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A Personal Reflection: School Partnerships

Module by: Toni Childress. 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 Toni Childress.

The author Dr. J. Craig Coleman of the article “Know Thyself” The Importance of Self-Analysis for the School / Community Leader writes about several key factors in developing or reevaluating a personal leadership philosophy. There are several exercises for leaders to do in an effort to develop or even to revisit a personal leadership style in order to enhance parent and community involvement.

The Communication Style Survey developed by Gower training is an enlightening tool that made me reflect on my strengths and weaknesses on communication. As an English major, I viewed the written language as my strongest asset. However, I also discovered some very interesting trends to my communication style by taking this survey as it relates to me as a school administrator and then as it relates to me in my personal relationship with my husband and family.

My scores indicate that I tend to be a battler, helper, and a thinker when it comes to communication. My scores indicate that I am more of a helper with a total score of 17. I also scored a 15 in the battler category and scored 11 in the thinker category. These results surprised me as I think of myself more of a thinker than a helper and certainly more of a thinker than a battler.

Starting with my strongest scores in the helper style, I agree with many of the strengths but not all that are characteristic of me. For example, I am a very trusting communicator. I feel that if I have communicated a task to be completed, for example, I expect it to be completed without follow up from me. I am a very optimistic and idealistic leader because I believe that in education administrators should be. A very daunting task is to help some teachers become optimistic. I try to be helpful and remain modest and devoted. I understand that I have a difficult time with knowing when to back down and when to jump back in to help teachers. For example, I have struggled with knowing when teachers come to me with question about a specific problem if they want help, advice, or just an ear to listen. I know that I need to work on this listening skill.

The next style is a very surprising category for me to have scored so closely to the first one. I feel this is a category that is not me at all. I don’t feel that I am self-confident but I am ambitious and I do know when to be forceful and when not to be. However, I am not always quick to act, which I feel is a weakness and I wish I could be quicker to act. I believe that I am more of a thinker when it comes to reacting to situations that I am uncomfortable or unfamiliar with dealing. I am a very proud person who can take risks, as long as I know where we are going and what the big picture is. I do not mind working outside the box and being imaginative as long as I know what the goal is. One of my biggest assets in this style is that I am extremely competitive. I have played sports all my life and coached at the high school, and I like to compete.

I have always thought of myself as a thinker and naturally assumed that I would score highest in this style of communication. Much to my surprise, I scored the lowest. Even though I am a risk taker, I am a very cautious one. I like to make sure I know what the possible consequences are and be prepared with solutions. I constantly struggle with blaming myself for not being more careful and cautious. I constantly evaluate what I could have done differently and should have done better. This happens to be one of my biggest weaknesses as a leader, which I work on daily. I know that this year, because I have started a new school and grade level, that I am more cautious because I want to make certain that I reach the correct decision rather than taking a risk at being incorrect and viewed as incompetent. I tend to be practical, economical, and reserved. I was raised in a large family, so those come easily to me. I am not methodical; on the contrary, I am very flexible and tend to work more efficiently when there is some flexibility. I feel I am a fair person, but I also understand that every situation should be handled case by case.

Communication not only involves talking or telling but it also involves the art of listening. The Listener Survey developed by Karen Zupko and Associates did not provide the feedback as the Communication Style Survey, but it did make me think about the manner in which I listen to others. Listening skills are vital when communicating with teachers, parents, students, and community members. Overall, I scored a 90, which is considered as a good listener, which is accurate in most cases. The survey, however, had three different categories: attitudes, actions, and attitudes (again). These categories made me think about myself as a listener and how I could improve.

I prefer to listen to what people have to say versus talking, for the most part. I like to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to speak as well when we are in a large meeting. My biggest asset as a listener is that I feel that people know I am listening because I smile, nod and encourage discussions. I also maintain eye contact and ignore the common distractions of a busy school. I have two main areas that need improvement. I sometimes have a difficult time listening to teachers complain about things and not have a desire to offer a solution, especially when I have a strong opinion about their complaint that is contrary to theirs. For example, some teachers want the death penalty assigned to a sixth grade student who throws spit wads during class. Exaggeration it is, but it is difficult to make teachers understand the complexities of working with a teacher, parent, and child. The teacher expects one action, the parent expects another, and I have to decide how to communicate what is best for the child to both.

