Educational Leadership Philosophy

comfort

Growing up, I moved constantly. In one school year, I attended as many as four schools with my longest stint at a single school being my last three years of high school. As a result, I rarely developed solid peer relationships, and my sense of belonging was stifled. My only constant was the teachers who helped me acclimate in each of the schools I attended. Teachers were my rock. They pushed me academically, lifting me up when I had fallen behind because of curricular differences between schools. They provided me with a safe space and personal connections when I felt alone and different. These relationships that were modeled for me were the cornerstone of my educational career. From classroom teacher to school leader, I have found that my leadership philosophy is rooted in building and fostering relationships, leveraging the strengths of my students and faculty, and seeking opportunities for growth in myself and others.

Several years ago, I took the StrengthFinders 2.0 assessment in preparation for a leadership workshop and repeated it a couple of years later as a part of a team building exercise. While a few themes slightly shifted as I grew as a leader, one area, “relationship building,” was a consistent strength. I see this as the key component in every personal and professional success. While this is a natural strength for me, I believe it is also a necessary skill for effective leadership in education. After all, education is all about relationships and connection.

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Why?

Motivational Speaker, Simon Sinek, has built a career on guiding organizations and organizational leaders on finding their purpose or “why”. Sinek argues that organizations that can articulate why they do things over what they do or how they do it are far more successful and that they are more appealing to their consumers. While his focus in on corporate structures or businesses, the same principles can apply in education as well.

Many teachers have a very clear understanding of why they are teachers. One might say that they want to make a difference in a child’s life. Some might speak to their content area and to pass along an area of expertise or passion. In my opinion, both of those areas speak to building relationships with students. And, schools or districts can offer why they offer certain programs over another or provide special services like free lunch depending on their demographics.

However, on a smaller scale, when teachers move into leadership roles, the why might feel a bit more difficult to discern. I doubt anyone signed up for administrative roles for losing their summers off and a little bit of a raise. In addition, being a school leader can also a bit disconnected from the students we serve at times, but a school can only be as successful as its leadership team. As with every aspect of an organization, leaders must also articulate their “why” to all of their constituents–faculty, students, and families.

Here are a few of my whys for transitioning and continuing to serve in leadership roles within schools:
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Is this normal?

One of the most common questions I as a Middle School Director from parents is “Is this normal?” Sometimes, it is phrased differently: “what is wrong with my son/daughter?” Sometimes, there are hints of desperation: “What happened to my loving child?”, or “What did I do wrong?” Regardless, parenting teenagers or pre-teens can be difficult and unpredictable.

After teaching or leading middle schools for fifteen years and raising three kids through these years (we are still in it!), my answer is most often, “YES! Yes, this is normal.” Raising a middle-schooler can really keep us on our toes. My advice to parents during this time is usually to cherish it. This time will pass so quickly, and right before your eyes, you are watching your child become an adult. It is like getting the opportunity to watch a caterpillar become a butterfly, and you get the opportunity to decide just how beautiful that butterfly will become.

Here are just a few things I often share with parents (and teachers who aren’t parents) during this time:

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Student Travel

 

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Students in Iceland, 2017

 

One of the things I have enjoyed the most about teaching and leading independent middle schools is the opportunity to travel with my students. Day trips, overnight trips, or service trips are all unique and provide me with a unique perspective of my students. I am such a huge proponent of student travel that I practically had to force my daughter to go on her eighth-grade trip a few years ago. She was one of those kids who never wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house or go away to sleep-away camp. I felt it was such a valuable learning lesson that I insisted she go with her peers to Washington D.C.

Having spent many years coordinating trips for students, I often have heard that it is too expensive, students have been there before, or “I” will just take them there on our next family vacation. All of those are valid reasons why you might not want to send a child on a school trip, but here are just a few reasons why I think that student travel (without parents) is so important:

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Social Media and Belonging

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”
–Frank Lloyd Wright

As I have said many times, adolescence is a time of great development for children. Middle school is a time in which development is greatly focused on the social and emotional. One aspect of this development is a sense of belonging. As children seek greater autonomy away from their parents, they seek greater acceptance from their peers. After all, their bodies and minds are preparing for a life away from their parents’ home. This can lead children to question where they belong and what they enjoy doing.

Today, adolescents use new methods to satisfy this developmental stage that might be unfamiliar to parents who relied on team sports, organized after school activities, or good ol’ fashioned trips to hang out at the mall. Social media now plays an active role in developing a sense of belonging in positive and, potentially, negative ways. As parents, we should be aware of how our children are using these platforms and actively monitor its usage.

