Learning from and supporting each other

The excitement in the air is palpable as the finishing touches are put on the 2020 National Principals Conference (NPC20), scheduled for July in National Harbor, MD. We want to give you a quick preview of what we have to offer at the annual meeting by introducing three of our thought leaders who will be speaking on the final day of the conference: Beth Houf is the principal at Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO. Houf was named a Missouri Exemplary New Principal in 2011 and the Missouri National Distinguished Principal in 2016. She is also one of NASSP’s 2019 Digital Principals of the Year and the co-author of Lead Like a PIRATE: Make School Amazing for Your Students and Staff. Brian McCann is the principal of Joseph Case High School in Swansea, MA. McCann chairs the Massachusetts School Administrators Association’s High School Committee. He has contributed to Principal Leadership magazine and authored the education leadership book The Principled Principal. McCann was Massachusetts’ 2011 High School Principal of the Year and is one of NASSP’s 2018 National Digital Principals of the Year. Akil Ross is currently an instructor of educational leadership at the University of South Carolina. Formerly, he was principal of Chapin High School in Columbia, SC. As principal, he was named the 2017 South Carolina Secondary School Principal of the Year and NASSP’s 2018 National Principal of the Year.

What is your background in and your experience with education?

Houf: I am a statistic. My parents were 14 when they found out they were going to have me. Luckily, I had very supportive grandparents, but we were poor, and I’m not supposed to be a person who would have gone to college. But it’s my background and the support that I received from my teachers that made me want to have a career in education. I wanted to help children regardless of their ZIP code, their last name, or circumstance—those who don’t fit the mold. So, I went to college to get my bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s degree in curriculum. After teaching for a while, I was chosen to be a part of Missouri’s STARR—Select Teachers as Regional Resources. Through that program, I started facilitating professional development in schools, and through those encounters, I saw the difference between schools who had great leadership and schools who had poor leadership. During one of those sessions I realized that, even though I never wanted to be a principal, the only way to make systemic changes was to become one, so I did.

McCann: I am the principal of Joseph Case High School (JCHS) in Swansea, MA. I’ve been the principal for 16 years, which is kind of an anomaly. Prior to that, I was the assistant principal for four years; and prior to that, I taught English and journalism, theater, advised NHS, and ran the school newspaper for 11 years. I also graduated from this high school in 1980. When I say this is the only place I’ve been, I mean it’s the only place I have been. Except for college and graduate school, this is the only place I have been as an adult. From JCHS, I went to Boston College, then grad school at the University of Michigan. After I graduated from there, I was a long-term substitute at JCHS. There was a period of 18 months that I did public affairs work for the Navy in Newport, RI, but other than that, my career has been an adventure at JCHS.

Ross: I’ll start with my own learning experience. I failed third grade, and studies show that if a student is not reading on par by third grade, they are 19 times less likely to graduate. There is a serious correlation between failing the third grade and not succeeding in life. But my experience in education really stems from my second year of third grade. I had an amazing teacher named Ms. Shivers. She didn’t play. Each time I failed a chapter test, she would say, “Do it again,” rather than pushing me through as the other teacher had done. To make a long story short, she worked with me, never gave up on me, and helped me build my own confidence in my learning abilities. She gave me faith to believe in something that I didn’t see as a possibility.

If you think about education today, you know why that’s so important to me. So many teachers today are forced to hit a cut score or a benchmark for a child. Ms. Shivers was liberated enough to say it’s not really about getting to that benchmark. That’s not his benchmark. His first benchmark is to believe in himself. By the time I was in sixth grade, I won two citywide essay contests. Ms. Shivers took a resource student, a special education student with straight F’s in the third grade, and raised me to win two essay contests—one of which I read in the Supreme Court. That’s the power of an educator. It’s an amazing teacher who can empower and can see education as a way to give children faith in themselves.

What are the biggest challenges facing secondary school principals today?

Houf: Trauma—our kids are dealing with a lot. I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders daily because our kids are going through so much. It’s such a responsibility to support not only our kids, but also our teachers. The teachers are trying to help our students not only survive, but thrive. I really believe that it’s our job as leaders to support them, but we also have to take care of ourselves. We must stay well so we can be the type of leader who can serve everyone. At the heart of things, it’s trauma and wellness. Everything else seems to stem off of that.

