It’s Been Awhile…

I haven’t personally blogged since January of 2019.  I have hosted other superintendents’ blogs since, like my successor, Dr. Anthony McConnell…if you haven’t checked out his blog- you should.

I personally haven’t posted and didn’t realize how long it had been.  Thanks to Adam Welcome for encouraging me years ago to step out of my comfort zone.

But, it’s time again.  I sat on my deck today doing some work and reading the various comments, posts on Twitter and FB about school reopening as my son played Minecraft and my daughter continued to add items to her online shopping cart at American Girl for her upcoming birthday (stop judging me, please)…and I looked at my Twitter account and this post that I made last week now has over 700 likes and 149 retweets…and I thought, it’s time to get back at it.

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I am (now) a former superintendent…and I’m a parent, too.  Let me be clear on this- we need to support the people making these decisions about our children’s education more than ever.  When I posted this Tweet last week, I simply just wanted to support leaders making these tough calls and wanted others to know that this isn’t easy.  I remember how awful the multiple days of a polar vortex was, staying up all night watching the forecast, talking to surrounding superintendents, and the stress associated with what it meant if I made the call not to have kids in the building for more than 2 days at a time.  What we wouldn’t give for that decision now.

Leaders just want there to be understanding, grace and support given for decisions being made- that sounds simple, right?

What’s much more complicated are the decisions being made and the absolute criticism coming via every social media outlet and any avenue there is…please just be kind and respectful.  The people making these decisions are human, too- they have children, grandchildren, nieces/nephews, relatives…just like all of us.

Let’s support our superintendents and educators making these difficult decisions right now.  Be part of the process in a positive way every chance you get as we get through this.  Stay well.

My Leadership Journey to the Superintendency

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When Dr. Orzel first asked me to be a guest writer for her blog, I smiled at her and said, “Someday!” She has since approached me again, and so I am modeling a “safe to fail” mindset for my staff and now sharing my leadership story.  This year marks my 27th year in education. What I do know is how much I have learned since my first day of student teaching, and what I am continuing to learn every day!

I grew up in a small town of 500 people in the heart of Iroquois County in Crescent City, Illinois.  I lived a block and a half from the grade school and four blocks from the high school. The grade school and the high school were two separate school districts but had one superintendent and one principal that were shared between the two districts. My mom was the high school secretary my whole life. When I did not walk home after school, I would get to ride the bus over to the high school while my mom finished working.

This allowed me to “play” school in school from a very young age.  My grandma would send me inserts from the newspaper that had lessons in them. I would teach those lessons to my stuffed animals at home and then I would carry out those lessons on different chalkboards within many rooms at the high school. I would wander the halls of the high school watching the students practice for sporting events or practice musical instruments. When they finished and went home, I had free reign to play school in different rooms of the high school while my mom kept working.

I know many colleagues who have had a parent work in the school they attended. But how many colleagues have had the Superintendent (who was not your parent) stay in your house? Growing up, all it took was for wind to blow snow around and roads would be as fun as an ice skating rink! This led to the Superintendent being stranded and staying in my home. Since my mom was his secretary, my house became his home away from home. During snowstorms, he played card games and board games with me, he ate dinner with my family, watched TV with us. Then when it was safe, he would go home to his family. This was my introduction to a superintendent. (Of course, I never had to see him in his office.)

It was no surprise when it was time for college, I went into teaching — special education specifically. I was hired in the district where I student taught. It was four years into teaching that I decided to go back to acquire more special education certification. I was meeting with an advisor who had been a professor of mine during undergrad, and he asked me, “Have you ever considered going into administration?”  That question threw me for a loop — up to that point, I had never considered it. I gave his question some thought and consideration and, after a few weeks, went back and enrolled in administration courses for my master’s degree.

It was two years after I completed my master’s degree, at the age of 29, in the same district where I taught, when I had the opportunity to become an administrator. The principal who took the chance on me right out of college to become a teacher had become the Superintendent of the district and took a chance on me being the assistant principal of the middle school. My road to school leadership had begun.

Being a woman and 29, there were not many other women in leadership roles at this time. Luckily there was also a woman in an assistant principal position at the nearby high school who became a thought partner and a friend! We attended learning opportunities together, we discussed the challenges we were facing, and celebrations we were experiencing.

