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“Know Thyself” The Importance of Self-Analysis for the School/Community Leader

Module by: Anne Unruh. E-mail the author

Summary: In Summer 2007, a Virginia Tech Doctoral cohort completed EDAE 6924, School Community Partnerships. Here is a personal reflection authored by LuAnne Unruh.

Question #1: Communication Style Survey

This survey comes at a great time for me because I am planning a retreat for all of our administrative staff. One of the sessions that I will be doing is based on leadership styles and the relationships between parents, teachers and administrators. This would compliment the other activities that I am planning to present to our staff. I also found something interesting about me as I completed this survey. I have taken many surveys and usually the result is that I am a servant or helper, but I was surprised to find that not only do the results show that I remain strong in the “helper” category, but I am also stronger in the “thinker” area than I realized. My results were tied in those two areas. I have the potential to be all three which concerns me as far as being decisive or indecisive.

I do believe that my analytical side has strengthened due to my principalship and most recent my decision to enter a doctoral program. I know that I am a goal oriented person and reflect on that goal consistently. The personality tests that I have taken in the past do show that I think about things, but once I have made a decision I stick to the decision, whether good or bad. I realize that my dominant areas of strength have remained consistent over the years is reassuring. One of my many flaws is that I do become concerned about what others may see in my leadership. The feedback over the years has been positive for the most part, mainly emphasizing my caring and compassionate nature and my strength in relationships. I do agree that some may perceive my as passive but I believe that the impact of my leadership shows, over time, that relationships are very important to me.

Question #2: Listening Survey

I am not at all surprised by the high score that I received on this survey. I have many natural traits that show I am a good listener and I have been trained over the years as a mediator. Listening is skill that takes time and patience. I was pleased to see that the survey was divided by attitude and action. As a strong observer, I know when people are not listening or show that they do not have the time. It is difficult to stop a project that has a deadline in order to listen to someone who is struggling professionally or personally. I find that being a strong listener is an advantage to being a “helper” or “thinker” Because I think about what people say and often can help them based on my own experiences or more importantly can ask them the right questions, so they can make a decision that is best for them.

I have sharpened by listening skills through practice. As a principal, I encountered hourly situations where my listening skills have calmed a parent, helped a student in distress, and worked with a teacher to become more effective in the classroom. I have also learned that it is permissible and respectful to let people know when you don’t have time to listen but you are willing to schedule a time. The most popular question asked of me daily is, “Do you have minute?” The reality is that most of the time I don’t, but I stop and take the time. On occasion I have had to ask if the conversation could wait. Listening is vital in communication and building relationships with a community. The results of this skill can impact a leader in the workforce, classroom, and in relationships.

Question #3 Reflection Cycle – Communication

As a middle school principal, I had designed an advisory which was comprised of team leaders from each grade level as well as the physical education department, exploratory department, and special education. I also included a guidance counselor, a librarian and a secretary. I did have a custodian when they could come, but that became very inconsistent for many reasons. This advisory was chaired by a teacher, not by me which was an advantage to the staff. I put a lot of thought in the way the meetings would be managed in order to maintain the goal that we were all here with one main purpose which was to improve student achievement. I was trying to avoid a whining session or an “attack the administrators meeting.”

Before the monthly meeting, all teachers and staff could submit items to be discussed to the chairperson. The chairperson would email me those concerns so that I would be prepared to address them during the meeting. I can honestly say that I addressed each concern no matter how small or big the problem seemed because I believed that if a person took the time to send it, then it should be addressed. Also on the agenda were items that I chose to put in for the purpose of management, discipline, routines and instructional concerns. I also used this captivated audience to talk about leadership. I know they have a difficult job and most have had little training in dealing with other teachers. I worked with the advisory for three years and it is still in place.

As I look back on the items and events that we have discussed in advisory, there were a few frustrating moments for me as the principal. The main purpose of the advisory was to communicate more effectively to the entire staff. As team and department chairs they were to collect and take back to their colleagues’ information that was discussed. Also I had my secretary take minutes and send over email to all the staff. So the staff was to hear the communication, and read the communication. I was always amazed when teachers would repeatedly say that “I didn’t know that” I could document many occasions when the failure to communicate was obvious, and a member of the advisory would realize that he or she had not gone over the agenda in the team meeting. Of course I addressed that on an individual basis, making clear the expectations of being a member of the advisory. There were times when I had to replace a member with someone else from the team.

This was frustrating for me because I felt I had made the expectations clear. This is a time when my “helper” communication style may have been perceived as passive. I believe that when you are given a job with clear expectations, there are no doubts as to your responsibility. As I look back, one thing I would do to improve would be to conduct a survey for feedback in the areas of efficiency, management, and communication. This survey would allow me to address and improve those areas that are perceived as weak and also praise those areas which are strong. As I have thought through this reflection process I realize that this portion of the cycle allows improvement without criticism. I plan to relay this to the current principal and use it in my own advisory for Title 1 and other areas of instruction.

