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Leading Up While Managing the Unexpected?


By: Elvis Epps, Principal, Lake Worth Community High School


One of my favorite television shows was Star Trek as a child. No one on television was as cool and calm as Captain James T. Kirk. In every show, Captain Kirk would end up fighting an alien force. His primary duties as the captain of the USS Enterprise were to lead and protect his crew and his ship. If you were a fan of the show, you could probably finish this line from Captain Kirk. “Scotty, I need more ______! That’s right, and he always needed more power. Scotty would always respond, “Jim, I don’t have more power to give.” Captain Kirk would order him to find it wherever he could. Captain Kirk never accepted Scotty’s answers or excuses for not having extra power. Captain Kirk wanted more power, and that’s what Scotty usually came up with. Scotty never failed to deliver more power. The shows were exciting and memorable. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always hold when leading an organization or school these days. What do you do when you have given everything yet you are asked to provide more power? What do you do next?

Leading an organization or school has become more challenging, time-consuming, and stressful than ever before. Being placed in leadership is rewarding and yet stressful at times. Knowing what to do, who to turn to for support, and balancing your professional time is crucial to surviving in your position. The school administrators' roles and responsibilities have changed significantly over the last five years. According to research conducted by the National Association of Secondary Schools and the Learning Policy Institute, school principals are essential for providing substantial educational opportunities and improved outcomes for students. 

I remember the first time I was thrust into a leadership position when I thought I was ready to lead. In my early 20s, I joined the US Navy after leaving college. I was young, eager, and prepared for the world. I believed I could do anything I set my mind to do. There weren’t too many things in life that I could not finish. Joining the Navy was another chapter in my life on the road to success.

The first night in boot camp, someone came into the barracks at 3 am yelling and making a loud noise with a trash can. I thought, “What in the world is going on here?” Well, that was my wake-up call (no pun intended) to the world of the US Navy. The overall aim of boot camp was to see how well recruits could handle a sudden shift in their culture. Speaking of a growth mindset, this was a shifting of the mind. Our drill commanders were tasked with weeding out the weak recruits, then training the stronger ones to achieve success.  My drill commanders were leaders of the group, but they were managers in the bigger picture of Naval leadership. 

My drill commanders saw me as one of the top recruits, and they asked me to lead the unit. I felt honored they saw me in that light. It did not take long before I realized that whatever happened among the ranks of the unit, my commanders would hold me accountable. As the days went by, my unit had more bad days than good ones. Our unit was known as the “I forgot Unit.” I remember the number of times I had to do pushups for members of my team that had messed up. I knew I wasn’t ready for the role of leader at that point. So, I asked to be relieved of that duty.


Preparing to Lead

I believe many of you could relate to the story I shared about my boot camp days. How do you define leadership? How do you define a manager? What are the similarities and differences between the two? During my thirty-plus years in leadership, coaching, and management training, I can honestly tell you they are different. However, you need both to be a successful leader in your organization. Leaders set the tone and give the vision and marching orders for what the organization is expected to achieve. Leaders should articulate, share, and present to stakeholders what they do and be known for, how they will achieve it, a timeframe for achieving it, what success will look like when you reach it, and most importantly, why they should follow you on this journey. Managers lead the way in making it happen with their teams.


Managing the Unexpected 

Leaders take on many tasks that require them to be out front leading the charge. While this is very important, we must never forget about the small tasks that are also needed to manage the day-to-day operation. So, how do you effectively lead your school or organization while managing the unexpected? What do you do when unexpected items take up most of your time? How do you focus on the school’s goals if this is all you do? Please allow me to list a few of the unexpected issues school leaders faced during the pandemic: 

1.     School shut down at a moment's notice. Create a plan to teach students virtually. 

2.     Devise and implement a plan to distribute electronic devices to all students and teachers.

3.     How are you going to feed the students? Food distribution to students and the community.

4.     Dealing with the death of someone on your staff or school. 

5.     Budget cuts due to lack of student accountability.

6.     Addressing an exodus of teachers from your school and district.

7.     The sudden outbreak of racial tension in your community, school, or state.

8.     Dealing with angry and political charged parents and community members.

9.     New state mandates and policies force you to change your goals and objectives.

10.    How the job stress profoundly affects your health and impacts how you lead the school. No time off to unwind. 

11.    Many faculty and staff members are taking mental health days off. Unfortunately, no substitute teachers were available to fill the voids. 

