The greatest thing about my work is the amazing people I meet and spend time with in the schools. Even though the conversations can be challenging and the expectations might be difficult, almost every time, the teachers and school leaders find a way to rise to the occasion and steal my heart. This describes my trips to Rapid City, South Dakota for the past three years. First it is about the people and their commitment to making a difference in the lives of students. I want to tell you about three of the schools that I visited last week…
Let’s start with General Beadle Elementary School. Cary Davis and her staff have welcomed me with open arms. I appreciate that they accept coaching and are working collaboratively to change the lives of their students. During this visit they were able to show me evidence of student growth and I could see a change in the student conversations as well. There was more talk about what and why they were learning and many more were engaged in what they were working on then I can remember seeing there before. It is also a fun place for me to go because they love to tease me about being from Canada. They know I love sports and so they were all ready for me this trip… presenting me with a hockey stick and a silver medal to remind me of the loss of the Canadian women’s hockey team to the US team for the Olympic gold medal. Of course, they also had to torment me about our lack of medals in curling. I love mixing fun with the hard work that is needed in these schools so it means a lot to me when I feel so welcome!
My next stop was at Horace Mann Elementary School and what I love about this school is the focus on student writing that is so evident in all classrooms. Kelly Gorman and her teachers have taken a serious look at the research and effective practices that link reading and writing and they are very focused on increasing every opportunity that they can to increase writing in their school. My favorite memory from being there this time was the conversation with a young man in fifth grade… he was working so hard on his writing and I asked him if I could read what he had written. He politely replied, “No, I would rather that you didn’t read this story yet. I am still thinking very hard about how it will end and I would prefer that you wait and read it when I finish.” And, he was thinking very hard… most of the students were so focused on their work that they hardly noticed the visitors to their room. This is what we want to have happening in our classrooms… students doing the thinking and I know that the teachers at Horace Mann are on it!!
Lastly, I want to tell you about Knollwood Elementary School and in this case, mostly I want to introduce you to Shannon Schaefers, the principal. Every time I do leadership coaching with Shannon, I leave feeling so blessed that I know her and mostly, that the students at Knollwood have her for a principal. Picture a big heart that cares about children and now multiply that by as many numbers as you can think of and that is Shannon. I have never had a conversation with Shannon that was not focused on her students and her concern for their needs. She feels personally responsible for their well-being and what happens to every one of them in her school. As she works to create more shared ownership and leadership in her school, this attitude of students-first will do her well. She knows that leading a school is complex; it involves the adult community within the school as well as the student community and she is working hard to balance taking care of both. She has led her teachers in creating collaborative, evidence based teams and is working on improving classroom practice. She knows that there is more to do to have collective commitments around the work needed at the school and she also understands that she will need to continue to build this foundation while at the same time making sure that they are all focused on meeting the needs of students. Shannon also knows that it is important to celebrate successes and find joy in the work of school leadership.
It is a balancing act for school leaders… schools do not close while we figure out what to do next… principals are adjusting as they fly the plane and this can feel overwhelming at times. The great thing about principals like Shannon is that they are willing to learn from each other. Networking between principals to share ideas and figure things out together is so helpful and Shannon and I were able to do that on this visit (thanks to Kimberly and Yvette!) which I appreciate as her coach.
Lastly, the Rapid City School District is part of this improvement process. They are providing professional learning opportunities for their principals and teachers and most importantly they are creating direction and focus. All of this can only help students and so I feel that the families of Rapid City are fortunate to have this happening in their city.
Rapid City is also a very nice place to visit. It is close to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, with amazing vistas and landscape all around, and the city itself is clean and friendly. I get to stay in a beautiful, historical “haunted hotel” when I am there and eat bison and very good chocolate. There is beautiful art and jewelry from native American communities and other local artists that will take your breath away. And, did I tell you that the people in South Dakota sort of steal my heart every time I am back? What more could you want as a road warrior?
Have a great week and I look forward to our time together next Saturday.