According to Dr. Coleman’s article, one of the most important features of leadership is the ability for a leader to know himself or herself leader and to understand the reflective process as a positive road to self assessment and change. The reflective process involves five steps: select, describe, appraise, and transform. As I reflect on communication, participation, and governance, I will use the reflective process steps to illustrate and to reevaluate my own leadership philosophy.

Reflection Cycle

One of my goals is to be a more effective communicator of specific goals of the school and relate it to my department. My department is the Language Arts Department, which has taken on several challenges the last few years with their reading and writing scores. Our school wide goal was to increase our reading SOL scores as well as to help each child reach their grade level reading by the end of the school year. In order to do this, all of our teachers had to buy into this goal and help by making efforts in their own classroom to support reading. Teaching a non Language Arts teacher the common vocabulary was difficult to do but was accomplished by the previous administration. My issue was that I have a secondary English degree and experience teaching high school, which is very different. So, I had to be a leader and a learner at the same time.

In analyzing this situation, I feel that I am still learning how to communicate effectively the importance of common planning, common assessments, and data-driven decisions for teachers. I believe that all students can learn and should be able to be given the opportunity to work towards reading on grade level. However, I am still learning the language, the strategies, and the different modalities of teaching reading. I feel that I do a great deal of listening and asking, which is a little risky as an administrator. I am not above letting teachers know I am unfamiliar with something; however, this carries with it risks that teachers will not trust you can make decisions.

I believe that I will be able to transform what I have learned this year and apply it better next year. Our scores have improved this year, but it has everything to do with teachers and their hard work. Next year, I will be able to feel more confident with helping teachers define our goals, look at this year’s data, and make decisions based on the strengths and weaknesses of this year.

I consider that parents and the community members are important assets to our school and participate pretty well. Our community supports our school and will help in many ways. Parents at this level, are very important. I understand, however, that parental participation begins to fade at the 7th grade level and continues to fall throughout 8th grade and into high school. It is not uncommon to see 6th grade parent volunteers and parent participants; however, parental participation fades with the older students. For example, we have an open house every year at the beginning to pass out schedules, allow students to open lockers, and view their class locations. Because we have so many 6th grade parents participate, we hold a separate 6th grad parent night. Seventh and 8th grade parents do not attend. Part of the reason older students’ parents do not participate is because students feel as if they are grown and do not need parental support. Parents respond by allowing their students to begin to make their own decisions. It is our responsibility to communicate the need for their involvement by continuing to communicate and involve the parent in different manner. I believe that parents at this level also begin to feel as if their young adolescent no longer needs their direction, which is partly true. But, what parents need to know is that this is the age where their adolescent needs them the most. It is very difficult to communicate this in a manner in which man y parents believe to be true and act upon. As administrators, we have to open our doors and communicate sometimes a little differently. This is always an area in need of improvement and will continue to be one.

Encouraging the public to participate in our school can be a challenge. Because we have one high school and two feeder middle schools, our small community is very willing to show support and does so as best as it can. Because I worked at the high school for ten years, I have more experience with working with the community than at my present job in the middle school. Our seniors must complete a Senior Boards project, which must have a community component to it. The community welcomes seniors and their projects for almost 18 years. I would like to incorporate, for example, a community based project for middle school students similar to the Senior Boards project.

Leadership in parent and community involvement and relationships is a very unique, rewarding, and positive experience for everyone involved if done effectively and consistently. My philosophy on leadership as it relates to this relationship is that without a strong community and parental involvement, a school will not have the support needed to succeed as it should. Our students are our future employees and employers of our community and our society. Parents can strengthen our school by supporting our decisions and by becoming part of the solution to some of the issues we face. My vision for this type of involvement is that our parents are kept well informed and increase their knowledge of what our school is doing for our students in an effort to support our program. When students see the parents and a community supporting our efforts, students will follow. As a leader, my role will be to facilitate conversations among groups and to communicate the goals of our school to parents and community members.

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