The list might seem simple, but the weight of each item required a tremendous amount of time and stress to address. You cannot do it alone. Please allow me to share a few recommendations to manage your time and mental stability.

1.    Manage your emotions. Shift how you see problems when they come. Your mind reacts to how you perceive and process problems. Look for the brighter side of each problem. There is something to learn from each problem. Ask yourself, is there anything to learn from the experience? Who can help you resolve the problem? Is this a problem that needs your immediate attention? What would happen if you did nothing about the problem? That depends on the situation. You have to manage your emotions because without a plan, stress sets in. When stress sets in, anger develops if the issues are resolved fast enough. If you do not manage your anger, you could feel overwhelmed and depleted. Be careful and mindful of your emotions and how you handle them. Learn to vet each problem as they come. Relax and know you have options.

2.     Coach others on your leadership team to handle problems on your radar. You do not have to address everything that comes your way. You might have teacher leaders who would love to help where they can. Give them a chance to prove themselves. You will be surprised by what they do. 

3.     Be intentional when walking your campus. Look for unusual things and for items that need repairing or replacing. Observe your staff’s behavior and mental health. Notice small changes in demeanor. Then, be prepared to provide support whenever the need arises.

4.     There’s more to life than work. Where do you go to find happiness? Where is that place that brings you joy? What activities do you do that take your mind away from your work responsibilities? Who brings you the greatest joy? Find a good book to read. Watch a movie with your family and friends. Bake something that you love to eat. Take a vacation, and don’t feel guilty about it. There is no time like the present to enjoy your life. Don’t waste your time-fighting fires when you could be planting flowers and seeds of hope.

5.     Leave your office at a reasonable time. When you practice this, you feel better about yourself and your time. Your family will get more time with you. You can go to the gym or on a walk while the sun is shining. Work cannot be your hobby.

Take Care of Yourself

Principal turnover is a grave issue across the country. A 2017 national survey of public-school principals found that, overall, 18 percent of principals had left their position since the year before. In high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent. Research also reveals that school principals in high needs, high poverty schools experience higher turnover than schools not identified. In March and April 2021, the RAND Corporation surveyed 1686 secondary school principals. That survey revealed that 8 in 10 principals experienced job-related stress due to the many changes impacted by the pandemic. Author and assistant researcher of the study Ashley Woo, stated that the biggest trigger for principals was their teachers’ and students’ social-economic well-being. 

I lead a high need, high poverty, high mobility urban high school. I have faced and handled my share of challenges and problems. There are no two days that are the same. I recommend you learn how to manage the unexpected while leading your school. You do not have to handle each problem that comes along. You can decide whether to do it, delegate it, or dump it. If you have a solid leadership team, they could help you address problems. They want to learn and grow as well. If you have a new team that lacks the experience in handling challenging situations, assign the task anyway but observe, monitor, and coach your administrators on ways to address the problem. This might not be the case with every issue, but it can be done.

You have what it takes to be a great leader. Leadership is what you need to chart the course. Managing is what you need to hoist the sails, maintain the engine, supervise and take care of the crew, and  navigate the system. If you take care of your direct reports and empower them to lead, they will give you your best. We lead people and manage things.

Please allow me to bring this home. As the school leader, I set the tone, articulate the message to my stakeholders, share how we will get there, who is needed to help with the goal and mission, then explain why we need to go in that direction. I do this by listening to stakeholders about what worked and did not work within the organization. Leaders cannot accomplish the work without the efforts of the entire team. Be the leader that others love to follow. A weak leader can give an inspirational message but lacks the necessary skills, strategies, or understanding of how to get the job done. I hire leaders who are more intelligent than I am in a particular area. I look for leaders who are creative, innovative, calm under pressure, and eager to learn and grow. They help me carry the weight of running the school. Managing the unexpected is part of the job. 

