be completed by anyone for anyone and encouraged the leadership team to fill them out for teachers on campus. Most teachers who received them hung them up in their classrooms on display and viewed them with pride. I also managed a monthly after school team building meetup that consisted of a random selection of teachers in order to get teachers who did not normally interact with each other to build relationships.
I am also an expert in integrating instructional technology into the classroom. I have launched Digital Curriculum at two different schools successfully. I this role, I focus specifically on dynamic Professional Development and blended learning. This maximizes the impact of the development while minimizing the time constraints on our staff. These strategies apply to all initiatives and rollouts as well.
I know that my biggest struggle as a leader will be follow-through of my ideas. I have ideas that I am confident will be successful and lead to student learning improvements, and I will often delegate parts of the tasks to others. Where I fall short is making sure that I complete the ideas to fruition and completion, not just until I lose interest or the task is forgotten. An example of this is working with my Student Tech Support students. I created an engaging project centered around Minecraft that required peer communication, use of online discussion board, and digital citizenship skills. It was to culminate in students creating a screen capture video of their creation and sharing it via social media. We ran into an issue with the screen capture software, and so the project never got completed. This is clearly an area of need of improvement for me. One way in which I will help support this weakness is in building a team of leaders around me that are empowered to call me to task when necessary. In addition, I will continue to research this specific area of leadership and use other experts leaders to provide mentorship in completing the tasks I set for myself.
Cox, S., Chambers, L., Parmer, R., Jackson, B., Dial, S., Strizek, G., Wang, Y., and Kaiser, A. (2017). Documentation for the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (NCES 2017-355). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Retrieved [2/9/2019] from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.
Fullan, M. (2014). The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact. (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Senechal, J., Sober, T., & Hope, S. (2016). Understanding Teacher Morale (Rep.). Richmond, VA: VCU MERC Publications.
As I announced on Episode 75 of the Planning Period Podcast, I have started a Master's Program in Educational Leadership. As part of this process, I will be posting to the blog many of my completed assignments, research papers, and thoughts about class.
This, is the first of those posts, my Professional Biography (school names have been removed for legal reasons).
Brad Shreffler is Digital Instruction Coach at a large public middle school in Central Florida. His primary job function is to assist teachers with the implementation of instructional technology in their courses as a part of the Digital One-To-One initiative. In this role, he creates interactive and participant-lead professional development based on teacher needs through a variety of differentiated sessions throughout the year, and one-on-one mentoring.
Brad began his career in education through the Alternative Certification path. He received his degree in Business Administration from the University of Central Florida. After a few years working in various business fields, he found himself called back to teaching, where he had started in college before a degree change. He became a substitute teacher and after a year was hired to teach 7th Grade English at a Title I middle school, where he spent four years. There, he was consistently at the top of the school in standardized test scores, both proficiency in student growth, and was passionate about incorporating any technology he could into his classroom.
After his fourth year, Mr. Shreffler followed his principal to a large high school where he taught 9th Grade English for a year. During that year, he was the English Department representative of the digital curriculum teacher leader group, who were tasked with helping plan for and roll out the beginning phases of the One-to-One program. He became the unofficial leader of the group of teachers, and after a few months realized that if the first year of digital implementation was going to be a success, it would require a coach dedicated to the program full-time. He approached his principal with the suggestion and they agreed to making Brad the Digital Instructional Coach.
During his three years in that roll, he took on more instructional training and mentoring responsibilities, ending his time there as Curriculum Resource Teacher, and a definite leader in the school for teacher support in all aspect.
In 2018, a different middle school principal Andrew Jackson, and Assistant Principal Nicole Mutters asked him to come to their school as the Digital Instruction Coach to help launch their one-to-one program in their first year.
Brad has dedicated himself to innovative instructional practices, supporting teachers in their practice, and reaching the needs of all students.
If you listen to my podcast, you've probably heard that I am going to a new school this year, and in my area, students are back on campus today.
I have been lucky enough in my 10 or so years teaching to have some wonderful students. My last group of students at the high school I was at, students I have written and tweeted about before, are the best group of young people I have ever had the pleasure and honor to teach. They have gone so far above and beyond what is required, even by a service based class like Student Tech Support, or as the lovingly call it Shreff Tech. These students have even come to help me distribute laptops to the middle school I'm at now, taking some of their last days before heading off to college to help me even more. They're great.
What I have been struck by over this time though is that they don't really understand their place in my heart (and yes, I am aware of how cheesey that line is).
I care for these students so much. I have spent every school day for the last 4 years with them, watching them grow from awkward 14 year olds, fresh faced and in a new school, into young adults, ready to make their way into the world. It makes me so sad to realize they won't walk into my class today, and yet tremendously proud they graduated and are moving on.
I love these kids like I love my own son, with the same pride and respect, awe and excitement.
And while I have spent those 4 years showing them through action and word how I feel about them, I don't think they can actually understand it. Few if any will become teachers, but I suspect that is the only way they could connect to this feeling. Even then, I struggle to imagine any of my teachers felt this way about me. I suppose some did, but it doesn't fit with my memory of school and my teachers.
Teaching is an odd job for a lot of reasons, but this might well be the top. We spend a year, or years, building relationships with our students, raising them up and supporting them, pushing them towards adulthood, only to let them go, and in most cases, never see or hear from them again. Even if you're that teacher that kids remember, without the bounds of a scheduled course, that relationship typically evaporates in the time it takes to cross a stage and grab a diploma.
There is nothing to be done about it, nothing to scream against of fight. We just have to accept that students will never understand their place in our hearts.
