On Point

What extraordinary leadership looks like

Every Monday morning, Dr. Vince Janney sends out a motivational message to the faculty and staff at Houston Academy (HA) reminding them to be positive and to make a positive impact. Founded in 1970, the Dothan, Alabama, independent school is the only one in the region that focuses on college preparation and global education, grades 3P-12th.

If the mantle of “with great power comes great responsibility” holds true in the K-12 landscape, Dr. Janney, the school’s headmaster, is on the forefront of leading that charge. The motivational messages are a reminder that the mandate as an educator is to transform the lives of your students. “We must be cognizant of the fact that we have been entrusted with our nation’s greatest resource—its children. We must instill within them the knowledge, skills and capacities, as well as the habits of mind, body and spirit to be responsible citizens in a global society. We must help them not merely to survive, but thrive.”

“We must be cognizant of the fact that we have been entrusted with our nation’s greatest resource—its children. We must help them not merely to survive, but thrive.”

— Dr. Vince Janney, Headmaster, Houston Academy

Operating within an ever-changing K-12 landscape—one being pulled in a number of different directions for a variety of reasons—Dr. Janney’s reminder is a good wake-up call to the task at hand. It all starts with leadership. Educators like Dr. Janney understand that if there are leadership gaps, they often come when leaders do not fully understand the skills needed to be successful and to meet the challenges of the position over time.

Too often, Dr. Janney says, educators don’t know what they don’t know, nor what they need to know next week, next month or next year. As a result, some of the most important characteristics they need to be effective include the willingness to ask questions and seek development opportunities, versatility, creativity, flexibility, collaboration and a high emotional intelligence. “Having a mindset focused upon having a positive impact is one way we can live a happier and more mindful existence. We should actively seek opportunities to serve and to leave the world a better place than it was when we arrived.”

This year, the theme at Houston Academy is “Find the Beauty.” The school’s leadership team recognized they wanted the campus to be a place characterized by positive energy—one where students felt comfortable and safe, but without ignoring the challenges that occur.  

“Leaders in the education system must recognize we would be well served to carefully consider what we teach and how we teach it,” Dr. Janney says. “This is the only way students will be prepared to succeed in our rapidly changing world. Many of the jobs students will be doing will not even exist, so we must focus on helping them hone skills like creativity/innovation, global competency, technology facility, emotional intelligence and ethics. To do that effectively, we must design immersive, perhaps project-based, lessons that incorporate technology, collaboration, and real-world problem solving.”

The change you seek…

Manuel Hernandez’s Coming to America (CTA) educational program continues to impact second language learners in Florida. As a Language Arts Teacher for the Florida Department of Education, his program has empowered teen immigrants to become successful, proactive and career-ready youths. Hernandez, also an author and Adjunct Professor at Valencia College in Orlando, honed his craft teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in New York City.

Inspiring and leading such a groundbreaking program takes initiative—something Hernandez believes there must be more of in today’s K-12 environment. “Transforming curriculum is a unique and critical process. Citing the book, “Curricular Transformations: Traditional and Emerging Voices in the Academy,” he says that transformation is an “informal and formal procedure through which knowledge within the curriculum is continually produced, created, and expanded by a wide range of stakeholders acting within a broader social and historical context. K-12 leaders are the essential participants in the educational process and interpret curriculum every day.”

As part of the academic journey, Hernandez believes educators must adhere to strict standard-based requirements to engage students, make a difference, and to simultaneously meet the demands and expectations of administrators and district policies. Too many teachers, he fears, are apprehensive of sharing their innovations because they fear punitive measures.

Hernandez cites a three-step plan he used to strategically transform a curriculum. First, he aligned his day-to-day lesson planning according to the district’s curriculum blueprint. Second, he wrote a scientifically based plan recommending how to simultaneously use the blueprint and integrate innovations. Third, he presented it to his administrator in a pre-class observation session. As a result, his ideas were observed, documented and evaluated successfully.

Finally, when the feedback came back with constructive criticism, he shared it with colleagues from other schools and returned it to the district for further revision. “When I was called by the district to discuss the proposal, I knew I had struck gold,” Hernandez recalls. “As a result, I was asked to work with a team of teachers to transform the curriculum in my subject area.”

Hernandez says the key to success like this—and leadership overall—is to embrace your identity: You are educators first, second and always. “You must find a way to view yourself as an optimist in a system that faces the greatest challenges of all time. The tug-of-war is not a battle in the classroom, but it affects the school community in general. The system is spiraling down, but teachers can save it.”

“You must find a way to view yourself as an optimist in a system that faces the greatest challenges of all time.”

— Manuel Hernandez, Language Arts Teacher, Florida Department of Education

Be bold. Be brave. Be a learner.

Bryan J. Williams, Ed.D., still remembers the challenge that a former superintendent gave to him and the entire school system: be bold, be brave and be a learner. As the community superintendent for the Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, Williams embraces the challenge in his role of supporting 16 principals and campuses.  

As a leader in today’s K-12 climate, Williams believes that educators must refocus their sphere of influence in a variety of ways. First, they must continue to advocate for every student. As schools become more diverse, it is important to meet the needs of and improve outcomes for every student. Second, leaders must share the stories about how having a positive impact on the lives of students and families matters.

“When you examine the narrative of public education, it appears to be bleak and gloomy,” Williams says. “But there are outstanding, talented and dedicated educators making a difference in the lives of students every day. We must make it a priority to promote and highlight the positive news happening in our schools.”

Third, leaders must continue to advocate for public education and educate local, state and national elected officials on the impact their decisions will have or have had on students, finance and testing/accountability. “Leaders must continue to be knowledgeable and engaged in advocacy to improve the lives of students, teachers and the community,” he says.

“Leaders must continue to be knowledgeable and engaged in advocacy to improve the lives of students, teachers and the community.”

— Bryan J. Williams, Ed.D., Community Superintendent, Spring Branch Independent School District

Finally, Williams believes school districts must do a better job of valuing and retaining great educators and recruiting, and preparing the next generation of educators and leaders who will sustain our school systems. “We have to embrace the idea that our teaching force is shrinking. We need to rethink what we are doing to recruit the next generation into the profession and what we are doing to retain the teachers who have decided to stay.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.” These challenging and controversial times ahead for K-12 will continue to require leadership that exhibits empathy, compassion and integrity.