The following quote says it all “Your struggles are helping you grow in ways you can’t imagine. It might be hard to see right now, but one day you’ll look back and realize things had to happen the way they did to get you to where you are. Trust that today’s challenges will be responsible for your future growth.” - Unknown.

Take care of yourself and those you lead. Take time off when you need to, and enjoy the journey. You earned the time so enjoy the moment. We are all in this together. Knowing who to call when you feel overwhelmed is the difference between quitting or staying on the job. Remember your why and your what. Knowing your why helps you to understand what you do that makes a difference in the lives of your students, teachers, and families. If you are not well, then the rest means nothing. Seek help when needed. Manage your life to the best of your ability every day. Administrators, you are not alone. We stand as a united front when it comes to supporting each other. We are one team with one message, serving one mission.


Five Lessons Learned as an Educational Leader

By: Richard Surrency, Superintendent, Putnam County Schools

I am the elected superintendent of the Putnam County School District serving in my sixth year. Since my first day in office, beginning in November of 2016, our district has focused on improving student achievement and on-time graduation for our 10,500 students.

In 2015, only 54.9% of our seniors graduated on time. Through a strategic initiative, we improved the graduation rate to 92.5% in 2021. This is the largest increase in Florida during the same time period.

In 2017, 11 of our 18 schools were receiving state turnaround support to improve school performance as determined by Florida’s school grading system. Our instructional team led an initiative to improve school culture and standards-based core instruction and intervention. At this time, we have zero schools receiving state turnaround support.

These improvements highlight the importance of leadership both at the district and school levels. As a superintendent, I have learned many lessons about leadership over my 44-year educational career. I would like to briefly share five of those lessons that may help you overcome challenges in the future:

1. What unites us is greater than what divides us. Our schools are facing many new challenges today, and these challenges sometimes divide us. When collaborating with other decision-makers and stakeholders, it’s important to respect our individual ideas. However, finding a way to focus on the common ground that brings us together can help to move you forward collectively to resolve any issues you may be facing.

2. There is always an answer. The dilemma that NASA faced during Apollo 13 was solved from the use of duct tape to assist the disabled spacecraft and return it to Earth safely. As school and district leaders, when solving problems, remember that more ideas on the table generate more options to consider. Always look for creative options when trying to solve a problem.


Focusing on the Mental Well-Being of Our Youth

By: Dr. Moira Sweeting-Miller, Assistant Principal, Monarch High School, Broward County

 Today, I want to focus on the mental well-being of our youth. When you look at what takes place in schools, we focus on reading fluency and math fluency all to help the students grow up to be productive citizens. But what about mental health fluency? This is a much-needed part of the puzzle and probably the most important part.

Since COVID, we have seen a lot of focus on the social and emotional well-being of not only adults but students. Both adults and students experienced the same trauma during the pandemic but as adults we know when we need self-care and know what to do to take care of ourselves. Young adults do not have that awareness and struggle when things are not going well. They find it hard to pinpoint the cause of their angst and thus cannot help themselves through the emotions. This is where mental health fluency comes into play.

Mental health fluency involves teaching a child techniques to handle their emotions and provide them with resources to help them through their crisis. This is where Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) comes into play. According to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), SEL makes a difference. Research has shown that education programs that promote SEL have a positive impact on a wide range of outcomes, including academic performance, healthy relationships, mental wellness, and much more. Incorporating SEL strategies into the curriculum will give the students tools that they could use to help them when things are not going well.


Leading Change During Challenging Times

By: Carla L. Sparks, Ed.D., Faculty Lead and Program Director of Educational Leadership Programs at National Louis University's Florida Regional Center

In my current leadership role, I have spent countless hours during the last two years on the phone and on zoom talking with teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals, principal coaches, school district leaders, charter school administrators, and educational leaders of service provider organizations. These conversations have ranged in emotion from utter despair to gritting teeth until the terror passes, to joy and enthusiasm about leading change. I have had conversations with leaders who are exhausted physically and emotionally and others who are energized and raring to make things happen. Some have cried and they shook their heads while others thrust their arms in the air and laughed. I have wondered about the range of thoughts and emotions among the leaders with whom I work. I have thought to myself: How is this broad range of reactions to the extreme challenges in educational leadership during the last 27 months even possible?