The next step in my leadership journey was the principalship. I had the pleasure of serving in this role in two districts. I was equally excited and scared to be hired as a principal. I no longer had the safety net of a colleague in the same building to bounce ideas off of. Just like being in the classroom, no coursework prepares you for the principalship. I am the first to admit that I learned a lot along my journey. I am grateful that I had many colleagues and mentors along the way to counsel, encourage and guide as challenging situations dawned my doorstep and as fantastic successes crossed my path. It was during this time period that I started to realize that my values and beliefs were the center and rock of my leadership. In order to lead others, you truly need to know yourself.

It was also during this time period that I began my doctoral program at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. The person that I entered the program as, was not who emerged from the program. A doctoral program truly changes the way you think, work, and view situations that happen within the education system. This is also where I found more colleagues who have become some of the colleagues you can call to troubleshoot any situation at any time day or night!

My leadership journey then continued with central office positions. What an eye-opener! I loved everything about building leadership, but having the perspective from the district level was a perspective that I never fathomed! It allowed me to realize and actualize the impact I could make on the lives of children. Absolutely amazing!

I had opportunities to work with adult learning, programming that truly impacted the way that students learn and teachers teach, work with the community on initiatives, work with the board of education and work with building leadership on many topics and initiatives, work with a team.  It was in this position that I learned even more about who I was as a person and a leader. I learned more about perseverance, service leadership, feedback, course correction, and more importantly you do not know what you do not know! Reflection is key.

Then, it finally happened, the opportunity and blessing to find my fit in a district that reminds me of home. I found an opportunity to lead in a district that is all under one roof, where parents attended the school and have returned to the community to raise their children in the school they attended. Where everyone knows everyone!

All along the way there have been key people in my career who have been mentors, encouraged me to keep going, trust my gut, ask me questions to help me reflect. There have been people that have worked for me that have been so much smarter than me, and allowed me to learn so much from them! There have been so many mistakes that I have made along this journey, but one realization I had is if I had never made those mistakes, I would not have learned. I would not have been able to grow and expand, to change and develop, to continue to lead, and to model for others to begin their journey, whether it is what not to do, or what to aspire to do.

Dr. Amy Warke is the Superintendent of Schools in LaGrange-Highlands School District 106.

 

 

 

 

 

My Leadership Journey and My Earliest Memory

I’m proud to host this personal and powerful guest blog from my friend and colleague, Dr. Anthony McConnell.

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Anthony McConnell is the Superintendent of Schools at Deerfield Public Schools District 109 in Deerfield, IL. and the co-author of The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exceptional Schools. Anthony writes and speaks on school culture, innovative learning, and leadership.

 

It is interesting to think about our own personal leadership journeys. Until recently, I have mostly thought about my story in the sense of who my mentors were, how I became an administrator, and so on. However, the truth is that my leadership journey started long before I entered the field of education.

A popular question to ask of people is, “What is your earliest memory?”  It gets people talking and you can rest assured that the answers are almost always unique.

My earliest memory is helping my mother look for change around our trailer home. The memory comes to me as a game I was playing with my mom, seeing who could find what kind of change and where. The memory always begins with a vision of the plaid couch that I was digging my little hand into in search of pennies. We were digging for change so that we could scrounge up enough money to buy food.

That game I played with my mom yielded enough discovered change that we were able to eat that evening. I remember us walking down the country road on which we lived to the only store within miles. It was a simple general store made of wood, like something you would see in an movie about the old west. Our change finding efforts had allotted us enough money to purchase a can of biscuits, but only the biscuits, no butter, jam, meat or anything to go along with them.

I remember walking home through the country with the happiest feeling in my heart. We ate the biscuits that night with each other and talked about how good they were, just enjoying each other’s company.

As dire as this situation may seem to me today, or as it seemed to my mom 40 years ago, it doesn’t take the shine off the happiness of the memory. And this is undoubtedly where my leadership journey begins.

