The “Skip” – Lessons from a Mentor

Skip - Lessons from a Mentor

“Love ya, Skip” – those were President Obama’s words for referring to Headmaster Mary Skipper when he came to visit Tech Boston Academy (TBA) during the 2010-11 school year, the same year that I was working there as a resident principal.  TechBoston was an experiment, part of a network of pilot schools within Boston Public Schools, whose purpose and goal was to dramatically improve learning outcomes for students.  The school’s secret weapon was a team of dedicated, talented teachers who were passionate – no, obsessed – about creating a school environment where the unique strengths and gifts of each student could be recognized, developed, and celebrated.  That collective commitment, combined with Mary’s leadership, resulted in some truly astonishing outcomes for kids. The school had some of the highest growth scores in Math and Science in the country, and was certainly one of the first to go one-to-one with laptops – long before chrome books or iPads made it a thing.

I was recently looking through my school leadership process journal – my illuminated manuscript for leadership lessons during my year of master’s study in Boston – and was reminded about the formative influence of Skip on my development as a school and systems leader.  While the list of lessons learned while part of the TechBoston team is extensive, there were a few key takeaways that continue to influence me in my work leading schools.

Build A Farm System

Talent and commitment are the foundation of any outstanding school, and Mary was an absolute master in both cultivating and developing her team.  She was unrelenting in her pursuit of interns and student teachers.  TechBoston was crawling with volunteer staff.  I was one of three resident principals the year I was at TBA.  Mary had recruited multiple intern psychologists, and over a half-dozen student teachers.  She packed the school with caring adults who were eager to learn and prove their worth to the team.  When it came time to fill openings at the school, Skip already had a spread of potential hires.  She didn’t need to use demo lessons or intricate interview protocols – she had already seen potential hires in action for months.

Of course talent development wasn’t just about new staff.  Mary carefully planned to ensure that she could hold on to her most talented staff.  Virtually all of her staff held dual credentials in general and special education, which not only supported the inclusive instructional model at the school, but ensured that Mary could hold on to her staff when seniority rules kicked in during staffing displacements or transfers.  Of course this required the careful development of official job descriptions that outlined the need for dual-credentialed teachers.

Mary was genuinely interested in the long-term development of her staff. I distinctly remember the email she sent out inviting every staff member to meet with her to share their individual 5-year plans. She openly counseled staff about professional and academic opportunities, and actively sought out promotional opportunities for her staff, even if it meant she might lose someone to other schools or departments in the district. She seemed to trust that talented and committed staff would flock to a school where it was well-known that the principal was pushing her people to ever-increasing opportunities for growth and development.

Strength in a Diverse Leadership Team

Skip’s genius was her ability to build a leadership team – including teacher leaders – that she trusted to unite behind a common vision.  Often, my opportunities to lead and learn were facilitated by other members of Mary’s leadership team..  Part of this was just a physical necessity.  At the time, TBA spanned across two different school sites just over a mile apart from one another, and Mary simply couldn’t be in two places at once.  I spent the bulk of my time at the Lower School, a traditional 6-8 middle school that had been turned over to the management of TBA, where the day to day leadership of the school often fell to two exceptionally capable assistant principals, Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza.

In some respects, Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza could not have been more different.  Perhaps that was the secret of their success.  Mr. Love was a towering African American man, whose rapport with students and parents and whose insistence for a respectful and professional learning environment were unparalleled.  He always called me by a nickname – “Number 6” (in honor of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers defeating my home team Arizona Cardinals to win their sixth Super Bowl ring), yet always made a point to ask my opinion and perspective on important decisions.  Despite my “intern” status, Mr. Love made me feel like a real member of the team, and wasn’t afraid to give me meaningful, significant tasks that would stretch the limits of my capacity.  Ms. Vernazza, though a small-framed white Bostonian, was no less imposing.  A true instructional genius, Ms. Vernazza wore her urgency for student learning on her sleeve. My assigned office was a desk and chair in the corner of Ms. Vernazza’s office.  She was constantly in think-aloud mode, verbally talking through her tasks at the same time that she rifled through paperwork or shot off emails to staff.  If Mr. Love was the heart of the school, Ms. Vernazza was its brain.

Mr. Love and Ms. Vernazza were both strong, opinionated leaders.  They often disagreed, sometimes vehemently.  They weren’t afraid to express their concerns and perspectives with one another and with Mary.  Yet once a decision was made, they were loyal to one another.  This loyalty, I think, flowed from a shared recognition that their strengths and weaknesses were complementary.  They carried a deep respect for the work of the other, and often acknowledged their interdependence.  Skip, for her part, encouraged these honest deliberations, drawing on the shared expertise of her team members to successfully move the school towards improvement.  Skip recognized that strong schools are led by teams, whose members contribute unique and diverse gifts and talents.

Authentic Student-Centeredness

The Skip knew her kids.  Usually by name.  She knew their stories, their families, their struggles, and their triumphs.  Her authentic connection to her students not only gave her credibility with staff and students, but informed her decisions in powerful ways.  Perhaps to the dismay of staff at times, Mary always had time to talk to kids.  It was impossible for her not to light up with a smile when interacting with her students.

Skip lived in Dorchester, the urban core of Boston where TBA was located.  She didn’t just work at the service of the community, but was part of the community.  Her student-centered leadership brought her a tremendous sense of credibility and authenticity for students, parents, and staff alike.  It wasn’t just her voice that carried a thick Bostonian accent.

At the end of the day, I believe the secret of TBA’s success was a collective insistence that every student mattered, that the future of every student was worthy of discussion and deliberation.  Even when the leadership team came to the conclusion that the needs of a student outstripped the ability of the school to provide support, the process for making outside referrals was thoughtful and self-skeptical.  The team continually asked itself what it had missed or which supports it had potentially failed to provide.  This deeply student-centered spirit was embodied by the Skip, and flowed throughout the entire staff.

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