Area#2 Participation

Again I will reflect on my principalship as an example of participation. It seems rare that middle schools have parent teacher associations (PTA), but my school has traditionally had one although it has not been active in opening out door to the community. This was definitely a challenge for me and at times I was ready to suggest dissolving because there were personality conflicts among the board members of the PTA. In an effort to turn it around I suggested that we start over and establish goals for involvement and focus more on informing our community about the events at the middle school. This would eliminate personal agendas and spending money in all the wrong places.

The positive points of this effort were establishing a monthly newsletter for our website and through mail. We put in the newsletter information about the PTA such as membership, bylaws, and upcoming meeting dates. This helped the board to actually plan a year and think through the events, fundraisers, and how the budget projections. Also the board used part of the fundraising money to buy a beautiful marquee outside to inform parents about events. The parents would see this anytime they passed the middle school. This has been a great addition for communication and it is so simple to maintain…imagine that. The board also established monthly board meetings in addition to monthly PTA meeting so that they could continue effective communication to parents at the meetings.

We did struggle with programs and attendance but I do feel that it is an improvement. We realized that when students perform the attendance increases. The board began to capitalize on that and relayed more information during that time. The business meetings became more important and parents knew where the money was being spent and also had input for future programs.

As I reflect on those painful meetings, at first I know that had I stayed longer the board would have improved each year. It also shows that the listening survey could have had an impact on their leadership. I felt that it was me against the PTA originally but as we listened to each other and set goals, they enveloped and even appreciated my leadership experience. It also resulted in a more positive relationship with the teachers because the board would communicate with them and began to acknowledge their hard work and effectiveness in the classroom.

One way I could have assisted more in improving their relationship with the community is to organize a community event where they would represent the school such as at our annual fair or even set up a booth to give out information on the middle school. I always stressed to them the importance of parents and the community seeing the middle school as a positive environment and not another galaxy far away.

Area #3 Governance

Louisa County implemented the Effective Schools Process about nine years ago when our current superintendent began his tenure in our district. As administrators we began the process by reading Larry Lazotte’s Effective Schools literature and receiving training by a consultant in the field. The process promotes shared decision making and promotes school and community relationships. The idea behind the process is an organization of correlates that are similar to the areas of school improvement set forth by the Southern Association. The areas include: safe, orderly and caring; instructional leadership, home-school and community, high expectations, opportunity to learn, and monitoring. Teachers and staff first choose an area of focus that interests them. Once the correlates are formed, then parents are invited to attend as well. The correlates goals are based on the overall goals of the school improvement plan which is a collaborative documented written annually. From these correlates a building leadership team is formed comprised of all the correlate chairpersons. In addition the chairperson and the building principal serve on a district leadership team so that all schools can collaborate.

The Effective School Process has been in existence in Louisa for nine years and there are so many things that we probably would not have achieved without this process in place. Teachers and staff are given an important role in decision making in all areas of school improvement. I have noticed over the years that fewer and fewer parents are involved in meetings. It might be based on the time of the meetings or the idea of not feeling part of the process. I have heard teachers comment that they are reluctant to discuss issues when parents are involved in the meeting for fear the parent will perceive the school in a negative manner. All of the schools have struggled with keeping parents involved. We have found that if they are given a specific task, they are more than glad to help, but to attend a meeting where items are discussed and no action is taken seems to be a waste of time.

I would agree that unless the meeting has a purpose it is a waste of time for everyone but I feel that each school needs to reexamine the purpose of parental involvement on these correlates. We would benefit from a renewal training and reflection time on Effective Schools. I know that we are going to discuss this at our upcoming retreat with administration and maybe this will bring a plan for renewal.

Question #4

Like all organizations, schools have complex relationships with parents and the community. The community provides resources the school needs and vice versa. Often the expectations of the school by the community are not spoken but understood. For example, the community expects students to be successful in their local schools and they expect teachers and administrators to do their job in making sure that happens. Of course, if it does not happen the parents attend board meetings and express their concerns.

As a leader in my community, I believe it is my responsibility to open the doors of communication for both the school community and the parent community. In doing so there are situations I might not have control over but I can help people to overcome some o f their perceptions that might darken their support for education. I believe that an important part of leadership is the ability to communicate the mission of the organization in such a way that the stakeholders want to be involved. I also believe that the community wants to be involved but might not know the ways they can support their school. I can serve and have served as an ambassador for education. Whenever given an opportunity to speak to a group of parents or community members, I make a strong case for the importance of open communication. I have recently read a book on shaping school culture and found that there was a strong message throughout the book. The message focused on the fact that schools spend time and effort in building a strong internal culture that produces an environment of engagement and high achievement among students and teachers. That strong internal involvement should be connected to a strong external involvement with parents and the community.

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