Ten years ago, at the age of 31, I was entrusted by a bold superintendent and school board with an opportunity to lead a school. At this school, 2006 was known as the “Year of Shock and Awe” because a data dive discovered that the school was having a negative demographic impact on the education of its students, which is really hard to do at a private-religious school. Likewise, the student and teacher engagement data was not any better and the rates of misbehavior were higher on average than some local public schools. This data, a compelling school mission, the opportunity to re-orient a school for a demographically changing community, and the chance to build a discipling organization led me with all my energy and youthful ambition to jump at the chance to take this job.
The story of change and transformation at this school is better left to the leaders who stayed longer than I did, but as I was reminiscing with them recently and reviewing my notes from those days I began to share some of my experiences with friends who are new school leaders.
Four Goals: Personally, I was amazed by how little the basics of what I set out for myself has changed, but how much I’ve learned about the sophisticated nature of leadership. The headings below display the goals I set for myself in 2007 with some commentary for 2017.
Preach the Mission
Ambitiously, I took the job because of the opportunity to re-develop an historic school with a great intellectual, educational, and professional heritage, but most importantly the mission and my educational philosophy fell into sync. Too many leaders try to force on an organization their mission that has no life within the history or community of that institution, but for me this was handed to me and my job was to bring breath and life to the school through the mission.
The school’s mission was at the forefront of my mind and poured from my heart in everything that I did and everywhere I went. Only a few of your closest advisors will ever know you are doing this when you wear school gear, develop a new school chant, eat in the cafeteria, speak at assemblies, discipline with grace, communicate with discretion, discuss a way of learning that is joyful, ambitiously seek out new students and families, develop racial reconciliation breakfasts, or anything else that just seems like the normal work of school leadership.
The primary job, I felt, was to bring the mission to life in the hearts of everyone I daily encountered.
Shepherd the People
When I took this job, a leader within the community told me that a hammer needed to be taken to the place and quickly grew impatient with my leadership approach that was too subdued and long-term for his liking. He always supported and encouraged me, but he thought I was too weak in my approach. Rather, I took a shepherding approach because I knew I was the caretaker of this community’s institution not the owner of my own personal business, and I understood the short-term nature of school leadership as I’ve written on in the past in “Get a Leader”.
My secondary job, I felt, was to embed myself into the community of stakeholders and care for them as we pursued a new future for the school “together”. In return, they took care of me in ways never imagined.
The School as My Classroom
Personally, this was my favorite part of leadership. I loved being a teacher and never set out to be an administrator; however, I loved turning my school into my classroom whether that be creating a scope and sequence for Chapels, rewriting history curriculum, reimagining a PE program based upon Wellness research, developing teacher teams, reading great books with ambitious learners, recruiting new families, and competing weekly with my vice principal to see who could visit more classrooms and have more conversations with teachers and students about learning.
This part of my job was the most fulfilling as the passion for why I became an educator animated everything I did as a school leader.
Be Creative with Talent
Spend time with me and this may be what I care about most deeply for our profession as a whole, and I believe the honor of every educator is to draw people into the joy of our profession. In prior writings (“Three Steps for Recruiting Talent” and “School Buses, Lord of the Flies and the Right People”), I expound on some of my beliefs regarding talent, acquiring talent, and how to maximize that talent. Too often school leaders want to bring in their own talent like an NFL coach does, which I had a small opportunity to do, but the greatest school leaders seek the talent within their organization and daily draw it out.
Too often in leadership we don’t see the talent or ambitions of those with whom we are entrusted to lead whether that be teachers, coaches, parents, staff, or students. Attending a Cubs game this summer reminded me of how to get creative with people to accomplish the mission (“Management Matters”) as Joe Maddon once again confounds the traditionalists by hitting his clean-up hitter in the lead-off spot as his team needed a jolt of energy.
I am most proud of the fact that in four short years of leadership, I was able to foster professional talent beyond my own with those who would go on to be vice principals, athletic directors, a founder of a school, a STEM innovator, a technology director, and a principal.
Encouragement for 2017:
Lastly, HAVE FUN as an educator, disciple, caretaker, and leader. Every day (not the long nights) I miss the joy of this work and the fun of immersing myself into the depths of an institution’s culture to bring renewal and life to educators, students, families, and the community.
Erik Ellefsen has served in education for 21 years as a teacher, coach, consultant, Grievance Chairman for the American Federation of Teachers, Dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, and as Principal at Chicago Christian High School. He currently serves as an Academic and College Counselor at Valley Christian High School (San Jose, CA), a Senior Fellow for CACE, a Senior Fellow for Cardus, podcaster for Digical Education, and as Vice President of CCEI. Erik regularly organizes Christian school leadership seminars and speaks on issues pertaining to academic program, student leadership, and organizational development. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.