Four-Corners Culture

Four-Corners Culture
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Friday, November 30, 2018

A principal's guide for healing from a school-wide tragedy

Published Nov. 30, 2018 in Education Week

web link: What It Takes to Lead a School After a Shooting

Last December 7th, Aztec High School experienced a horrible and tragic event when a young man who had attended the school over five years before walked on our campus and took the lives of Casey Jordan Marquez and Francisco “Paco” Fernandez. The active shooter event lasted a little more than 7 minutes, when the shooter took his own life seconds before the police arrived on scene. Our heroic police department in Aztec responded to our call for help within 4 minutes and emergency responders from all corners of San Juan County, NM assisted with the subsequent release of lockdown, campus evacuation, and reunification with families.

In the ten months that have passed since this event, our local sheriff’s department and the FBI have conducted investigations looking at the crime from numerous angles. From these investigations, and from our shared perspective, the leadership in Aztec Schools have learned much about what carried us through that day. For instance, we know that the shooter planned a far worse death count. Casey and Paco innocently surprised the gunman as he was preparing; those first shots alerted staff to secure classrooms and signal a campus-wide lockdown. Following lockdown training and radio communication prevented the gunman’s attempt to enter two classrooms. In short, our staff was heroic, and while our fidelity to protocol was not perfect, training and communication saved lives that day. Even an imperfect recall of training is better than not having trained at all; I don’t think that I’ll ever look at even the most routine safety training with a lax perspective again.

EdWeek’s request for this article comes as the student leadership, staff and I are in the middle of planning how the school will structure the one year anniversary of our tragedy. We will never forget the precious lives lost that day and the heroic response from our community. As a whole, the kids have been resilient and inspiring in the way they have begun to use their collective voice to call for unity and mutual support as a way through our ongoing recovery. So, from a principal’s personal perspective, I have far more advice to share on what has gotten me through the past ten months of community rebuilding, than I would ever be able to say about that day a year ago.

Post-tragedy, a principal needs to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of opinions and perspectives on how the school needs to respond and/or change in the wake of what has happened. How does one lead, when strong voices and weak voices in the community all need to be heard long before a plan is put into place? How does one deal with the reality that some decisions are not going to be left to the site leadership alone? How does a leader deal with his or her own self-doubt while seeking to listen to and empower others who are just as traumatized by events? Three very personal lessons come to mind that I can share with my professional peers:

Lesson one: Remember that you’re not in it alone. Delegating power and releasing control are traits that principals often want to nurture. The daily perspectives we deal with are already numerous and most principals I’ve met are pretty good at leading as coalition-builders. After a school tragedy, it is natural that the building principal is someone that people are going to want to check in with about big decisions on the school’s response. Make sure to regularly connect with others in your sphere of influence, and/or chain of command, to establish the crucial perspectives that you want to be heard when input is asked for or your leadership is called for.

Lesson Two: Work to keep the kids front and center by supporting a clear structure for listening to the kids’ wants and needs as decisions are being made; then be prepared to incorporate student voices that feel left out. Just like the adults in our communities, the kids with the strongest voices are likely to be the first to surface and advocate. And, like a good teacher who structures a solid classroom discussion on a passionate topic; a principal needs to formalize the discussion and encourage various perspectives to listen to one another so that even the quiet voices have an opportunity to be heard.

Lesson three: Reconnect with the reasons why you do this job. Self-doubt can definitely creep in as the day-to-day decision making and school management call for a principal’s attention long before a leader has adequately had time to address his or her own mental wellness. Accepting help from mental health professionals is just as important for the leader as it is for everyone else after a tragedy. On a purely personal level, I’ve come to understand the need to stay in tune with my spiritual core so that I can continue in a profession that I believe is my life calling. In the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we can do all things through Him who strengthens us. Reconnecting with the why in what I do has been very important to me. If that divine grace was good enough for a great man of faith like Paul then it is certainly good enough for me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The power of using the alerts function in Google Scholar

I've really come to appreciate the power of using  alerts in Google Scholar to keep track of research on topics of Interest.

