Sunday, August 5, 2012

Leader with Heart

From the moment our son, Paul, was born almost eight years ago, my goals as an educator began to evolve, grow and expand. I instantly wanted to do whatever I could to keep Paul safe, happy and fulfilled on every level. Initially it was difficult to see how this unconditional love for Paul would manifest itself in my classroom and shape me as an educator. However, six months later, after I began my first building administrative position, that parental love quickly molded me, impacted me and became the anchor for my approach to being an instructional leader... a leader with heart! I made it my goal to keep my students safe, happy and fulfilled on every level. I made it my objective to keep our staff safe, happy and fulfilled on every level. I made it my mission to blend all the theoretical stuff I had learned in "educational administration school" with what I knew made sense to me - yes, being logical, practical and rational were all critical keys to my success as a leader (they help me shift those monkeys and put out those fires) but without heart and love my success, our success as an educational community, would be non-existent.

So, what does leading with heart look like? What are the little tangible things that leaders with heart do on a regular basis? How does a leader with heart differ from the typical building leader? Although I am certainly no expert on the matter and have done no research and have no proof that the things I am about to share will actually work for everyone, these are the little things I do because I love being an instructional leader and leading with my heart is all I know how to do (sometimes it can make things challenging)...

1) I know the names of every one of our students; these children are so incredibly important to me and I feel that if I can say hello to them by name when I pass them in the hallway or sit next to them in their classroom or play handball with them at recess, they can begin to understand that they are all very special to me!

2) I know as much as I can about each staff member (whatever they are comfortable sharing) and their lives beyond the school building; as a parent it has become crystal clear to me that many of the things that happen in my personal life directly shape and impact the decisions I make in my professional life; by knowing our staff, on a somewhat personal level, I am better able to understand each person's perspectives, decisions and needs, which are critical to the success of our school! For example, if one of our teachers gets a call from her child's school that her son is sick, then my priority becomes arranging coverage for that teacher so she can leave immediately and go be with her child because that is where she is needed.

3) I announce the birthdays of each student and staff member during our daily morning announcements; I write a card for each staff member and invite each student down to my office to pick out a little birthday prize. Neither the cards nor the birthday prizes are a big deal (so glad places like Oriental Trading exist) but I do believe they mean something to the people on the receiving end - they feel special; they feel acknowledged; they feel connected.

4) I am visible everyday to everyone (at least that is my goal until the administrative stuff gets in the way - but I limit that too and will address that later). I am in the classrooms, the lunchroom, at recess, in the gym and in the hallways all day. I literally avoid my office because I want to know what is going on in our school, in our classrooms, in the lives of our students and staff. By being connected to the daily happenings in our building, I am able communicate our successes from within certain spaces to the community at large!

5) Honest, clear and consistent communication are critical keys to leading with heart!

  1. I write a weekly newsletter for the staff, Fast Friday Focus (thank you Todd Whitaker for this amazing idea and many others that I learned from reading What Great Principals Do Differently - a must read for all instructional leaders - check out these other materials), where I spotlight all the amazing things happening in our school. I try and spotlight different staff members each week and their varied instructional techniques and approaches because that type of sharing helps foster a professional learning community. It is not about someone being better than anyone else; it is about sharing great techniques, resources and learning experiences because these are the things that will help us all grow! 
  2. I also maintain this type of communication with the families of our children. Our district has gone paperless and 99% of our communication is via email so I email the parents at least 2-3 times a week. My emails weren't very "meaty" at first - I would spotlight upcoming PTA events, school-wide activities and other such stuff; but as time went on, I realized this regular email to the parents (known as the Cantiague Daily Update) could be a powerful vehicle for spotlighting all the amazing things our kids were learning each day with their teachers! As a parent, I knew that when Paul got home all he wanted to talk about was lunch and recess, which was great, but I wanted to know what he was learning in math, what he was reading in class or what he was creating in writing workshop, which was like pulling teeth to hear about. So, now, my emails still include details about all the upcoming events and stuff but they also contain information about specific things our children are doing and learning on each grade level. I don't spotlight each grade level in every email but, within a two week period, I try and spotlight each grade level at least once. This information has garnered a lot of feedback from the parents - many of them have thanked me for sharing the specifics of the teaching and learning happening in our building because they are now able to engage their children about these experiences.
6) I try and bring people together on a regular basis. In regards to the kids, we are fortunate enough to have an auditorium that holds about 450 people and since our school has only about 400 kids, we are able to all fit in there at once. Although we don't have whole school assemblies as regularly as I would like (a goal for this year), we do them periodically and they are critical to helping build community and fostering connections across grade levels! (If you don't have an auditorium, you can use the gym or the field or even the front lawn - the location is not as important as the practice). In regards to the staff, I try and host a few breakfasts and a luncheon throughout the year to bring everyone together in a comfortable and relaxed space. The daily pressures of being an educator, especially in this day and age, can be brutal so coming together to just eat, chat and laugh are crucial to sustaining the emotional well-being of each person in our building.

