Sunday, August 2, 2009

Authentic Leadership: An Interview with a New Principal

I recently interviewed Seth Kennard, newly appointed principal at Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia. This will mark his first run as a building principal. Kennard was my assistant principal at another elementary school in our district for the past two years, and he served as assistant principal at another elementary school in our state for three years prior to that. Before working in school leadership, he was a classroom teacher. During our short interview, I had a strong sense that he is poised and ready to tackle the demands of leading his new school. He has done his homework in terms of studying the demographics and getting to know his population of teachers and students. What struck me most about Kennard as principal-to-be is his willingness to get to know and utilize the stakeholders in his school, to admit his limitations and ask for help, to lead by example, and to share the task of leadership. In my opinion, by bringing these qualities to his principalship, he is setting up himself and his school community for success.

Because we had shared the experience of some staff members who were reluctant to use technology in the classroom at Tucker, I asked Kennard how he would inspire his new teachers to go beyond minimum requirements of technology proficiency and usage. He was very honest about his own need to first brush up on strategies in technology integration given his absence as a classroom teacher for the past five years and the quickly changing landscape of technology. He intends to accomplish this early in the school year by becoming aware of the tools being used broadly in classrooms. He will also get to know and observe the tech savvy teachers in his new school using the tools, as well as work closely with the team of technology coaches assigned to his school to learn and promote best practices. Once he ramps up his own aptitude with the technology, he plans to use it regularly in his interactions with staff, students, and parents, for example, using presentation tools at staff meetings and communicating through blogs, wikis, and discussion boards versus the traditional bi-weekly newsletter.

Kennard knows that he cannot expect teachers to upgrade their usage if he does not do it himself. By setting the example himself, he will show integrity, which Robert Evans defines as “having a significant commitment and exemplifying this commitment in your behavior,” in his chapter on “The Authentic Leader,” (Fullan, p. 137). He also knows that by recruiting the tech coaches and the teacher leaders in his building and depending on them to show the way and get others on board, he is more likely to get a positive response from the resistors. Jerome T. Murphy asserts, “By relying on staff members, administrators give them a greater sense of efficacy, responsibility, and control. That leads, in turn, to organizational progress,” (Fullan, p. 59).

Kennard is no stranger to the “unheroic” side of leadership. One of the unpleasant experiences he shared with me was working with an underperforming teacher who came to the school with satisfactory ratings and recommendations. Through the observation cycle, he realized that this was not the case. He described her as one whose instruction was well below par and who was not meeting the needs of her students. Because he was seriously concerned about the effect her performance was having on the students, he initiated an improvement plan that included regular observation, professional development and the guidance of outside mentors and specialists from the district. It was also clear that he did not want to take the easy way out and fire the teacher. He stated, “My goal is always… I don’t want to fire you…my goal is always to make you a better teacher. It’s much easier, it’s much quicker, and it’s much more fulfilling to me to have a teacher who needs help and to get that help than it is to get you out of the building and find a new one,” (S. Kennard, personal communication, July 23, 2009). My impression from this scenario is that he is not one to flinch from adversity or the uncomfortable situations that arise in school leadership. Instead, in the words of Fullan, he will “respect those he wishes to silence,” (or fire), by not taking the easy way out, but by doing all that he can to bring out the best in staff members and always keeping the students’ learning as his guiding principle.

During our interview and in the playback of the recording, it struck me that Kennard used the word “dynamic” several times. I wondered if this was related to his leadership philosophy and vision in general, or if it was the result of the situation he is inheriting. He is replacing a principal who served for a dozen years as the principal at this school and for two dozen years before that as a teacher in this system. My guess is that Barrett may be a school somewhat set in its ways, and that one of the roles he will need to adopt is that of change agent. I sensed it when I heard Kennard express the need for his teachers to become future oriented, to keep up with the times, and to do things differently. One of the areas where he hopes to make a difference is in testing. He can’t believe in an era where we can check ourselves in at airport kiosks that students are still bubbling in answer sheets! His hands may be tied at the district level, where such decisions about state testing are made, but in school-based assessments he could possibly blaze the trail toward online testing and interactive assessments.

My concern here is that in pushing for online testing, he’s not pushing the agenda far enough, seeming only to replace a pencil with a mouse click. Too often in technology integration, we get caught up in the stuff, or the “doodads,” as Bernajean Porter referred to them in her NECC session, “All Technology Uses Are Not Equal: Seeking Higher Ground,” (B. Porter, personal communication, June 29, 2009). So many technology tools replace things we use to teach but have no significant effect on the depth of what students know or how they learn it. To use one of Porter’s examples, creating a podcast on “Does the extinction of wolves matter?” is far richer and requires a lot more exploration than one that tells all there is to know about wolves. I hope that Kennard can stretch his goal of implementing online testing to move forward with technology to include the 21st Century Skills and not just the 21st Century doodads. If we follow Burrello’s line of thinking, such an endeavor could also lead toward a deeper shift in the school and district’s emphasis from standards-based learning to learner-centered learning, where standards do not only measure competency, but also “can be used to motivate students and stimulate their interest in learning,” (p. 39). What an accomplishment this would be for the new school leader!

The time is ripe to set a new course for Barrett Elementary. I have no doubt that Seth Kennard is up to the task. He has met the PTA and all of his staff members. He has studied the school’s data and is making decisions about where to focus energy, resources, and dollars. He is aware of the wealth of community resources available due to the school’s proximity to our nation’s capital and he intends to tap those resources as soon as possible. His global and forward vision, his focus on teaching and learning, and his commitment to students will surely benefit this school and reap great rewards for this learning community in the year(s) to come!

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