When I tell people I am from Kentucky they always ask me about Louisville, or Lexington, or horse farms and the Kentucky Derby. Although I know a bit about horses, I am undoubtedly not from that Kentucky. I am from the Kentucky that was 50 miles from the nearest interstate. The Kentucky of dirt roads and small forgotten towns with populations in the tens, maybe hundreds. The Kentucky where teachers at the local school were seen as the bourgeoisie because they had a college education and a steady income. Across the country today in states like Oklahoma, teachers are striking because they are so grossly underpaid, so imagine being so poor you thought an elementary school teacher in rural Kentucky in 1980 would be one of the richest people you would ever know.

My mother had me when she was 17 years old, just weeks after she graduated from high school. My father, just a year older than her, began working in the coal mines. They made a go of marriage for a while, but after two years they got divorced. I am sure it was not a complicated divorce, as they were so poor I was easily the only asset they needed to work out. It was then that my mother and I moved to the trailer down the country road that held my earliest memory.

I am sure the memory of digging for change is not as fondly remembered by my mother as it is  by me. For her, that memory came at a time when she was living in abject poverty and struggling to figure out how she was going to provide the next meal for her young son.

That earliest memory is the starting point of my life in a sense. But, it is the memories and experiences of what came next that undoubtedly shaped me into the person, father, and leader that I am today.

Over the next several years my mother raised me as a single parent. I watched her, determined not to let our story end down a backwoods county road, put herself through college. She would work full time, and some weeks more. When she wasn’t working, she would drive an hour each way to the local community college to take classes. She took classes during the day, at night, and on the weekends. Of course, I spent a lot of time in and out of in-home daycares or with my grandparents. But sometimes, she had to bring me along to her classes, particularly the ones that met on Saturdays. I remember sitting beside her in one of her nursing classes with my pencil and paper trying desperately to make sense of what the professor was saying. It could not have been easy for her to be in that class full of people and have to bring along her child. To try and pay attention and take notes while I asked questions and squirmed in my seat must have been a struggle. But, she never lost patience with me and whenever she was tending to me, she always had one eye on the professor. She never lost sight of her goal, to make a better life for us.

Eventually, my mother graduated from college and became a nurse. This allowed her to gain steady employment, and slowly but surely provide a better life for us. She eventually even got her masters degree and now, at nearly 60 years old, she runs a clinic in Kentucky as a nurse practitioner. Her clinic serves many people in the exact situation we were in when I was a child , the rural poor with a difficult path ahead and little support to help them.They offer near no-cost health care and never turn people away for lack of insurance or inability to pay. I am sure she is at times a hero to people, as she certainly was and is to me.

I think that I learned any leadership qualities I possess from my mother during this early time in my life. I cannot recall a time that my mom discussed leadership with me. Instead, she just showed me what leadership looked like in every step she took and in every stressful situation she turned into a happy memory for her son. I learned that leaders are humble, often quiet, rarely recognized, and never caught complaining.

But more than anything, I learned that the most important person we will ever lead is ourselves. I learned the best leaders do not make excuses, start with whatever they have, and simply put one foot in front of the other. And they do this while having empathy and compassion for everyone around them, all of whom are on their own journey.   

These lessons have obviously stuck with me, as almost 40 years later I did my doctoral research on the idea of self-leadership in school principals.

So while I have had amazing mentors and other leaders that have supported me in my career, I had no better teacher than my mother. She faced adversity and led through example so that I would have the opportunity to be the person I am today.

It is important and necessary that we recognize women in leadership, not only in education but in all industries. We must continue to argue and fight for more leadership opportunities for women and for equal pay for equal work. But, most importantly we must realize that strong female leaders are nothing new, they have been there all along. They are women just like my mother that through adversity and challenge refused to give up.   

Follow the Leader

Enjoy this blog from my friend and colleague, Dr. Jon Bartelt, Superintendent of Schools, Bloomingdale School District 13

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Much like “Simon Says”, “Follow the Leader” is a game from my youth and was utilized by many of my primary school teachers to get their class to line up.  Whatever the leader did or where they went, your role as the follower was to do exactly what the leader modeled. Is there no doubt in your mind that every student in my grade wanted a turn at being the leader?

As Superintendent of Bloomingdale School District 13, I get the opportunity to lead, but I also enjoy following from time to time.  I am fortunate to have many great leaders in my district; some have the titles and others do not (yet). What they have in common is the initiative to act for the purpose of collective growth.  This has been accomplished by school board members, PTO volunteers, administrators, teachers, custodians, and students. Leadership requires that you model your “why” for the greater good of the whole organization.