This is a nice article in Business Theory and Practice on the intersection of group tacit knowledge and organizational effectiveness. The study involves research into the telecommunications industry in Nigeria.

Friday, July 13, 2018

NPC18 and the power of re-discovering my digital voice

I've been woefully absent from my own blog site for far too long. While attending and presenting at the National Principals' Conference this summer, I found my way into a great workshop by Amber Schroering and Emily Sturchio on tips and best practices for an effective professional blog. The workshop has inspired me to re-ignite my Blogger site.

After a tragic, taxing, and inspiring year of leadership at Aztec High, I have been inspired by the resiliency and general compassion that my students have shown in the aftermath of public trauma. I hope to use this blog as a vehicle to carry my own advocacy for education as a profession and calling that is desperately needed in today's world.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Eric Sheninger's 10 Great Things Leaders Do

I got to listen to Eric Sheninger speak at the NMCEL Conference last June. He had some great things to say about using technology as a driver to move sound pedagogy into new ways of instruction for the 21st century. This article is a great example of the way he models principal leadership in the digital age:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A minister of democratic culture

Transformational leadership is such an attractive idea that it has become a catch phrase for any goal envisioned by any leader. The concept has certainly proved to be rich tilling ground for scores of theorists since James M. Burns first brought the idea of transforming leadership to prominence in his 1978 seminal work. Many of these theorists, such as Joseph Rost, have argued for a central definition of leadership to guide scholarly inquiry on the managerial nuances of leading an organization. Others, like Bernard Bass, have explored the internal psychological mechanisms that influence the transformational affect leaders have on their organizations. Nearly all of this study has shed light on the interplay between leaders and followers and has mapped out the factors that push and pull on this highly variable relationship. Yet, I cannot help but to think that transformational leadership [or transforming leadership as Burns referred to it] cannot be understood outside the direct moral context that Burns placed it in. Admittedly, neither Rost nor Bass tried to separate transformational leadership from moral leadership. However, a good deal of the later literature on leadership has eroded the original moral context of transformational leadership by focusing on how to do leadership rather than how to be the moral agent that transformational leadership requires.

In the book Leaders as Communicators and Diplomats, Paul Houston made this moral leadership connection and touched a nerve with me by comparing the diplomatic authority of a superintendent with the moral authority of a minister. As a life-long church goer, I have listened to a lot of preachers.  It has always impressed me how a good preacher can bring moral guidance from the word of God to his congregation in a way that steps on everyone’s toes Sunday morning then turn around and minister to those same pride-wounded believers when they need the love of God in their daily lives. Clearly, this pastoral relationship is strong when it is based in trust and mutual respect. Equally clear is the reality that the bonds of such a relationship are weak when trust is broken or mutual needs are neglected.

A healthy clerical leadership can move a church member to a more pious life, Equally so, a public school administrator can practice moral leadership and bring transforming leadership to the transactional context of public schooling. Burns roughly defined moral leadership as leadership that meets the needs of followers for the purpose of making more leaders; who might, in turn, evolve into moral agents of change themselves. To me, this moral leadership is a practice of ministering in a way that reinforces the moral contract between leader and follower. Any less purpose in leading may be good and beneficial, but cannot transform the relationship because it does not mutually press for anything greater than what is needed in the here and now.

Paraphrasing Paul Houston’s language, I see myself as a minister of democratic culture. I am entrusted with the education of my friends and neighbors’ most precious treasure; and the school I build for those little treasures is going to mold the men and women they become. By holding fast to this moral contract with the families I serve, I will support them, encourage them and even challenge them in ways that move us collectively into the higher purpose of building a democratic society for our children. 
That future society must be ready to meet the unknown challenges of the future. And, nothing in this metaphor guarantees success for me or any individual follower; or another leader. Failure might be the outcome of any well-intended act of moral leadership. But, fearing failure would be an immoral act for the transforming leader.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dissertation link

My dissertation is a study of Dr. James Henderson's leadership as president of San Juan college in Farmington, NM  as interpreted through the research lens of tacit leadership development. The link below will take to the paper in UNM's loboVault archive.