Does the difference in reactions lie in the kind of school or another work environment these leaders live through daily? Does the difference have to do with personality? Does it have to do with other influences that have nothing to do with education? Is there something magical in those educators who are thriving and leading during a devastating time in education and in the world at large? Is it related to something called grit?


You Can't Pour From an Empty Cup

By:Joyce Conley, Assistant Principal, Whispering Oak Elementary School, Orange County

We have spent the past two-plus years focusing on the social and emotional well being of our students and staff. As leaders, we are tasked with the work of providing an environment of a supportive and understanding culture. One that emphasizes collaboration, relationships, high expectations for both staff and students, data driven instruction, and so on and so on.  Let me be frank when I say that all of those tasks are exactly what drives student achievement and makes our staff want to stay. However, all of those initiatives, expectations, and verbs involve action from the leader. We lead by example; we put out what we expect. So if we are expecting our staff and students to be at the epitome of their game with our support, what are we doing to prepare for our monumental task?

What comes to mind is that old saying – you cannot pour from an empty cup. When’s the last time you walked into work feeling rejuvenated? If you can recall, how long did it take for that feeling to dwindle? You put in the work. In many cases, you’re the first one there and the last to leave. You don’t turn off your emails in the evenings or the weekends. You’re doing all of this to be the best leader you can be because … why? Someone before you said that was the expectation. Someone told you that leadership means you’re always on the job. In reality, though, it takes leaders who lead by example by taking care of themselves so that they can be their best selves for their students and staff.


The New Worlds Reading Initiative and Our Vision for Florida to Become the Most Literate State in the Nation

By: Dr, Paige Pullen, Chief Academic Officer at the UF Lastinger Center for Learning

When I returned to my alma mater and took on my position at the Lastinger Center in 2017, I presented a case for what I call “a vision for a literate Florida.” My goal, then and now, is to help Florida become number one in the country in terms of literacy rates.

For us to realize this goal, what does it take? This task takes more than providing our teachers with the training and resources they need through our higher education system, and it transcends beyond our schools. It takes a comprehensive ecosystem of all of our Florida communities working together to support our students at every touchpoint.

In 2021, we worked with Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls to start the New Worlds Reading Initiative as one such effort to help us reach this goal and bridge the gap between school and home learning. Created to support K-5th grade students not yet reading on grade level, New World Reading provides eligible students in Florida public and district-sponsored charter schools one free book per month in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, or braille during the school year—for a total of nine books per year, delivered directly to students’ homes. Books also come with literacy activities for families and caregivers to engage with their children on reading and help build their child's language and conversation skills.


A Lifelong Ladder: The Power of Effective Literacy Instruction

By: Dr, Liz Brooke, CCC-SLP, Chief Learning Officer, Lexia Learning

Is the curriculum we’re using to teach students to read working? The data tells us it is not. While 95% percent of students have the capacity to learn to read (when using programs based on the science of reading), only about 34% of fourth and eighth grade students read proficiently. That’s a big gap, and a worrying one. As much as 85% of public school curriculum in the United States is delivered via reading, so a literacy curriculum that fails to deliver proficiency is failing students, period. Given the gap between students’ capacity and their proficiency, it’s no wonder educational equity is such a priority goal for schools and districts. Academic success, personal empowerment, greater economic opportunities, and active civic participation are all literacy benefits that expand opportunities for students to develop their full academic and societal potential.

It’s important to clarify upfront the difference between equality and equity in education. Equality is the leveling of the playing field, so every student gets the exact same resources and support. Equity, on the other hand, means each student receives personalized learning geared to their particular needs so that every student has the same opportunity to succeed. Meeting each student where they are and providing individualized instruction is the most equitable approach to literacy. But that can be a lot to ask of already overloaded teachers.By applying the body of research about how children learn to read, and by using educational technology tools that deliver supplementary instruction attuned to the student’s needs, lessons can be personalized to each student's skill level.

Let’s look at how effective literacy instruction can advance equity.