I was asked by Dr. Courtney Orzel to share some thoughts in her blog this week.  While thinking about this, I remembered being on a panel she organized to address our newest colleagues: first year superintendents from across the state.  When asked to dispense important advice, my first comment was to wear comfortable shoes. This was designed to accomplish two things: place a smile on most faces (we need to be joyful in our work) and to share that the best of us are not known for being the best at sitting behind our desks.  We have to be visible and present in our organization, so get out there and meet and greet those you lead.

If you know me well enough, you also know that this wasn’t the reason I brought up the example.   When I looked up at the crowd of eager leaders in front of me, I saw a lot of myself. I mean this not in a reflective way.  I mean I saw a lot of white males who were sitting in front of me; very qualified for their jobs and validated by a local board of education with at least a three year contract.  Where were the women and minority candidates?

In my over 50 years of life and nearly 30 years in education, most spent as an administrator, women have been instrumental in leading me to the point where I am today.  My mother taught me my first lessons, prepared me for the formal school experience, and provides a base of verbal and emotional support I still enjoy. My wife has been my best friend and companion and is the most skilled instructor I have ever seen.  My four daughters never shy away from teaching me something new, even at the expense of the last brown hairs on my head. However, throughout my formal school experience, there have been female leaders who have been essential to my growth.

Mrs. Jean Boyle taught me to read and write; Mrs. Patricia Boylston was patient and determined to help me learn the essentials of mathematics, and all the way to Dr. Beverly Kasper who was my dissertation chair.  All of these leaders I have mentioned may not have been administrators, but they sure led me to greater places of learning and growth. In fact, one truth of education from my childhood stands true today: most of the teachers in the elementary and middle schools are women.  So why aren’t these leaders being encouraged to take on administrative roles?

I understand that some female educators choose the path that does not include an administrative role in their future.  But I have a tough time believing that there were not more viable candidates being considered for superintendent roles who were experienced female educators.  Why do boards of education select a white male with qualified female candidates available to lead their schools?

In my professional learning network, I continue to grow and learn as a leader largely as a result of female leaders.  Among those who I lean on include Dr. Orzel, Dr. Lindsay Hall, Dr. Melissa Kaczkowski, Dr. Teresa Lance, Dr. Karen Sullivan, Dr. Monica Schroeder, Dr. Tina Halliman, and the list goes on.  These women have confronted difficult problems and have addressed them successfully for the benefit of the children in the communities they serve. Each of them would be great leaders in any community.  I know there are more women and minority educators who just need the opportunity to serve a school district as superintendent to demonstrate their greatness.

So what do we do?

There are several options: support the IASA Women in Leadership program.  Look inside your own organizations and provide opportunities for both women and minority educators to lead events and provide useful feedback to them.  Encourage those women to attend the IASA Aspiring Superintendent’s Academy to engage in meaningful growth activities designed to lead them into this role.  Finally, talk to your school boards about their formal school experiences. Help them realize the role of female teacher leaders in their growth. It is not much different than “follow the leader.”  Is there no doubt in your mind that every female and/or minority candidate for a superintendent vacancy wants a turn at being the leader?

Let’s work together to make that happen.

Jon Bartelt is the Superintendent of Schools in Bloomingdale School District 13

 

The Little Things

Someone recently told me, “You need to do another blog.  It’s been awhile.”  I said, “Why? No one actually reads it.”  And then I reminded myself that when I started this journey that the blog was more for my own reflection and to share my leadership journey – and even if it helped not only me, but one other person think, reflect, grow- that would be amazing.

Ever notice the times when people show true gratitude toward you?  It is rarely after something big…often it happens after the most minor of things.  It was a long week, but a week of little moments that I realized made a large difference.  I think as educators we’re constantly beating ourselves up about how BIG of an impact we make- or don’t make.

This week is a prime example.  First day back from break and I talked to several staff at Institute about a new emergency tool we are putting in place.  One actually stopped me in the hall and said- I just appreciate that you actually are here and talk to us and give us a chance to ask you questions.  WHAT?  I’m thinking- I’m just doing my job…but to this person- I gave them face time that they wanted and needed.  So small for me.  So big in his/her mind.  It made me wonder:

  • How often are we giving others in our organization “face time?” 
  • What do our students need? 
  • What does our staff need? 
  • What does our community need?