McCann: Mediocrity—that it’s just OK to go along and not challenge yourself or your school. We can’t be afraid to fail or be afraid that things might not turn out perfectly. I could go on talking about unfunded mandates, or how vaping is terrible, but to be a school leader, a big challenge is how to stay energized. I’m going to be 58 this year. I’m heading toward the sunset of this adventure within the next few years, but I’m not phoning it in. I’m going to just continue to push myself and push my school, because these children are watching me every day. They are watching me take adventure to heart. If I’m not going to be a risk taker, how can I expect the teachers or the students to be?

Ross: Managing power—and what I mean by that is our energy, our power, what keeps us going. I can only liken it to driving and looking at your tank of gas. There are those who look at the tank, and if it’s halfway, they immediately pull over to get gas. Those people are focused on the ride. They are looking at detours, traffic, and they will never be caught low on fuel. Then there are those who don’t even think about getting gas until it’s almost on E. It’s not that they aren’t organized enough to know they need gas. They are just so focused on the destination that the ride is not a forethought, so they get caught out there. I am one of those people. One day I’m riding on E. I don’t know how long I’ve been riding on E, and I think to myself, if I can just make it to the gas station, I’ll never do this again, and I’ll be all right. Then I realized that I hear this in school as well. People say, “If I can just make it to Labor Day weekend, if I can just make it to winter break, if I can just make it to … Friday.” And the reality is, we’re all riding on E. A lot of us are disconnected from our power source, and because of that, we’re losing our teachers.

What do you consider the most important area school leaders must address to ensure each student succeeds in a global society?

Houf: As leaders, it’s very easy for us to get so bogged down with all we have to do that we are not advocating for our field. I think the same is true for our teachers. Building Ranks™ builds such a great framework for this, and I believe this starts with school culture. If you do not work daily on your school culture, then your job is completely reactive. Our motto is, “Culture first, culture next, culture always.” You can’t wait until it’s a negative school culture before you start doing things that have to be intentional daily. I think that culture is what we do constantly. Climate is what we do occasionally, but culture is what we do every single day. When we build a culture where children feel safe, where staff feel safe, learning happens at a more accelerated rate.

McCann: We need to celebrate our diversity. High school now is not like the secondary we went to. Education has changed so much. You can’t just put things in neat little demographic categories. The lines are continually moving; the lines are continually blurred. We can’t just say I’m in a primarily white middle-class suburban school. There are so many different components that make your school diverse. Diversity is not just ethnicity, not just your background or religious beliefs, whatever category people want to put you in.

Ross: We need to learn to fail. I came up with an acronym for that. FAIL=Face Adversity in Life. There’s a beauty in that, and that was a Ms. Shivers lesson. Prior to Ms. Shivers, failure was a fixed mindset. Ms. Shivers said, “I know you have poor reading skills, poor math literacy now. But that’s now. It’s not your future. It’s not fixed.” That doesn’t control where you will be. You can face adversity in life, but it will not stop you. You can overcome it. I overcame obstacles.

One of the purposes of the National Principals Conference is to provide a safe place for principals to pause and reflect. Why is it important to have the time to stop and focus on you?

Houf: We are so busy taking care of everyone else that sometimes we forget to care for ourselves. Also, leaders are learners. Last year I learned so much at all of my sessions, but I also learned so much just sitting in the lobby at the Marriott talking to other practitioners, principals, and the keynote speakers who would come down and talk to us in the informal setting. I also made connections that will last a lifetime. I have people who I have met at this conference who I now consider friends. I can pick up my phone and call them to have fellowship, as well as fun, as well as learning. It’s awesome. I know there are other conferences out there, but having one dedicated to principals is the best thing ever. It’s a really special time with a special group of people.

McCann: You have to do something each day to take care of yourself. I’m a reader. And I’m not going to pretend that all I read are education books that push my thinking. I read a play a week. I read popular fiction, and every now and then I read a trashy beach novel. You have to do something for yourself, so if you’re going to a conference and you’ve decided you’re going to spend part of your summer with educators, you have already made a great leap forward. You have already invested some of your time and your money into making yourself better. Be careful, though, to not compare yourself to these speakers. Everyone has their own story. Look at these speakers in terms of what you can learn from them. What can you learn from this session, this conversation, this moment? These sessions don’t necessarily mirror what is happening in our schools, but they can be a looking glass into the possibility of tomorrow.

Ross: I teach aspiring principals at the University of South Carolina. And I tell those aspiring principals, when you are in that building, it’s a lonely place to be. When you are teaching, you have a lot of people in the building going through the same things you are going through. When you are the principal, you stand alone. You’re the only principal in the building. You may be the only principal in your school. When principals can connect with one another and support each other and tell their story, they empower each other. They get the sense they can refuel. I look at NPC as part of the necessary role of every leader to refuel themselves, to be revived.


Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.