Feature                                                       Pages 36-39



The Inspirational Leader 

What can administrative leaders do to support educators’ dreams and nurture their creative visions?


Mark Hughes (standing) and Mark Benigni lead the Meriden, Conn. schools as board president and superintendent, respectively. 

Amid the focus on improved standardized test scores, differentiated instruction, value-added initiatives and improved teacher evaluation, we must not ignore an education leader’s need to inspire and be inspired.

But how do we inspire our students and teachers during some of the most difficult economic times our nation has ever seen? How do we continue to motivate when mandated assessments don’t accurately show student achievement? How do we keep focus on the goals when expectations become unrealistic?

Anyone who has taken a family vacation to Disney World or Disneyland cannot help but ponder the strategies this corporation uses to inspire and motivate young and old alike to stand in hour-long ride lines, tolerate scorching temperatures and multiple bus transfers and buy $3 bottles of water, $50 character breakfasts and $75 princess dresses without a second thought.

It’s actually quite simple. They allow us to dream, and they encourage us to believe. They associate with the Disney experience positive feelings and rewarding experiences that are strong and deep enough to inspire us.

Positive Connections
Inspirational education leaders offer the same positive atmosphere to those who enter their schools. They create a welcoming environment where there is no fear of failure. Inspirational leaders motivate and encourage their students and staff members to reach their full potential through supportive learning opportunities. They build positive relationships by helping employees build skill sets and by identifying positive traits in them they may not even see in themselves. Inspirational leaders value people, build connections and instill confidence.

Inspirational leaders are in tune with their staff and know when to pull back or push forward. They give of their time and offer fair and honest feedback. Inspirational leaders exhibit humility, tenacity and grace. They are intelligent, articulate and determined. They define emotional intelligence, which Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee describe in their 2008 book, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, as “how leaders handle themselves and their relationships.”

Inspirational leaders support and care about their employees. They build positive connections and, by offering a simple thank-you or a token of appreciation, motivate the team to work harder. Their staff becomes a loyal team, willing to put the needs of their school or organization before their personal desires.

By giving staff members a voice, inspirational leaders exhibit the most effective communication skill — the ability to listen and empathize. They also recognize that being accessible, trustworthy and approachable can be more inspirational than delivering a prepared speech or a pre-game pep talk. As Stewart D. Friedman says in his 2008 book, Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life: “Business professionals who inspire trust enhance their ability to attract the best workers and keep them. They create a sense of belonging in their organizations and the commitment that comes with that feeling.”

Faces of Leadership
The true test of all leaders is how they respond during challenging times. Inspirational leaders keep their focus, maintain their composure and encourage their team members to believe. Consider the following scenarios and how the words and actions of the leaders affected the emotions and actions of team members.

An 8th grader, fresh off a tough loss in his football team’s final game, earned the honor of attending the league’s annual banquet. He was excited and anxious to meet the local coaching legend who would be his high school football coach.

“Tough loss, huh,” the coach said as he approached the boy. This was the moment the boy had waited for. He was thrilled that the coach had spoken directly to him, and he carefully considered his response. “Yes, but I should have played better,” he said. The coach looked down at him and responded in a belittling tone, “That might have helped. Now go home, eat some pasta. I’ll see you in August.” Then he walked away.

The young man’s excitement at meeting this legendary coach and his enthusiasm for high school football were destroyed with that one thoughtless comment.

Another young man joined his teammates in chanting at the opposing Little League pitcher, “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The coach sat down next to him and softly said, “Look at their pitcher. Think he’s nervous?” The boy shrugged. “I do. I know I would be. His whole team is counting on him to pitch well, and that’s a lot of pressure.”

The coach pointed to Chuck, the team’s catcher, who was at bat. “I bet he’s nervous, as well. Do you think if we cheered him on he might feel more comfortable?” The boy shrugged again. The coach gave him a wink: “Let’s give it a try.” He called a time-out and walked over to whisper in Chuck’s ear. Then he returned to the bench and led the team in cheers of encouragement.