Second example: I met with students this week and asked them what they loved about our district and what they wanted to see changed.

One student said she felt so important – like the “President of the School”- another said, “I just can’t believe we get to give these ideas.”  I received emails from both parents AND teachers this week about how important our students felt being a part of this small process- and how one student couldn’t wait to put her new t-shirt on for her entire family!!

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Again- such a LITTLE gesture that has such a huge impact.

  • How are we giving students voice in our schools? 
  • What little things can we do in the classroom and school to give students a voice that could make a big difference? 

I see my teachers doing some pretty amazing things every day in this area…are you following #sd113a to check it out??

And today, I sat and watched our cheerleaders perform at some of the highest levels of competition that you could ever imagine at the state level.  And as we took home another state championship title, I watched students hug their teammates, coaches who had tears of pride and joy, and parents who braved near-blizzard conditions to see the performance.

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I sat quietly (for once 🙂 ) with both my middle school principal and my 5 year old daughter and took in the moment.  And, when we left, we had parents thanking US for being there- one couldn’t believe we were there if we didn’t have a child of our own on the team- yet, where else would we be?  Our families- our students- our staff- notice when we are there to support- and they appreciate our support when we are there.

It made me reflect:

  • What little signs of presence are we showing to our students? 
  • Staff?
  • Parents?
  • Community?

The bottom line?  Let’s stop thinking about these big, grandiose “plans” that we all must have to be making a difference in our organizations.  It comes down to the little things that really matter. 

What little things can you do next week when you go back to school to make a big difference?

“It’s Ok…”

Excited to host a guest blogger from my district…Maria Papiez, Instructional Coach at River Valley School.  Thank you, Maria, for reminding all of us that…It’s OK!

I often think to myself, “If I could give myself or any other woman out in the world ONE piece of advice, what would it be?” I think I finally have the answer and it lies in 2 tiny little words- IT’S OK!

Principal, teacher, instructional coach, superintendent, wife, mom, no matter what the title, each day is filled with struggles and challenges. No matter what role you have I think these two words can help you.

For the teachers whose days are filled with lesson planning, grading, teaching, motivating, the list goes on. IT’S OK! Don’t sweat the tiny part of your lesson you accidently skipped. You taught young minds, molded them, made them better people, and they will never know that you made a mistake…nor would they care even if they knew.  

For the principal who has to take a difficult parent phone call… IT’S OK… this too shall pass and know you were coming from a good place. Maybe in the moment it doesn’t feel good but maybe it’s the one thing that will make a difference in the long run.

For the wife/mom that doesn’t get the “instagram worthy” dinner on the table instead brings home takeout? IT’S OK! Your family ate dinner and they love you for who you are not what you put on the table. And let’s be real…Panda Express is just as good as the 50 ingredient orange chicken you saw someone post online.

I don’t think it is said enough- IT’S OK… to make mistakes, to try new things and not be successful, to not have all the answers all the time, to say no, to put yourself first once in a while or to even cry when you really need it.

We hold ourselves to the highest standards; what is great to someone else may only rank as average to ourselves. We all know that we are our own hardest critics but I am here to tell you that IT’S OK to not be perfect all the time!

No matter what you do give 100% each day and if it doesn’t go exactly as planned tell yourself IT’S OK!! And if you need to hear it from someone else here you go – IT’S OK!!!!!

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Maria Papiez is an Instructional Coach in SD113A.

Enhancing the Experience

I haven’t blogged in some time…doing this weekly is a challenge, but luckily I had some incredible leaders who have been guest blogging. (Who’s next??) I figured it was time to step up on my own blog and post again!

As we start this school year, we’re focusing on enhancing the experience. At Institute, I shared a personal story of taking my children to Disney this summer for the third time. It really was magical for them.

And as I went into bathrooms, stood at parades, walked the parks, I recognized that EVERYONE in the organization is HAPPY.

EVERYONE. It’s raining? Happy.

Picking up garbage? Happy.

Cleaning a bathroom? Happy.

Scooping up vomit? Happy.