After I asked him to be on my show (Episode 19), Derek Rhodenizer asked me to be on his show, A Word In Progress. This show is all about talking in absurd detail about specific words that educators throw around, but often we don't have a solid definition of what those words really mean. Ultimately, Derek's goal is to write a book about education, in which he takes a philosophical approach to the field.
The week before I was on his show, Derek talked about the word "connection." He asked on twitter what our definitions of connection were, and after reading some of the conversation, I asked if people thought that connection had to be a two way street. For example, can I be connected to someone who doesn't even know I exist?
In the episode before I was on (with guest Peter Cameron), they decided that connection by nature required reciprocation, ultimately arguing that without a recognition by both people, it is simply an impact. My belief is quite the opposite. I feel that I can, and am, connected to people who do not know me. My immediate example is podcasters.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of them is the show This Week in Tech (also known as TWiT). I've been listening to TWiT regularly since 2005. The host of that show, Leo Laporte has built a connection with me for two hours a week for over 10 years. He doesn't know that, doesn't know who I am (though I did actually get to meet him in 2016 and it was awesome!). However, I am certainly connected to him, as I have bought products because he endorses them, listen to his show each week because I trust him, and drove over an hour out of my way while I was on vacation just to meet him.
What I ultimately stated in the episode is that I believe connection falls on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum is interaction. For this, I think about the bagger at my grocery store. While I appreciate them taking time to bag my groceries, especially when they do it in the right order and my eggs aren't broken, I wouldn't say I have a connection with them, since they have very little impact.
As soon as one party in that interaction is impacted in a meaningful way by the other, that has raised itself to a connection. Once both parties are impacted, you have a relationship.
I also liked the phone charger analogy someone made. When a phone is connected to a charger, the charger gets nothing from the phone, but the phone is re-energized and ready to start doing its job again. This is not a two-way connection, but a connection nonetheless in my book.
If you'd like to hear more about this topic, or are just looking for a great show to listen to, checkout this, or any, episode of A Word In Progress with Derek Rhodenizer.
“For decades, terrorists and mass shooters trod their separate paths. Then Columbine. Eric and Dylan fused them. School murders had been done; Eric envisioned a school catastrophe.
A new template was born. The spectacle murder. Performance without a cause. Just demonstration of personal power.”
-David Cullen, Columbine
I was a freshman in high school when Eric and Dylan made Columbine an international headline. Their intention was to kill hundreds. They managed 13. In total, 188 shots were fired that day. In addition to the four firearms they carried, the killers came prepared with five different variety of bombs…they had 95 altogether. In the course of 49 minutes, two students transformed Columbine from an ordinary high school into an American catastrophe.
Over a decade of misconstrued information would be passed along by the media and other sources, and soon the story of Columbine would be about bullying, trench coats, and white baseball caps. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was exactly what Dave Cullen described above: spectacular murder. Nevertheless, amidst a flurry of scrutiny and misconceptions, one truth emerged more clearly than others: the way in which police were trained to respond to an active assailant situation ultimately costs lives that fateful April day…. and so did the frantic teacher in the library who did the best she could when screaming at students to get under the tables.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Now it’s been nineteen years since a terrorist attack on a high school changed the way law enforcement responded to school shootings. For some reason, though, school districts haven’t had the same urgency to change their active shooter protocols. 19 years later. 216 school shootings later. And students are still hiding under desks. Untrained. Uninformed. Unempowered.
But it won’t happen here are the sentiments echoed most clearly as we stare at a television screen, desensitized and watching yet another tragedy unfold and yet another unlikely target become a household name. Ordinary schools one day. Abdominal catastrophes the next. Names like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas now seem more synonymous with the media’s perpetuation of a casualty count than of scholarly institutions: 32. 26. 17. We seemingly forget the victims... their names always seem at the tips of our tongues, but as for the shooters... Well, the news coverage ensures we know their names: Harris, Klebold, Cho, Lanza, Cruz. The competition silently stirred by the media who throw around words like “worst” and “most” as if arbitrarily declaring victims as a number to beat.
What follows is typically the same: thoughts, prayers, condolences, arguments. And while the students of Stoneman refused to be silenced, a clear certainty remains as a stark reminder that change is slow… nineteen years slow. Because our schools are still targets and our teachers are still uninformed. Because our students are still under desks and huddled in groups and cowering in corners and paralyzed by fear.
Of course, there are no easy answers— and certainly not ones that can be articulated in a solitary blog post… but there is one resounding point that needs to be shared: passively waiting to be rescued is fatal. We have to empower our students, faculty, administrators, and staff to actively pursue survival. To fight back. To survive.
12 students and one teacher were slaughtered 19 years ago today in a small town called Littleton, Colorado. 24 others were injured. 61 of the 188 rounds were discharged in the library. 10 of the 13 victims died there…hiding under tables.
Today… let us remember them.
Today… let us do more than offer thoughts and prayers.
Today…. let the deaths of those students not be in vain because while laws and procedures may be slow to change, the empowerment to stand up, to run, and to fight back is now.
This post is dedicated to Dave Sanders, a beloved teacher and coach. Mr. Sanders saved countless lives on April 20, 1999. He was shot and should have survived… but help came too slow.
DISCLAIMER: Kristen Iannuzzi is a guest writer for this blog. The statements and opinions expressed are entirely her own. They are not a reflection of the beliefs, thoughts or opinions of her employer or district.
Cullen, D. (2016). Columbine. New York, NY: Twelve.
Columbine Report. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/columbine.cd/Pages/TOC.htm