By Alumna Nicole (Nuckolls) Carter, who was named the 2022 Michigan Principal of the Year
Dear fellow Spartans,
The last few years of teaching, learning and leading have been uniquely challenging. We faced a tremendous amount of adversity from navigating a pandemic, the national teacher shortage, racial inequalities and tragic events that resulted in the loss of promising lives. In light of these events, it is critically important for educators to channel our energies towards a full restoration of our core values. We must never lose sight of our purpose and our passion.
When reflecting on leadership attributes I hold dear to my heart, I refer to a pneumonic device I created years ago when I became a Spartan. I trust this is making my roommates from Gilchrist Hall chuckle.
Systematically create a clear, concise vision of what you want to accomplish. When I arrived on the banks of the Red Cedar in 1993, I declared I would graduate in four years, maintain a job and volunteer—and I did it! When I developed my educational philosophy, I determined every choice must put students first and be in their best interest. I lived that philosophy in my classroom and continue to carry it out in my leadership of Novi High School.
Prepare for the task at hand. Whether you are creating a lesson plan or a meeting agenda, make content meaningful and purposeful to honor your audience’s time. When I think of the horrific tragedies that took place in Oxford and Uvalde, I am reminded of how essential it is to demonstrate care and compassion to those we lead. Oxford is a mere 26 miles from Novi; several staff members and students have relatives and friends who work there. I have a teacher on my staff who graduated from Oxford High School and our school district was closed for two days due to threats that occurred across Oakland County. This incident hit home for many of us. We immediately sent an email to offer students reassurance and support. I reinforced that schools are safe and that there are adults in our building who work to keep us all safe. Our collective responsibility as adults is to help our children navigate frightening situations, listen and respond with care and compassion. We spent this time being vulnerable with each other and reflecting on what happened, the impact that it was having emotionally and mentally on us. We revisited our safety and security protocols and procedures together. Our school held an active shooter exercise in collaboration with the Novi Police Department. We had over 200 participants, and it was one of my greatest learning experiences as a principal. After a significant amount of preparation, this exercise helped us identify areas of strength and improvement.
Activate prior and current knowledge. Keep abreast of best practices related to teaching, learning and leading. Model the behavior you want to see from those you lead. There were so many takeaways navigating COVID-19. We changed our teaching modality within 48 hours. Teachers and administrators worked together to build the best course of action possible for our students. We had to embrace technology in unprecedented ways. Teachers had to learn how to use Zoom and maintain virtual spaces to ensure quality instruction. We figured out how to keep students engaged in the learning process. We brainstormed ideas on how we could encourage student participation. At the same time, we needed to attend to the fears, worries and stresses the students and adults were facing. We had to lean into the power of human connection. I made personal phone calls, sent text messages and emails to students and staff to let them know I see and care about them and asked if I could help with anything. Empathy and grace became the cornerstone of our practices.
Relentless follow-through and reflection. Learn from the past, prepare for the future and perform in the present. This sentiment carries me through the trials and tribulations of my incredible position. I regularly write journal entries about my accomplishments and lessons learned. There is power in thinking about decisions I have made and considering whether I would do anything differently in hindsight.
Train your mind, body and spirit for the awesome responsibility you have as a student, teacher or leader. Read books related to your craft as well as books for pleasure. The book “Leadership on the Line” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002) by Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz has helped me exponentially in my efforts. The chapter about taking a view from the balcony is one I read at the beginning, middle and end of the school year. It helps to center me as I observe the behavior of students in the hallways; their faces and body language tell a story about the culture and climate of Novi High School. I also dedicate time to take walks, participate in spin classes and trot with my dog several days a week. Exercise betters my heart and soul, giving me a chance to clear my mind and focus on the good.
Advocate. When you believe in the potential of those you serve, speak up, stand up and show up for them. It is an honor and a privilege to give a voice to the voiceless. Providing opportunities for students to share their perspectives and understanding helps me to effectively lead my school community. I host focus group lunches with randomly selected students where I ask for feedback on what they like and dislike about our school. I build relationships with students so they feel comfortable to share ideas and concerns with me. Last school year, we brainstormed and developed a draft for a new tardy procedure. I presented it to the student body for critical feedback. I hosted a lunch and learn chat session for students to meet with school administrators. The students who attended built capacity with each other and our administrative team. I also host regular Cookies with Carter lunch meetings open to all staff and ask: What can I do to be of better service and support to you?
Non-Judgmental service. Diversity is Novi’s greatest strength. There are 71 languages and dialects spoken within our district and students from all over the world attend our schools. Diversity is celebrated, respected and valued throughout our community. We firmly believe everyone has a story to tell and that we can learn valuable lessons from each other; we all have room to grow and develop. By taking time to build quality, strong relationships with our students, they develop a sense of belonging and pride within our school. As educators, we cannot inspire and motivate anyone we do not know deeply. In Novi, we administer an annual culture and climate survey, asking students and staff to share feedback on their satisfaction and engagement. The results help to drive change and improve practices. Each day in every way, we strive to be better together!
At the start of each new year, I identify one word to be my driver. When reflecting over the past year, the word that kept coming to the forefront of my mind was emerge.
With great anticipation and fervent prayer, we can
and will …
Emerge from loss
Emerge from hate
Emerge from anxiety
Emerge from isolation and loneliness
Emerge from “all things” COVID
Emerge from darkness into the light
I will fully emerge by maintaining mustard seed faith, believing hope is on the horizon and by preserving an unconditional love for humanity. I will maintain an attitude of gratitude, even in the face of challenging circumstances, because I am able to live out my life purpose of serving and helping other people.