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3 investments good leaders make in creating other leaders

5 min read


I was extremely fortunate to be hired as a third-grade teacher fresh out of Penn State University in 2000 by principal Maureen Cheever at Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, Ill. Before I met her, I had never envisioned myself as a school principal. From the moment I joined the Hubbard Woods team, her leadership both inspired and pushed me to demand more of myself and those around me. I knew she had high expectations for me from the moment I walked into my role as a new and inexperienced teacher.

Cheever continues to be my living definition of a servant leader. Every day and above everything else, she found ways to put me in a position to be the best teacher I could be. She was invested in me and groomed me as an educator and leader. I vividly recall her spending her days visiting classrooms, giving credit to students, staff and parents and encouraging the best progressive education for our children.

When one of us had an idea, she found a way to say “yes.” For example, a fellow first-year teacher and I had an idea to write a district foundation grant to design and implement a daily student-run television show in the basement of the school. Some principals might answer this request by cross-examining the idea-bearing staff member with 25 questions and then tell you that she will get back to you. In lieu of making us jump through hoops, Cheever provided us the formal process for which to move forward and began throwing out ideas on how it might work in our school. She found a way to contribute our thoughts and small area of expertise to make a big impact in an already amazing school. Ten years later WGST (World’s Greatest School Television) has just completed its 1,600th episode! I could share 30 more inspiring stories of my time working with Cheever, but here are the biggest “Cheeverisms” I aim to bring to work with me each day at Knapp Elementary School as lead learner:

1. Invest daily in a healthy school culture. “Come join our circle of friends.” This was the song that was sung by all school staff and students at the end of school assemblies to thank the presenters and also at the end of the school year to move the fourth graders up into the middle school. The song continues, “there’s always room for one more.” The culture in which principal Cheever set up (aka “Our Community of Learners”) to allow new teachers to enter her school and have the level of trust and respect that an effective, veteran teacher commands was truly a humbling experience. New teachers need to know they are immediately supported, valued and can come in and make a true impact on a classroom and school learning community.

2. Invest in personal relationships. Whether at a teacher evaluation meeting or an informal interaction in the hallway or classroom, there wasn’t a time that principal Cheever neglected to ask me how my family and friends were or how my coursework was going. She took a personal interest in my life outside of Hubbard Woods, which showed she cared about me. You’ve heard about the “whole-child.” She also believed in the “whole-teacher.” Some principals claim they are so task-oriented that they sometimes forget to interact with staff members from time to time. In today’s schools, it’s all about the relationships we build on behalf of kids. Saying hello and you matter is a non-negotiable to effective school leadership.

3. Invest in an “outside the box” lens. Hubbard Woods is a progressive school. Everyone has their own version of that term, but looking back I describe it as “not accepting the status quo of teaching and learning” or “teaching and leading in the way that best works for your students and staff.” Below are some examples of where I was encouraged to be an outside-the-box thinker:

  • We didn’t have textbooks at Hubbard Woods. Teachers were encouraged to pick and choose from the best resources in print and online to support the state standards and the district curriculum.
  • Staff meetings do not have to be stand and deliver. We had everything from dance parties to Jeopardy-like games to bring us together and make the most of our short time together. Staff meetings were after school, and some meetings went longer than others, but staff would stay because of the investment in school culture and in just being with each other.
  • “How can we do this together?” was a phrase often heard out of the mouth of principal Cheever. I do not ever recall hearing the words, “This is a directive.” Role-modeling shared leadership in our schools moves us away from a micromanager leadership style and builds capacity for cohesion and relationship-building amongst all stakeholders.

In the end, the more I’m reminded of her words and actions, the better a job I feel I’m doing with my own learning community. Thanks principal Cheever for your never-ending commitment to teaching, learning and leadership.

Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza) is lead learner at Knapp Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia. He is also a doctoral learner at the University of Pennsylvania studying social media’s impact on home-school partnerships. Participate in a weekly #PTchat (Parent-Teacher Chat) that he hosts on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern. He writes a blog aimed to share innovative family engagement ideas for schools called eFACE Today.