This doesn’t happen by chance. Organizations are plagued with negativity; and as schools, like Disney- there’s no room for it. Everyone in the organization matters and makes a difference- from secretaries to teachers to custodians to lunchroom supervisors to volunteers- every single person creates that experience.

So as we begin this year, let’s think about what tangible things we can do to enhance our experience. I saw online that our parents were nervous about what happens to their kids when they get off the bus.  How do they know where to go? Who will help them? As educators, we have a responsibility to fill in these gaps of nervousness and put our families and students at ease…because as a mom- I get that feeling all too well.

There is no greater profession than education and no better experience than education. Let’s all enhance the experience for every child, every colleague, every parent, every community member this year and make it our best year yet!

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Guest Blog: In honor of the Royal Wedding…

I’m thrilled to be able to host Susan Wilson, Superintendent in Blue Ridge CUSD 18, as a guest blogger.  What a journey!  Follow Susan on Twitter at @swilson817

“School leadership is a lonely position, and, I think, especially for women. It is easy to get caught up in the expectations for superintendents, and lose a little of your own personality in the process.”                – Susan Wilson

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In honor of the Royal Wedding…

As a young teen in the 1970s, my plan was either marry Prince Charles or David Cassidy. But my fairy tale took a very different turn…

I attended the local community college for my freshman year of college and became interested in industrial psychology. I was told that women should not wear hard hats (really?), but should be nurses or teachers. I transferred to Olivet Nazarene University, and tried nursing. That did not work out (I don’t take orders well), and my advisor suggested school psychology. He set up a field experience in Kankakee and I was hooked. After graduation I headed to Eastern Illinois for my master’s degree, and then to Decatur for a school psych internship.

My first job (1987) was with Rural Champaign County Special Education Cooperative, where I was assigned to Tolono Unit 7, a rural consolidated school district. My colleague and mentor Kathy Kearney-Grobler showed me how to assertively navigate the people and politics of a job. She was and is role model and dear friend who continues to teach me that it’s okay to be a strong woman and still maintain your sense of who you are.

I became active in the state school psychology organization, and served on ISPA’s governing board as publicity chair. I soon enrolled in UIUC’s school admin program with the goal of becoming a special education director. Through some of the discussions and field experiences I began to develop an interest in the principalship.

About this time (1990), I met and married my husband, David. He had come to UIUC to study biochemistry. We attended the same church – I was the organist and he was the pianist. We have made beautiful music together ever since…In 1991 we moved to the Chicago suburbs when David got a research position at University of Chicago. I took a school psychology position in Villa Park District 45, and continued in the UIUC doctoral cohort. The birth of our daughter, Lane, was well-timed for late-June, so I didn’t require a maternity leave. Our 2nd child was less well-planned for February, 19 months later, and I took off about 3 ½ weeks. David’s research position lost its funding at about the same time, so we decided he would stay home with the girls. Family and friends didn’t always understand our parenting arrangement, but it worked well for us. Our girls attended a preschool that referred repeatedly to “mother helpers,” at least until David came along.

His presence changed their handbook language to “parent volunteer.”

About 6 months after our daughter Emily was born, an assistant principal position became available within my district. I did not get the job, and was told there was 1) concern that I would not be able to give the job all it required because of my young family, and 2) I was taking a non-traditional route to administration since I had only been a school psych. The following year, however, I was hired to be assistant principal at an elementary school. My principal, Dennis Gagnon, took the time to teach me, and gave me a wide variety of responsibilities, that prepared me well for a principalship. I also developed close friendships with strong women in our school, that continue today. Maree and Denise were single mothers who knew their stuff and were not afraid to stand up for what was right.

I was turned down for a principalship in my district, but was hired as principal of the PreK-3 grade building for Blue Ridge School District. BR serves 3 small towns midway between Champaign and Bloomington – Farmer City, Mansfield, and Bellflower. My grandparents and extended family had farmed and lived in each of the communities. Our girls were 6 and 8 years old when we made the move. David began teaching at Parkland College where he continues to this day. My job was demanding, but rewarding.

I was impressed that the district was led by a woman superintendent who had previously been a high school principala rarity in central Illinois.

