An assistant principal enrolled in Western Carolina University’s graduate program in school administration applied what he learned about leadership to breakfast duty on a recent school day, leaving his laptop computer in the office. His goal was to be more present and give his full attention to students and staff. Just as he started to regret not bringing work on the quiet morning, he asked a teacher’s assistant across the table about her weekend. At first she said it was OK, but then, as they talked, she shared the difficulties she was facing seeking court-ordered mental help for a family member. A second-grader came over, gave her a hug and climbed in her lap. The assistant principal wrote in a reflection paper for WCU’s graduate program about the experience, and how important “presence” is, not only as a school leader but also as a husband and father.
“They had a moment of incredible humanity that added something really important to that school, which happened because of something he read in a book and implemented,” said Frederick Buskey, a WCU faculty member who led the redesign of the master’s degree and certificate program in school administration. An update was already on the minds of WCU program faculty, including Buskey, Kathleen Jorissen and Lucian Szlizewski, when a North Carolina bill, signed into law in August 2007, required institutions of higher education to redesign their school administrator preparation programs. Two months later, they began crafting what has become a program mantra: Live your leadership journey courageously.
“We view our work as reaching kids in schools through people in our program,” said Buskey. “School leaders fall down in what they choose not to do. They don’t take care of small injustices done to kids. People are afraid to challenge the system and speak out, and it starts to eat away at them. We needed to teach people how to speak – to make sure our future school leaders had the power of their voice.”
The MSA and certificate programs were restructured in ways that embody WCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP, titled “Synthesis: A Pathway to Intentional Learning.” It is the first WCU graduate program to formally commit to incorporating the QEP, said Carol Burton, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate studies. Burton is guiding universitywide implementation of the QEP, a framework for helping students reflect on how their classroom experience connects to what they learn outside the classroom and how everything in their university experience connects to their career and life goals. Their realizations help them become more intentional and engaged in their learning.
“The quality of our program is directly related to the degree with which our students engage in addressing the needs of their own students,” said Buskey. The program’s recently developed online format enables students to discuss aspects of leadership while observing and testing them in their own lives. Foundational courses cover research, curriculum, educational psychology, testing and other topics. WCU faculty then assess students for candidacy, and those who do not advance in the MSA program have the option of transferring credit into the master’s degree program in teaching.
The final four courses in the graduate program cover subjects including ethical school leadership, leading school culture and leadership for student learning, and incorporate an internship and continuous pursuance of a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal,” or BHAG (pronounced be-hog). The BHAG must make a “real change in a real school,” make a difference in the lives of children, recognize the student’s leadership skills and growth areas, rely on ethics as the fundamental basis for action, and take one-and-a-half to three years to achieve. Part of one student’s BHAG, for instance, was to revamp a high school’s curriculum to help students see history less as memorization of facts and more as an enthusiastic discussion and analysis of events and ideas from different perspectives.
The program has grown from about 25 students in 2005 to 190 students at present. The online format not only made the program more convenient for working professionals in Western North Carolina, but also made it attractive to students from across the state, Atlanta and China. One North Carolina native participated in the program while serving in Iraq.
Jaye Taylor, coordinating teacher for special education services with Wake County Public Schools, enrolled in WCU’s graduate program in school administration because she wanted to earn administrative licensure. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect such a life-changing experience,” Taylor said. Her work responsibilities range from observing classes for the purpose of making sure students are placed appropriately to assisting in providing staff development. Challenges include helping instructors creatively figure out how to do more with less and speaking up about issues that could “make waves.” “One thing that has been stressed in this program that I think about a lot is that all decisions need to be made by what is the right thing to do for kids,” said Taylor. “I have learned that I can’t win every fight, and that I can’t fight every battle, but I must learn to recognize when to fight, and I must have the skills and the courage to do it.”
Mark Payne, a sixth-grade teacher from Burlington, said he enrolled after years of working with school administrators – some who inspired, some who did not. “Even in this early juncture in the program, I have begun to think as an administrator in looking at the problems and joys of teachers and the students they teach,” said Payne. “I am critically analyzing situations that just a few months ago would have been ignored or maybe not even noticed. Thanks to WCU, I can readily admit that I also am starting to formulate some solutions and ideas that can help some now, and I know in my heart will definitely help later, when the responsibility of leadership is finally mine to move forward.”