Chuck’s look of nervousness turned into one of determination and confidence. Although the boy in the dugout couldn’t hear what the coach whispered to Chuck, he heard the message loud and clear: If we work hard and encourage and support each other, we will be our best as a team.

How can we expect anyone to be a productive team member in an environment in which people feel dejected or downtrodden? These experiences from our own childhoods invoked emotions that changed us, changed our outlooks. They helped shape our leadership styles and operating principles in the Meriden, Conn., Public Schools.

Inspiring Success
Meriden, Conn., is a diverse community of approximately 60,000 residents with a public school system that serves 8,400 students in 12 schools. We have more than 640 teachers who are committed to helping each student experience personal growth and success.

Despite a free and reduced-price lunch rate of more than 65 percent, a minority population of over 63 percent and continually rising education costs, the Meriden Board of Education has not received an increase in municipal funding across two budget cycles. The result has been significant reductions in staffing and educational resources.

Yet we know that when our staff and students feel pride, enthusiasm, support and success, they will achieve and excel. They will continue to participate in the process and reach the goals before them.

In Meriden, we have created several ways to support our educators’ dreams and nurture their creative visions, including the following examples.

  • We encourage our school staff to present initiatives and share successes at our board meetings. This provides us with an opportunity to honor and thank them for their creativity and their accomplishments. Teachers who create exemplary programs are honored by the central-office team and the Meriden Board of Education at a public forum.
  • Schools participate in a positive behavioral support program that recognizes and acknowledges students for appropriate behavior. Students and staff are rewarded for their participation and acknowledged for their success.
  • Our secondary schools honor a teacher every month with the Starfish Award. Recipients, nominated and selected by their colleagues, are recognized for making a difference in the lives of our students. This award builds a climate of respect and pride that fosters a desire for success.
  • To inspire communitywide collaboration and to thank our community partners for their support, we established a monthly Community Support Award. Staff members nominate a community agency for the award, which is presented at a televised board of education meeting and announced in the monthly Greater Meriden Chamber of Commerce newsletter.

In Meriden, we believe every positive effort, no matter how small, should be recognized. We consistently celebrate success through daily congratulatory e-mails, appreciative note cards, special professional development opportunities, supportive banners, advertisements, breakfasts and luncheons.

Most of all, we inspire. We recognize the need to acknowledge the district’s challenges, accept the responsibilities that we are given, provide transparency in sharing openly and honestly with all stakeholders and promote our belief in our school district’s students and staff.

True Inspiration
When we ask education stakeholders what qualities and skills they expect teachers to possess, they often cite characteristics such as smart, caring, dedicated and inspiring. Never do they suggest they prefer teachers who must get students to proficiency or goal levels on high-stakes testing measures. Let’s keep this in mind when we debate the merits of and misgivings about No Child Left Behind.

In fact, our high-achieving private schools don’t value standardized tests enough to spend time administering them. They’re more concerned with students’ ability to be innovative, imaginative and inspirational as they develop into productive members of the global society. They understand that today’s students need these skills to be effective leaders and advocates for change, and that these standardized tests promote negative learning cultures by narrowing curricula and focusing education on test requirements.
Further, they can foster dishonesty, as was evident in Atlanta, Ga., and Waterbury, Conn.

National legislation uses criticism, competition and threats to motivate and inspire education reform. NCLB sets schools up for failure and ignores increasingly significant issues that plague communities across the nation, such as family poverty, unemployment, minimal resources and downward national economic trends. We must accept that in education, particularly in urban school districts, these factors are not excuses, but realities.

The formula for helping students must include education and government leaders who promote inspiration, increased supports and collaboration, while decreasing criticism and competition. We understand this to be the successful formula in promoting individual student achievement; why is it not as clear when we seek education reform?

We will not improve public education by blaming our teachers and demoralizing them with unfair criticisms based on impossible expectations or by penalizing schools and categorizing them as failures. Instead, we must foster success by building collaborative climates that embrace encouragement, motivation and inspirational leadership. ¦

Mark Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools in Meriden, Conn. E-mail: mark.benigni@meridenk12.org. Mark Hughes, Meriden board of education president, is a social worker at ACES Mill Road School in North Haven, Conn.


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