Why I could learn a thing or two from Leslie Knope


Almost all educators come into the profession with dreams of changing the world.  That we will make an impact so indelible in the hearts and minds of our students that they will have no choice but to go out and be advocates for that which they are passionate about.  We fantasize about the perfect lesson that flips the switch in the minds of our students to become the next generation of scientists, politicians, authors, or doctors.  That drive, to be the change in the hearts of children, doesn’t change when we move from the classroom to administration.  Although, some of our classroom colleagues may dispute that.  Over the next few months, it is my desire to share some thoughts on the struggles of making that transition.  I’ll use stories from friends, family, and my digital learning community to illustrate examples of what we face as instructional leaders.  I hope that through these you, whoever “you” are, will have a better idea of what it's like leading a school.  Because we all have the same expectation to come into a new endeavor and be an expert at it immediately, the names, places, and dates will be changed from the stories I share to protect the egos and the children who may be part of each one.

by Zac Leonard @MrLeonard8

One of my all time favorite tv shows is Parks and Rec, the show runs in the same vein as The Office, and Office Space.  The show’s main character is Leslie Knope played by the incredibly talented Amy Poehler. Leslie is the leader of the department and is based on the typical type A leader who wants nothing more than to be successful. One of the first traits that comes to mind when we think of type A individuals is organization. Having everything in order and no loose ends in sight brings comfort to those who identify as type A. Writing lists is a favorite pastime. No one knows this better than Leslie Knope. She adores being at work, values a job well done and loves nothing more in life than a major to-do list.

I started my career at the local alternative school.  I didn’t go to college to be a teacher, and my previous experiences working with children were focused on student ministry, so it was more about having fun while learning than preparing students for their future.  It took me a solid year and a half to get a good handle on what it takes to manage a classroom, AND teach content in an effective manner.  The apparent difficulty with working at an alternative school is that the students have very little desire to play by the “rules” of school, the hidden blessing is in that if I could engage them and manage their behavior we could do some pretty amazing projects.  I remember one specifically, I was teaching force and motion to my students and we watched a short video on roller-coasters, the kids loved it and asked if we could go on a field trip.

An interesting, or annoying depending on your personality type, thing about me is when I get an idea I like to just jump into it, not a lot of planning or preparation I just want to experiment to see if it will work.  That works great when you’re in a classroom with 10 students, and the only person you have to answer to is yourself.

I couldn’t take my students on a roller coaster, but what if I could bring a roller coaster to them?  That evening I went to Lowes and purchased $150 worth of hot glue, wooden dowels, and foam pipe insulation.  I was quite the site to see walking into the school the next morning.  Bags hanging off my arms, while I was bear hugging 50, 8 foot pieces of black foam.  If I could see, I’m sure there would have been quite a few strange looks. The kids and I got to work that day, and 1 week later my classroom was full of roller coasters from ceiling to floor with loops, jumps turns, and twists.  It was the most marvelous mess I’ve ever seen.  The kids loved it, and it worked great.

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At this point, I would venture to say that the audience is equal parts panicked and excited because as teachers we are a product of well-tuned routines.

This trait of shooting from the hip, taking ideas and running with them, has been one of the most significant learning experiences I have had as a young leader. In my mind, if we have a good idea let’s make it happen, because the faster we get it to the kids, the longer we have to make an impact.  Thr problem with that way of thinking is you miss things.

Discombobulated, this is how one of my star teachers described my project we undertook as the leader of our school.  This young lady is the best I’ve ever seen at what she does, she has the incredible ability to connect with students, build their trust, but not lose the boundary needed to be an authority figure in their lives.  When it comes to numbers, she puts them up to the tune of top 10% in the state of Florida. I am truly blessed to be able to work alongside her, and humbled that she willingly (most of the time) buys into the vision we have set for our school. She did not become one of the best teachers in our community with “fly by the seat of my pants” as a bumper sticker.

I was devastated, I thought things were going so well, we had a calendar and used it (most of the time).  I set up a schedule for meetings and field trips, and we had some sporadic changes from time to time, but in my mind, all schools had those.  As I reflected over her comments I did what we all do, I went back to my roots, and I thought of 1 Corinthians 10:33

"I have the right to do anything," you say--but not everything is beneficial. "I have the right to do anything"--but not everything is constructive.”

As an instructional leader, we have the right to call meetings at the drop of a hat, to unilaterally make schedule changes, or send students on field trips the week before finals (I know, I know really Zac?), but those things are not always beneficial.  There are times when we have to make decisions and implement ideas in a hurry, but that is not the practice of high performing schools.  Not everything that worked for me in the classroom will work for me in leadership, and I would venture to say the same goes for you too.  I believe the difference between leaders who stay stagnant and fail, and those who inspire people to become great comes down to their ability to reflect on criticism and make changes as they see fit.

I stewed on that word…” discombobulated” for weeks, that was not the word I wanted as a descriptor for me or my school.  I met with all the teachers and asked them what I could do to improve the scheduling and communication of ideas, and events on campus.  They suggested we meet together at the beginning of the new semester and organize a calendar with all the events each of us had for the school.  I also blocked out the week before finals to not disturb the classes as best I could.

I may not have the most meticulous calendar, but I now know the value of planning, and communicating ideas and maybe being a little more Type A wouldn’t be that annoying…