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.