Thursday, April 22, 2010

what makes the think tank think

Yesterday a dark cloud hung in the air over our school, as though someone we loved had just died. If you'd come into our building for the first time yesterday you would have found normally cheerful teachers crying, or walking around as though they had just lost their best friend. We might have gotten through the day, but we were just going through the motions- none of our hearts were in it.

Early that morning our principal had called a staff meeting. None of us had any idea what it was for, so when we arrived you can only imagine the shock we felt when our amazing principal announced she was retiring.

I don't know if I can begin to sum up everything this means, or if I can somehow capture a clear picture of the amazing leader she is. It's too soon, the wound is too fresh, and I'm still in shock. We are of course extremely happy for her, but right now we're all still grieving, as splatypus points out.

Whenever I hear debates about how education should be "fixed" I think of my principal. So much of what she does is the embodiment of how to do education the right. She gets the bigger picture- she knows what's important and knows how to filter out what's unimportant.

One of her greatest leadership qualities, I think, is that she knows how to help her teachers grow into leaders themselves. She knows when to give leadership, and who to give it to in order to help all teachers grow. I'm always in awe of how she is able to read a situation and know who to encourage to take up a leadership role, who she empowers, and the responsibilities she hands off to us. She seems to know that evenly distributing leadership throughout the school, not just among a few teachers, creates empowered and motivated teachers.

I once heard her say that she very intentionally never refers to us as "her staff". That stuck with me because I found it admirable- she hasn't worked to create a administration division solely to remind us of who is in charge. We are a team, and she delivers that message in every email she sends us, and in every staff meeting we have. (She does this with never having to say it- like some who pay lip service to a "team" but really don't- she doesn't have to call us a team for us to know that's how it works- because it's real and doesn't need a label).

Some administrators request to see lesson plans ahead of time, ask for standards to be written on the board, demand that everyone follow a set behavior management plan, or expect every teacher to use a similar style. She is not one of those administrators. She seems to appreciate different styles, and sends the message that she trusts us to do what is best for our kids, knowing that we will use our teacher knowledge and best judgement. In handing over that sort of power she is inviting us to think deeper about our lessons and how we work with our children.

She can trust us to make those decisions because she's created an environment where we are always thinking. We are a literacy collaborative school, which means we are always in small groups reflecting on our teaching, reading literacy books, trying new strategies, and collaborating with our peers to become better teachers. She's worked to help us copy that structure in math as well, so that we always have the resources we need to not just do our job, but to do it better each time.

Some principals demand participation in professional development that in the end weakens staff moral and frustrates teachers. She is not one of those principals. Instead she listens to what we need, allows trainings to be optional, and limits what is mandatory. So little is actually mandatory that when we know it is mandatory we know it will be good.

We have a co-teaching model where each teacher has a partner for literacy. I could write a book on all of the many, many ways this model is so beneficial. She fights for us to keep that model even with looming budget cuts. Because she sees the bigger picture, she's able to use creative solutions to keep what she knows works.

She doesn't seem to worry about whether or not someone from the county will be upset with her, nor does she seemed concerned about following rules by the book to make someone in a higher office happy. She knows what's important and she's not going to compromise that by playing games.

I think we don't even realize how many ways she protects us from the county. She's able to sift through what is important and what's not important and stands up for us with the county. She knows what it takes to run a good school and she's not going to let some misinformed county mandates get in the way of that. I also suspect she is a miracle worker with the budget. I've worked in other schools in our county and no other school had the supplies and resources that we do. She knows what's important to spend money on and knows how to spend the money so that it benefits the most amount of children while supporting us as teachers. (You should see our classroom libraries- not many schools supply their teachers with classroom libraries! You should also see our book room and our professional library. It is rare that there isn't a book there that we need).

She's always fighting for us as teachers, whether it is having our back with a parent, the school board, the county, or some other event that gets in the way. I hear stories of principals always taking the parents' side first before speaking to the teacher, or, discrediting the teacher in front of the parent. There have been times I've worked with an irate parent, and she has always had my back. Even when I'm in the wrong she's shown that she supports me in front of the parent. She may take me aside afterwards and help me fix my mistake, but in front of the parent she presents a united front. It takes a strong leader to be able to stand up for your staff, even when you know they were in the wrong.

I feel as I go on and on that I'm not being coherent, and not getting out what I intend to say. Perhaps a few months from now, in the summer, I'll be able to truly reflect on her strengths and all she's done for our school. Right now it's all still swimming in my brain- every time one of her strengths pops up it turns into a fear- will that exist next year?
Will that change?
Will someone new not trust us as much, not have our backs, not work magic with the budget? Will they stop letting us wear jeans?
Or flip flops?
Will they take away our flip flops?
Will they take away our blogging?
Will they understand our life emergencies?
Will they know how to facilitate a school-wide discussion that brings about positive instructional change?
Will they know when to give the final word, and when to let the teachers have power?
Will they see the bigger picture?
Will they laugh with us on Friday afternoons?

The thing is, what makes her such a strong leader is that she's facilitated leadership in each of us. In giving us the power, knowledge, and wisdom it takes to run a successful school, she's created a firm foundation that will last even after she's gone. A true sign of a good leader- giving people the tools and the trust to do it themselves. She might leave, but she'll be leaving behind everything she's given us.

If only every school could have such strong leadership...


Snippety Gibbet said...

While I've worked for some "lou lous" over the years, I'm afraid that I often take for granted the phenomenal situation I am in right now.

Blink said...

Just getting around to reading this and it's a beautiful tribute to an exceptional person! I have been penning notes for days trying to encapsulate what you have said so well. Thank you. We are lucky!

Jenny said...

You allude to the idea that we, as a staff, will not accept much less than this from a future principal. I completely agree. If for some awful reason we are saddled with one of 'those' principals, I think we will run them out of here!