As a young teacher sitting in a staff meeting, I heard head of school Kurt Unruh say something that changed my orientation to Valor Christian High School and ultimately toward my career. He encouraged us employees to “drive our own advancement.” As he expounded on this idea, I began to think more broadly and creatively about what I was able to contribute—how I could add value to my work community. I ruminated on this guidance and started seeing our school differently.
This value of taking initiative is just one of several values communicated by my school’s leadership. Early in Valor’s history, Kurt and other members of the leadership team crafted a concise publication called the Valor Cultural Document. The goal of this document was to define core principles of Valor’s culture and communicate high expectations about how staff and faculty should relate to one another as we advance the school’s mission.
As my career has progressed, I continue to appreciate the level of clarity provided by our institution, particular the call to employees to create value. Perhaps this discussion can serve as an example for other young leaders too.
Innovation and Creativity
One of the implicit benefits of driving your own advancement is that it changes a person’s orientation from thinking about obstacles to thinking about opportunities. Too often we educators become easily irritated with the shortcomings of our schools but at the same time avoid change. Repositioning to a stance that looks to bring benefit to the school is a mindset shift that is good for both the individual and the school. It is also a perspective that best serves the Kingdom.
Naturally, there are times when we want to be acknowledged and encouraged. However, individuals early in their careers too often miss opportunities to take initiative and shape the direction their school will go. Having permission to drive your own advancement gives a gentle nudge to think beyond the current circumstances or one’s current position and reflect on the skills and abilities that God has given you. Once an honest self-assessment is completed, a person can consider how to apply these abilities to the challenges facing the school.
As I began to think about how I could serve the school, an opportunity arose to help with the master schedule. At first, I was reticent because this seemed like such a complex challenge, but eventually I realized that I had a unique ability to serve through this process. Over the years, I have arrived at the place where I take joy in crafting the schedule: this task is a way to serve my fellow teachers by designing the daily patterns and rhythms of the school day.
The other advantage of this creating-value approach is that it lends itself to an ownership mentality. It allows a teacher to invest deeply in an area of the school and make an impact that goes beyond the basic contractual relationship. Individuals become empowered to authentically carry out the mission of the school within their sphere of influence.
This change in perspective about the contribution one can make spurs a desire to own the culture and the mission in a deep way. The cultural ramifications of this approach ripple through the organization. A staff that is empowered and earnestly seeking to expand their capacity is more fulfilled and more invested in the organization. Over the years, this shared sense of mission has been one of the greatest markers of health within Valor and, in my opinion, a key to long-term retention of the faculty and staff.
This fall, our school chose to return to in-person learning but also needed to support students who would be placed on a 14-day quarantine due to exposure to COVID. This situation created an opportunity for Amy Russo, one of our younger teachers, to step into a temporary role coordinating remote learning. Amy has certainly been challenged by this important task, but she has also grown through the experience and risen to the occasion. This role has empowered her to serve in a new way. As a result, she interacted with nearly every area of the school, providing her a perspective well beyond her classroom.
I do have a word of warning for administrators encouraging these qualities in their staff. Empowering faculty in this way requires the leadership of the school to take a posture of humility. If faculty and staff are genuinely encouraged to drive their own advancement, there will be challenges to the status quo.
For example, it may become evident that a younger team member is equipped and ready for greater levels of leadership. Facilitating this move may necessitate a change to the current leadership structure or encouraging a dear friend to serve the Kingdom in another position. Another possibility is that an empowered employee will shine a light on an area of weakness in the school. By proxy, this illumination may reflect on one’s own shortcomings. In both instances, the leadership of the school must practice humility and maturity, accepting this feedback with grace. Whereas fostering a staff that is growing and innovating may prompt unplanned changes, the overall benefits to the school are many. Disturbance and challenge must be seen as healthy signs of an environment where team members are thriving and dreaming about ways they can create value through their contributions.
Dr. Zach Gautier has served at Valor Christian High School since 2008, currently as Dean of Academic Services and a member of Valor’s senior leadership. Zach oversees Admission, Academic & College Counseling, Academic Support, and the 9th Grade Seminar. Previously, Dr. Gautier taught for three years at Jasper High School in Plano, Texas and was given the Time Warner Cable National Teaching Award in 2007. Zach earned his Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership from the University of Southern California. He and his wife Jen have been married since 2003, and he is the father of three boys.