I discontinued the doctoral program when pregnant with our second child – it was just too much for me at the time. After I returned to central Illinois I applied to re-enter, but was turned down for admission – they did not feel I was a serious student because I had dropped out previously. About that time EIU started an EdS cohort in Champaign. I joined and earned my Superintendent endorsement – never thinking I would lead a district. It was a convenient program, and I made many professional friendships with area administrators.

In my 10th year as principal at BR, my superintendent notified me that he was taking a job out west, and asked if I would serve as interim superintendent. The title “interim” gave me a chance to see if I liked the job, and for the board to see if they wanted me for the position. As it turned out, I found I enjoyed the job, particularly the financial part. The Board hired me as full superintendent that December. In the eight years since, we’ve passed a building referendum, planned and constructed a major school addition, installed geothermal, conducted a major remodel in another school, and implemented a 1-to-1 technology program. We’ve managed to maintain stable and growing programs for our students, raise our graduation rate to one of the highest in the area, and all in the face of state economic stressors. It’s been a wild ride, but very satisfying.

School leadership is a lonely position, and, I think, especially for women. It is easy to get caught up in the expectations for superintendents, and lose a little of your own personality in the process. Last fall, I approached my neighboring superintendent, Dr. Lindsey Hall, about getting together with other women superintendents in our area. She and I put feelers out and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Our group, Illinois SuperWomen, has now met twice and is planning our summer retreat. It has been a true joy to get to know others better and provide mutual support and encouragement.

I am two years from retirement and working to finish my long-time goal of a doctorate. I hope to transition into teaching future administrators, and maybe someday be a doting grandmother.

And my happily ever after? Definitely not of the traditional sort, but so far, so good.

Respectfully submitted,

Susan E. Wilson

Superintendent, Blue Ridge CUSD 18

The Journey: Celebrate Everyone’s Story

I’m excited to host a guest blog from Amber Heffner, Executive Director of ICE (Illinois Computing Educators).  Amber’s story is powerful and encourages ALL leaders to share our stories!

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I am honored to have been asked by Dr. Orzel to be a guest on her blog. When Dr. Orzel reached out and asked me to share my story about my journey in being where I am today and the successes and challenges of females in the profession, my first thought was will anyone be interested in my story?

And then it occurred to me, we need to celebrate everyone’s story…empathy and understanding of every individual’s journey is the foundation of what seems to be missing in our political climate today and as educators and leaders, we can make changes and impact the trajectory of that climate on a daily basis, if we listen and share our own stories.

As I began reflecting on my journey, I realized that I was truly fortunate to have grown up at a time when there were female role models who made significant impacts in society. I am a true benefactor of Title IX which allowed enrollment of women in athletics programs and professional schools. It’s hard to imagine that just a year before I was born, women were not allowed these opportunities.

As a young athlete, I can still remember going and buying my first pair of high tops…and having to purchase them in the men’s department since they did not make high tops for women. I can remember watching my PE teacher count the number of pull-ups the boys were doing and having to push the issue to give me the same opportunity (and yes, I made sure that I did at least one more pull-up than the best boy had). I remember how excited I was in 1981 when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed  to be the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Every opportunity I had to research and write about this major milestone, I was sure to take. And then, in 1983, Dr. Sally K. Ride become the first American woman to be sent into space and in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be nominated to be vice president on a major party ticket. It was an amazing time to be a woman, but I still remember questioning, why it was just now happening? 

I remember the words of my Grandma telling me over and over that I can do whatever I want to do if I just put my mind to it and that being a female did not have to hold me back. Thinking about this now, I am so glad she shared this with me…but I cannot imagine using these words with my own daughter today. Shouldn’t it just be understood that ANYONE can accomplish what they put their mind to?

My Grandma, is without a doubt, the single most influential person in my journey to be where I am today as a professional female leader. My Grandma was a determined woman who in the early 1940’s attended college and received her degree in Music Education. She was a living example of what it meant to be elegant, determined and successful. Tho she majored in education, her true calling was business. After meeting my Grandpa and starting a family, they had the opportunity to purchase a business and begin a new journey. In the early 1960’s my grandparents purchased a grain elevator that became the family business for over 40 years. The role modeling I saw from my Grandma as a professional businesswoman still impacts me today. The experiences I had in being part of a family-owned business have taught me the importance of customer service, working hard, servant leadership and that no matter what, always find the positive.