7) I like to leave handwritten notes for our various staff members on a regular basis. The note may thank them for an amazing lesson or for their efforts in helping a specific child or for sharing with colleagues or it may simply help put a smile on their face when things have been difficult. Whatever the goal or reason, a handwritten note can go a really long way! I try and write at least one note/card each week but this is not always easy to keep up. In an effort to save paper, I have also recently started using the Penultimate app to email "handwritten" notes to our teachers while I am in their classrooms or right after I have left - we are fortunate enough to have had our whole building become WiFi this year so I am able to use my iPad in many powerful ways! 

8) I try and lead by example. For instance, I am really passionate about learning, teaching and curriculum so I try and learn something new each day that I could share with our staff. Whether it is the reading and writing workshop models for literacy instruction or the power of using Twitter (check out this great blog post by my friend Brad Currie, who I never would have met without Twitter) for staff development, my goal is always to share what is current, powerful and what could impact our children in the classrooms. I am always reading, learning, exploring and doing because I want our school to be the best one on the planet for each child!

9) I block out "observation" time in my calendar throughout the week and I try and do all my administrative work (the paper pushing, email sending, etc.) either early in the morning before school starts or late in the afternoon when the day is over and most people are gone. It is so important to be visible in the school community and I feel strongly that the last place people should find me during the day is in my office. Ok, so sometimes I "get in trouble" with colleagues or supervisors because I didn't respond to an email fast enough (even though I do see every email on my iPhone) or didn't return a phone call immediately or am running late to a meeting but the bottom line is that my kids and staff come first and the administrative stuff can wait, even just for a little while. (I will say that being late to a meeting is not cool so I am really working on that piece because I need to be respectful of other people's time).

10) I love what I do! Simply put, aside from my family, I live for being an educator and instructional leader and my passion for education is something I wear on my sleeve! I want to be a part of a team that creates a school that any child, family or staff member would be proud to be apart of!

Well, this list could go on... I feel like there are a lot of other little things that I do in my daily work as a leader that are also really important but I think that the list above, especially #10, are the ingredients to my attempts to be a Leader with Heart each and every day! I am sure many of you out there do these things and a lot more because I believe that in order to be a successful educator one must inject a lot of heart in their daily work. So, please feel free to try something I shared here or please post a comment at the bottom of this blog where you share examples of the amazing things you do to be a Leader with Heart!         


  1. Great advice. If everyone was as thoughtful as you our schools would be the real happiest places on earth. Nice thoughts for all to lead by example, the best way.

  2. Tony-

    So many great examples of ways to create, and sustain relationships! From the teacher perspective, it is amazing to think of all the time you spend thinking along the same lines for students and families that you often forget that great leaders of learning are doing this as well.

    I hope you continue to reflect and post on these things that you do throughout the year. It will be interesting to hear what reflections you have based on the impact of your actions.

  3. Wow!
    Great post Tony. I can tell it was written with heart as week.
    You have given me much food for thought and many goals for myself.
    Thank you for writing and sharing your heartfelt message!

  4. Lorraine the librarianAugust 5, 2012 at 7:12 PM

    As someone who has the privilege as working with you, I can attest to all that you said. The tone of the building starts with you and we are ALL better for your leadership style. You make us want to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to make Cantiague the best it can be, and more importantly to make Us the best we can be.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Tony - really appreciate and resonate with your perspective.

  6. I have recently had the joy of connecting with you on Twitter and now discovering your amazing blog. I really love how you describe what you do with your staff and students - two things really really stood out for me (among a great number of excellent things!) and just highlight the educator and school leader you are - the fact that you remember the names of all the kids, that is so importnat for them to feel accepted and loved in an environment that welcomes them for a great amount of their time daily. If I taught at your school, the fact that you leave handwritten notes to the teachers, highlighting what they did well, giving them praise would be so so important to me. I would feel motivated everysingle day and that my work is appreciated!

    Fantastic work!

    Best wishes,

  7. Powerful, powerful, powerful. A huge reminder that what we do and how we are present means oceans to our communities. It's not just talking about a sharing a vision for our children, it's living it. Thank you for sharing this.


  8. Appreciate the recommendation. Will try it out.