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!|
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.