I’ve learned over the years that school leadership is often the one factor that can make or break a teacher’s decision to stay in the classroom. I’ve seen even the most committed beginning educators leave teaching because they had a bad experience with a weak or unsupportive principal.
I came to teaching reluctantly, but I had just the opposite experience.
I landed at a school with an outstanding principal named Ann Edge, who loved her students and empowered her staff. We worked together to create a nurturing environment where students flourished. They wanted to come to school because it was where they found sustenance and stability. Mrs. Edge knew each of her children by name, and she kept up with both their mistakes and their successes.
The Way to Lead Is to Be Involved
Through her, we learned that the way to lead is by being involved. Mrs. Edge taught us the value of “million dollar smiles” even on days when challenges were great.
She made all of us feel special; she ferreted out our strengths and managed to put us all in positions where they could be used. It was this quality of hers that allowed me most to grow. She recognized my determination and my willingness to try new things, but better, she took the risk of believing in me.
Often other experienced teachers serve as important leaders to those who are just starting their careers. I had the amazing good fortune of working alongside a teacher who had been my own fifth-grade “special science” teacher, so many years before: Ann Robbins.
Along with Mrs. Edge, she encouraged and inspired me to take on the position of schoolwide enrichment teacher, and I was able to broaden our students’ experiences through the use of an innovative satellite program.
Our students chatted with astronauts who showed them the inside of a spacecraft and answered those questions only children ask: “What happens when you go to the bathroom?” In 1993, one of my groups interviewed researchers and scientists who had lived through the first mission in Biosphere 2 and learned about the effects on several species and systems.
Our students wrote and talked to countless authors, including the favorite of our third graders, Robert Munsch, who shared his brand new “Stephanie’s Ponytail,” which featured a main character to whom they could relate. Fifth graders watched experts hiking at the Grand Canyon and asked questions about the composition of rocks. Others “participated” on night river rides on the Amazon and steamboat rides on the Mississippi.
All this did not come easily: Mrs. Edge joked that she needed to have a bed installed in my classroom. Working together, our staff expanded on these experiences to use them in creative ways that inspired and extended real learning to our students. As a result, we were recognized for the successful academic growth of our students in spite of the odds they faced.
The Milken Award
I had not yet been at the school a decade when I was named a Milken Educator. At the time, I had never heard of the Milken Awards or the Milken Family Foundation. Mrs. Edge had called me at home a couple of days before to ask if I could come in to do a schoolwide program. This request was not unusual because we often had visitors come to learn about how we were using the satellite program, so I never thought twice about it.
On the day of the program, I was too busy working the equipment to notice all the guests who had gathered. When my name was called, I literally went weak in the knees. What an amazing reward for just believing that we could help our children do whatever they wanted to do!
For years afterwards, we were the “school that had won the Milken Award.” This was something that lifted the entire school’s sense of accomplishment, and something that I felt strongly must be honored by a continued sense of commitment.
The award created even more drive to inspire and to spark the young minds in our school, and we pushed even harder than before for our students to beat the odds and break the boundaries of their circumstances so that we would still be worthy of the merit we had received.