Tuesday, December 15, 2015


As I was cleaning out some cobwebs in my own mind, preparing for my final opportunity to express some things I want to say, I uncovered several thoughts that have been forming in my mind over the years.  Thoughts are like files.  Some I have been through and used extensively and some I file and never fully develop, so that seed of an idea just languishes in the file over the years, waiting... Now I'm shaking the dust off those seeds so that I can develop these final thoughts.

One thing that pops up again and again throughout the files in my head as I think about my school career, is leadership.  I guess the reason that it is such a recurring theme is because the foundation of a school rests on the leadership of that school.  A school fails or succeeds depending on the direction and guidance of the person in charge.  While in many schools that can be a team, the direction and the strength of successful schools is always equal to the strength of the single leader.
Three powerful leaders stand out for me in my last twenty or so years in Duval County.

The first, I found by accident.  I stayed home after my second child was born.  I just couldn't seem to balance the demands of being a new mom for the second time and the demands of my job, so... I made a choice.  I chose to be a full time mommy. It wasn't a choice that my husband and I planned for so the financial stress was real (the gain in my personal life was pretty real too!), but it was just one of those decisions in life you know in your core is right.  When Courtney was school age, I knew the time was right to return to work, but if I am honest, my heart was not in it.  I decided to go only to the school where my daughter would be entering kindergarten because I thought if she and I went to school together that I wouldn't have to leave a piece of my heart every time I walked out the door.  Alimacani Elementary, a brand new school, was our neighborhood school, so... I dropped off my resume.  They were very courteous but said, "Don't call us.  We'll call you." They were fully staffed for their inaugural year well before I considered returning to teaching...
With Donna Hulsey, circa 1992

I figured that was that, but God has a way of changing reality... and during the summer, I was offered a job at the last minute when a pregnant teacher of preschool handicapped children was ordered to bed rest.  So there I was - my first job in a long while - at my daughter's school.  My principal was Donna Hulsey.  I knew nothing about Mrs. Hulsey at the time, but I quickly found out that she was a rising superstar with a stellar reputation in Duval County. She was a true visionary who was charming and overflowed with charisma.  Teachers had flocked to interview with her and she had the opportunity to pick the very best. Donna  hired a corral of very high acievers to meet her very high expectations.  What an exciting opening and thrilling beginning... During the Hulsey years at Alimacani, the school won every award and became an icon in our county.  What was so inspirational about Donna was that she had such heart for children and she reminded me of all the reasons I had become a teacher in the first place.  She put me back in touch with my dreams, my personal mission and my desire to make a difference. She reminded me of the dedication, the commitment and the passion that was inside me. She modeled the patriotism that had always been a part of my heart and the professionalism that was a natural part of my makeup, She made me a better person as she was a role model for integrity, character, and class.

Interestingly enough she mentored the next inspiring leader that would enter my life, Dr. Terri Stahlman.  Dr. Stahlman founded Chets Creek Elementary, where I still teach today. When I could have rested and retired at Alimacani, she enticed me with an opportunity to join a young, energetic faculty and a school that had the most advanced professional development in our area. She was a creative, out-of-the-box thinker.  I'm a risk-taker so she became the perfect conduit to help me live beyond anything I had ever imagined I could be.  Terri is energetic, dreams big and has the charisma of a movie star.  She inspires with her words and her actions and is simply bigger than life.  She reacts quickly and fiercely.  She's irreverent, disarmingly direct and candid, and wrapped in a package of both vulnerability and strength at the same time.  In her six short years, Chets became a flagship for a new school reform.  She built a foundation and a philosophy that is as much a part of our story today as it was when she first shared her vision.  She is a true visionary.  She is the one that said to me, "We are blessed and when you are blessed, you have the moral and ethical responsibility to share what you learn."  It's a creed that I have lived by as a coach and as a teacher.  I still love being in Terri's company.  She makes me laugh and reminds me that even when life is sometimes filled with heartbreak, it can also be full of joy.
With  Dr. Terri Stahlman and Susan Phillips at the Eddy Awards, 2003.  I was introduced that night by precious kindergartners, Tanner Stahlman and Miller Phillps.  They stole the show!
And as the circle goes, Terri mentored the baby teacher who grew into the principalship  and has now been my leader for over a decade.  Susan Phillips is young enough to be my daughter.  We share a small South Carolina, somewhat redneck, heritage and the same name (her maiden name is Timmons) although we're not related - to our knowledge - although you never know in SC!  Susan took a high performing school... and maintained (sometimes harder that establishing excellence in the first place!)  She has always had an older and wiser soul beyond her years and even though she was one of the youngest principals in Duval County, her youth and energy were part of the excitement as the school founder passed the torch to this new generation leader.  In times of crisis, Susan has stepped up with honest emotion and creative thinking. She is quick, witty, has a phenomenal memory, is loyal to the end, would never divulge a confidence, and believes in having fun (she also likes weird music - I think it's a generational thing!)  While she may first have a knee-jerk reaction, she thinks before she acts and always responds thoughtfully... and she is rarely wrong.   She has guided us on a steady and sure course through five superintendents and dozens of new curriculum and initiatives without losing our way.  Things all around us have been politically, educationally volatile over the years (one year Susan had  five different direct supervisors!), but Chets Creek has stayed the course, fighting for the same tenets of rigor, relationships and results that were part of our founding principles.  Susan fights the good fight.  She cares deeply about the children (and families) in her care and the people that work in her building... and they all know it! As long as Susan is at the helm of Chets, it will continue its arrow straight mark of excellence.

Each of these women have made schools stronger because they have been at the helm.  They have been visionaries guided by a moral compass. I have never underestimated the power of the principal behind a successful school.  To have had three such inspirational women during my career is a gift beyond words and one that I cherish every day.  May they each continue to inspire and to show those of us who follow, the way.

1 comment:

Melanie Holtsman said...

And if I was writing this YOU would be in my list of amazing , inspiring leaders. Would not be who I am as an educator without knowing you, learning from you and loving you. xoxo