Kissing a cow and other necessary leadership attributes...

From August 2007 to August 2010, I served as principal of Windham Center School in Windham, Connecticut. At the time, Windham Center School served approximately 300+ students, including a K-4 New Arrivals Program designed for language enrichment for English Language Learners (ELLs). One of the challenges our team faced was getting students to become readers while showing growth on statewide assessments. The Literacy Team and I met weekly to pour over data, identify student needs, and monitor the school literacy goals. We all felt we had to create a sense of excitement and commitment around literacy and make it a school-wide effort. Several ideas surfaced such as hosting book fairs, awarding prizes for reading milestones, and setting up reading buddies. However, the idea that seemed to excite folks the most was of having the principal kiss a cow to celebrate reaching a schoolwide reading goal. I accepted the challenge with a little trepidation as I was not clear on how the actual kissing would take place. Pretty soon I found myself immersed in the uncontrollable excitement and energy of elementary students who could not believe that Dr. Torres was going to kiss a cow. I had daily interactions with students who would eagerly show me their books during recess, lunch, or at the bus stop. They wanted to make sure that I knew that they were committed to the reading goal. Teachers seemed equally excited to promote the initiative and join in the reading with their students. A chart was created and posted next to the main office with the school goal: Windham Center School will read 1,000 books by the end of the school year.

Thinking about this experience has made me reflect on my individual leadership attributes. One of the most common questions asked during an interview is: What unique attributes can you bring into this organization and position? While we all have our individual list of attributes that we might revisit from time to time, I have made a short list of those attributes I feel helped me problem-solve through this difficult instructional issue, generate a sense of momentum around a common vision, and ultimately help the Windham Center community reach our reading milestone.

Here are 5 key leadership attributes:

Be a good listener: Ernest Hemingway said, "When people talk, listen completely." A skilled leader takes the time to really listen to other people within the organization who might have a different perspective or opinion. In my case, I relied on the literacy experts at the school. Although I am an English as a Second Language teacher by trade, I am by no means a literacy expert. I recognized early on that I had to take the time to listen to those who really knew more about literacy than I did. Listening to the teachers and then thinking about how we could collaboratively develop an action plan was key.

Be an active learner: Always seek new knowledge and embark on this exercise with humility recognizing that there is no such thing as a heroic and single leader. As John Maxwell says: "One is too small a number to achieve greatness". I knew that I could not singlehandedly solve the reading conundrum. However, as a leader I acknowledged that my behavior and willingness to learn alongside the team could serve as the catalyst for change to take place and the team to rally around the common goal. Our team read research articles and professional books on literacy and we discussed these together. We sought to develop a common understanding of the fundamentals of reading and to learn from each other’s perspectives.

Set a vision for the team: A list of the greatest political figures and visionaries will most certainly include Winston Churchill. Churchill’s vision was simple although one could argue that it was highly ambitious. His vision for the Allies and Great Britain was total victory. There was no other option. Churchill was a master at defining the war conflict and the combatants on his own terms.

As a leader, I have strived to understand the issue at hand and frame it in terms that connect with the members of the school community. By taking the time to listen and learn from the team, I was now able to articulate the school’s challenge and set a vision for the remainder of the school year. Where did we see our students in 6 months? At the end of the school year? Our vision was to have a school committed to literacy and avid young readers who thrived with our instructional program. Anything less was not an option.

Delegate among your team: I love Becky Brodin’s definition of what leadership is not: “Leadership is not wielding authority- it is empowering people”. Recognize the skills and talents of those working alongside you and build capacity from within. You are not the only one responsible for the execution of the plan. At Windham Center School, each team was responsible for drafting a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely) goal and routinely updating the school-wide data team on its progress. Everyone had a clear role in the process and was committed to the overall vision of literacy for all of our K-4 students. Teachers were empowered to present data, challenge instructional practices, and offer recommendations.

Be the most vocal cheerleader on the team:

Your ability as a leader to be vocal, energized, and visible cannot be underestimated. You can work tirelessly to draft a vision and a plan, but ultimately, being the voice of that vision and making it come to life is what will resonate with your team. You must communicate the vision and seek it relentlessly. Your team needs to see you taking the lead and doing what is necessary (in this case, kissing a cow!) to achieve the goal. No one wants to see a downtrodden, disheartened, and unmotivated leader at the helm. For me, this was the most significant learning.

During the summer of 2010, Windham Center School exceeded its goal of reading 1,000 books. Our collective efforts also led the school to meeting the annual proficiency goals in reading and math on the statewide assessments. There is no doubt in my mind that kissing the cow was well worth it!.

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