Using an “all parts create the whole” philosophy, a principal shares her thoughts on effective and uplifting school leadership

How a former music teacher approaches school leadership and learning

Using an “all parts create the whole” philosophy, a principal shares her thoughts on effective and uplifting school leadership

The pandemic has taught us that change is inevitable, but being prepared can set a school apart. It’s important to bring together research and outside learning tools to a team that is always striving and driving in the same direction. As a principal, I’m enthusiastic about what lies ahead for our school and district after a year of adjustments.

Like the characters in the Ron Clark book, Move Your Bus, we are all independently and collectively moving together to reach a positive objective. As a former music teacher, I see it as an orchestrated process where all members, from school leadership to teachers to custodial staff, realize their role, importance, and dynamic in the school’s overall symphony. It takes communication, organized teamwork, and a belief in modern data-driven approaches to bring forth learning success.

A school is an orchestra

I spent 10 years as a music instructor and director before moving into administration. Coming from the music world, you have a different vantage point centered around all parts creating the whole. More than anything else, this perspective has left a lasting impact on my school leadership style.

Like most public schools, our school community consists of a large School Leadership Team (SLT) composed of 18 people from all walks of life, each bringing their point of view and lens of observation. As a school leader, I make decisions after hearing multiple voices. Looking at leadership from an orchestrated perspective has always helped me understand the dynamics of a team.

Data-driven decisions and teacher buy-in

Orchestration is important not only in school leadership, but also in instruction. Educators of all roles need to stay on top of new ideas and technologies to offer the best learning opportunities. One area I’m particularly passionate about is data-driven instruction. Over the last year and a half, our school has focused on educating the educators on the value of data as applied to the learning process. I remain impressed at the overall teacher buy-in and enthusiasm for data-driven change.

This year we’ve introduced a new method of assessment called aimswebPlus. The assessment analyzes and reports on different aspects of reading. After administering our first exam this year, I analyzed student scores to find any patterns. It became apparent that some of our children excelled in two aspects of reading, but did not have strong enough vocabulary knowledge to demonstrate solid reading comprehension. This lack of vocabulary knowledge was holding our students back, much like an orchestra that could successfully play a few songs, but could not read music well enough to learn and remember new songs. I knew something needed to change.

With the help of our Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education, Dr. Mary Foster, we decided a brand-new approach was in order. Dr. Foster had previously brought InferCabulary to our district, and we decided to step up our commitment and get an account for every child. Now every student gets direct vocabulary instruction using a visual method that makes sense to them. Because InferCabulary requires active student engagement–what sparks kids’ creativity–it seemed to be a great option. Our teachers could use it as a classroom tool for large and small group instruction, and students could access it on their own. 

Our teachers started teaching the program using videos, and once the kids got the hang of it and began using the program themselves, it became the talk of Oakside Elementary. It was such a big deal that I shared the enthusiasm in our school newsletter. Students simply love doing the climbs, puzzles, and semantic reasoning to figure out the common denominator between pictures and definitions that are part of the program. One teacher even pulled me aside and reenacted her students’ excitement when they made a connection between a word in class and a word they had learned through InferCabulary. 

Newsletter as an anchor

A school functions best when all the parts act as a whole. Success is the result of every member of the community playing their role in a harmonious exchange. Because communication is critical to ensure cohesion between school members, parents, and other local stakeholders, we publish a newsletter called the Oakside Owl Hoot.  This newsletter is shared weekly with staff and monthly with parents. It is an anchor for our school and my particular passion project. It is the lifeline for most people at our school and it is shared in English and Spanish for our families, enabling the majority of the community to quickly obtain information. 

At Oakside, we are thrilled with how our school is humming along. Students are learning, teachers are implementing evidence-based approaches, and we look forward to analyzing data to inform decisions for next year. We will continue to communicate clearly with parents, teachers, and the community. This year, despite some of its challenges, has been a hoot and pleasure. Along with the vision and leadership of our district’s Superintendent, Dr. David Mauricio, and Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education, Dr. Mary Foster, I look forward to more amazing things to come.

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