There are so many women and men who have impacted me throughout my journey in becoming the Executive Director of ICE, and their support and encouragement continue to impact me today. I was influenced at an early age to understand and see that women can and do make good leaders.

I was encouraged by my parents to go and do what I wanted to do and to always be thankful to those around me. I was supported by teachers and coaches throughout my education and then by mentors as I entered the workforce. My journey as a coach, teacher, school counselor, administrator and now Executive Director of ICE could not have happened without the dedication of women I never even knew and those I was fortunate to know. It could not have happened without men who were willing to support those females and the men in my own life who saw the strength and talents I had as an individual and encouraged me to reach for the stars.

I know my journey is not over and I know that along the way I will continue to grow and be influenced by others, both females and males. And I encourage each one of us to reflect on the impact others have made on us and remember the impact that we as educators and leaders have on the future.

– Amber Heffner is the Executive Director of ICE

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“Get Out From Behind That Desk; Dream and Inspire…LEAD!”

I love the fact that 40+ people have reached out to me with their interest in guest blogging.  People love reading leadership stories, and this one in particular is very special to me…On the eve before the last day of our school year, I’m proud to host a guest blog from one of my very own teachers, Adrienne Landgrave, who sent this to me out of nowhere…she gets it!

Leadership is not about the “title”…..leadership is about inspiring others to be more, do more and dream big!

I LOVE that Adrienne stepped up and courageously wrote this blog and gave me the opportunity to post her story.  I’m the lucky one!

Stay tuned because I have 2 other posts waiting in the wings to post over the weekend.  So impressed with these inspirational stories!

Leadership – From my side of the desk

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I wasn’t born to be a leader.  Middle child. Two brothers. I never had aspirations to lead. My Dad was a high school teacher.  Mr. Janusek was my favorite teacher- junior high school band. Both of these men loved and cared for children and I wanted to emulate them.

So, I became a teacher placing me in my own little leadership role. Whoa.

In my classroom the kids call me the President, Queen, Princess, Teacher.  I’m their leader.

They follow me to the library, music, PE, the office, recess, bus line, the bathroom! I’m always at the the front of the line leading my little friends. I lead lessons, discussions, interventions, and parent/teacher conferences.

My leadership role is very different from that of an administrator.  It is never a lonely job.  How can it be with all of those inquisitive little people in my room needing my attention…all the time.  

I have been a classroom teacher for 32 years. When I entered my first classroom back in 1986 I was ready to change the world and lead my new students into educational bliss.  It didn’t take long for my priorities to change that day as I lost my voice due to overuse and couldn’t speak for the next three days. Survival of the fittest. Fortunately I figured it out.  Isn’t that what leaders do?

Throughout my career I have had the opportunity to teach over 800 young minds from Illinois to North Carolina, Connecticut to Vermont.  I have also had the opportunity to work under a variety of leaders and the vast differences in their leadership styles. Suffice it to say, I would not be the leader in the classroom that I am today had I not had the experiences with any of those administrators; good, bad and ugly.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said, ‘With the new day comes new strengths and new thoughts.” Words I chose to live by when things got tough. The one thing I did learn is that I never wanted to be in their role. I am married to a principal. Enough said.

I love being in the classroom. I love leading my students on their journey, helping them find their way. And while I cannot take credit for the adults they become, I can proudly boast that I played a small part in leading them during their first years as students. Their paths have taken them to amazing and wonderful places: The London School of Economics, Rutgers University, Yale, and the United States Naval Academy.  

They have become doctors, lawyers, military personnel, parents, and wonderful adults. Many have stayed in touch through letters and emails. One inspired me to become a Blue and Gold Officer with the United States Naval Academy enabling me to encourage and lead exceptional young men and women to become the future leaders of our country.

The student led the teacher. Lucky me.

Education has been my life.  My husband’s life. My Dad’s life.  I can’t remember a day when we weren’t discussing kids, curriculum, school stuff.  No matter the conversation, it always comes back to how situations were solved, needs met, goals achieved, and children were loved. 

John Quincy Adams said it best:  If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, you are a leader.

Get out from behind that desk; dream and inspire!  LEAD!

– Adrienne Landgrave is a 2nd grade teacher at Oakwood School in Lemont-Bromberek SD113A.