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Teaching Perseverance

“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

Last week, in a very rare moment of downtime, I perused my social media sites, and it wasn’t to check up on my kids this time. I was excited about a friend’s recent news, and I wanted to check to see how things were going. A friend from high school is in a band, and they had a major label release of their first album. The album has garnered critical acclaim. What is interesting about this news is that I am a woman of “a certain age” (that age when it becomes impolite to ask how old I am), and this friend has been working on getting an album deal since we were in high school. That is a very long time to be working for something with very little success.

To be honest, if I were in my friend’s shoes, I would have given up long ago. Many people told him to get a “real” job, and he did. He was quite successful in that arena too, but on the side, he continually worked towards his dream of being a recording artist and making his own music. I was struck with awe as I considered how long it has taken for him to achieve his goal. I could only imagine the number of rejections he had faced before getting to this point. I felt that sense of pride that rises up when we recognize the efforts, perseverance, and achievements in others, especially those we have supported along their journey.

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Setting Boundaries with your Tween/Teen

“We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors.”
–George Washington

One of the greatest dilemmas of raising adolescents is maintaining the balance between keeping them safe and supporting their increasing need for independence. Adolescents can look and sound like adults, but as we learned last week, their decision-making capabilities are significantly delayed compared to their physical development. They tend to be impulsive and driven by peer relationships. This is why it is paramount that we consistently provide boundaries for behavior, and we re-evaluate them often. Establishing boundaries or limits can help to reduce conflict within families and help adolescents feel safe and less overwhelmed. After all, they are often dealing with many physical and social changes.

Many online resources or books on parenting provide age appropriate guidelines for boundaries or rules. I encourage parents to use those guidelines, but to also evaluate a child’s maturity level in addition to age. For example, you may have set the standard that your child can get a cell phone by the age of thirteen. However, they have not shown the responsibility to complete homework on time or complete daily household chores, then they should not receive the cell phone.

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Open Conversations with Tweens and Teens

“In your calm is your strength.”–German Proverb

Over the years, I have told many people that I didn’t choose Middle School Education; it chose me. It wasn’t until my children approached adolescence that I truly understood the depth of this calling. My years of teaching middle school certainly gave me a leg up in preparing for the tween/teen years as a parent, but it doesn’t make it easier. Adolescents and pre-adolescents have unique qualities that can make parenting a challenge.

Around the onset of puberty, there are marked changes in the development of children’s brains. This begins before outward physical changes of puberty are noticeable, but parents will often notice behavioral or attitudinal changes in children beginning around the age of 9 or 10. This is the age that the brain begins to recognize and to be receptive to the sex hormones of estrogen and testosterone for the first time. In addition, one region of the brain, the amygdala, grows (or rather swells) exponentially during this time, up to 20 times its original size. This increased size continues until about the age of 20 to 25 when the frontal lobes have fully developed and begin to take on greater control. The amygdala is responsible for emotional response and control. In addition to the ongoing development of their brains, their bodies are growing and changing just as quickly. They are driven to be more social, yet more independent from their parents.

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Student Voice

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Nancy Doda and Mark Springer at a Middle-Level professional conference. Their passion for education, especially the education of middle schoolers, was inspiring. Attending sessions with them led to a lot of the work we do as a seventh-grade team, but it also has influenced how I teach.

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As a teacher, I am always striving to improve my craft. In addition, as I become more comfortable with transitioning from a more traditional pedagogy to leaving the stage, I have looked for ways to incorporate more student voice in my classroom. In an ideal world, I would love for students to drive the curriculum more than I do, but one of the common constraints many teachers feel is a lack of time and a more-or-less mandated curriculum. I am fortunate that I do not have to worry about state mandated testing, but unless we move away from a structured grading system, I will never be able to fully relinquish my mandated curriculum.

A personal goal that I have for myself is to generate lessons where students are able to construct meaning on their own within the confines of my structured curriculum. Each year, I get better at doing this, but the students are different every year. What works for one group of students does not work for others. That is still a work in progress. However, I have been finding other ways to incorporate student voice in my classroom:

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Building Community

Anyone who has taught middle school for any length of time will tell you that seventh grade is a rough year for many students. Parents will probably tell you the same thing. Therefore, as a team one of our goals was to create a community among seventh graders. The idea was to get students working together effectively and create a sense of connectedness. In other words, we wanted to ensure that seventh graders do not feel like the forgotten middle children of middle school. Our team has worked on various strategies to meet those goals, but this month I feel we were exceptionally successful.

Last year, I was inspired by a photo essay project called the Fearless Project. The Fearless Project focuses on LGBT athletes. While I didn’t think that would be fitting for our goals, I liked the idea of a photo project. I wanted a way for students to be publicly acknowledged and allow people get to know one another in a different way besides as students in a class. When I brought the idea to the team, they were on board immediately.

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