“I knew I would never ever be a teacher. And then I became a teacher.”
Adrian Leday has deep roots in the Garland Independent School District. He graduated from the district while his mother still taught there. His sister is a former GISD Teacher of the Year. His children attend school in the district. But he always thought he’d take a different path- even after he spent a year teaching.
“I left during my first year so that I could pursue a career in pharmaceutical sales. And after nine months, I missed my kids and I had to go back. So I tell everyone if I had never taught once, I'd probably be rich. But instead, I have a different kind of wealth.”
Leday is now the principal of Garland ISD's Watson Technology Center for Math and Science, a role he’s been working toward his entire career. He’s previously served as a math teacher, instructional coach, administrative intern, and assistant principal, all experiences he now draws on as the leader of his campus.
“As an instructional coach, I've seen different strategies that have been utilized in the classroom that are optimally effective. And so I've taken that as part of my role with regard to my teachers… As an assistant principal, I was the person in charge of complaints. Being practiced in that allows me as a principal to be able to listen to parent concerns and work on ways to mitigate those concerns or ways to find some resolutions that are satisfactory for both the parents as well as the school community.”
Leday’s wealth of knowledge, experience, and connections to the community made him an ideal candidate for the principalship. So why did it take seventeen years to arrive at this goal? Why was Leday being passed over for a promotion, even as educators he mentored moved up the administrative ranks?
As it turns out, making personnel decisions across an organization of over 7,000 employees is complex and difficult work.
“We realized we had a gap in cultivating leadership,” said Dr. Susanna Russell, the Chief Leadership Officer of Garland ISD. “There was a feeling that our selection process perhaps didn't fully assess all of the different things that we expect a principal to do and wasn't robust enough to give us a deep enough evaluation of someone's leadership potential. And maybe we were missing some people, maybe people were getting overlooked… We had a critical need.”
This ‘critical need’ inspired Dr. Russell to participate in the School Leadership Working Group, a professional learning community convened by the Best in Class coalition. Best in Class is a collaboration between Commit and Communities Foundation of Texas that is focused on supporting school districts in their efforts to attract, prepare, develop, and retain diverse teachers and school leaders.
“This was really transformational to how we thought,” continued Dr. Russell. “There was so much reflection, so much homework. Don't start on a project like this if you're not really willing to look critically at the organizational structures and see places where we need to rethink and reimagine how we do the work.”
Dr. Russell was well-positioned to do this work she stepped into her role at the district over a year ago. Her position of ‘Chief Leadership Officer’ is unique in that brings instructional leadership and human resources together in one department.
“There's the operational side, and there's the instructional side. I've done HR and I've done principals, but I've never had the marriage of the two. I don't know that we could have done this work [otherwise]. Having those two married together in the same department, under the same chief, really helped.”
The first task of the School Leadership Working Group was to undergo a diagnostic of district’s principal pipeline. “The diagnostic was not evaluating principals but evaluating the principal talent management system,” explained Elizabeth Dodson, a director with Best in Class who led the working group. “Hiring, onboarding, evaluation, professional development, efforts at retention, compensation: based on best practices across the country, how is your district doing at these various components?”
“It was very eye-opening,” Dr. Russell said of her district’s results on the diagnostic. “Principals didn't feel they had a voice. They were just being ‘volun-told.’ And so out of that we created a Principal's Leadership Team, kind of like a Congress. We'll give them a task for input or a project we're working on and they solicit feedback and work with their representative constituents. And then we come back to the table and do the work.”
The creation of the Principal’s Leadership Team was an immediate outcome of the working group’s efforts, but it was far from the only one. The ultimate goal of the yearlong process, as described by Dodson, was to “articulate very clearly what it looks like to be an excellent school leader. Because if you don't lay that foundation, it's impossible to then align your hiring, align your professional development, align your evaluation. It's the foundation for everything.”
This mission led to the creation of the Garland Principal Profile, a vision for excellence in leadership consisting of five key pillars (see figure below). “We started with just brainstorming, what do great principals do?” Dr. Russell said of the process. “If you walk into a school, how do you know the school is great and what are the behaviors of principals that make it great? Shaping a vision of equity and success for all. That's really what Garland's about. And we're continuously refining and enhancing that.”
Numerous district-wide systems have been refined and enhanced thanks to this framework, perhaps none more so than the principal hiring process. “It [used to be] a paper screening and then a 45 minute interview,” Dr. Russell explained. “Now we do a campus profile. We have [scenario-based] questions, we have coaching, modeling, we have data analysis. And each of the assessments plays into the pillars.”
This new, more robust process allowed the district to “seamlessly fill fourteen key principal vacancies in two weeks.” One of those vacancies was filled by Adrian Leday, who was thankful not only for the eventual promotion but the entire procedure that led to it.
“This process allowed me to showcase a wider variety of skills than I could in just a quick nine question interview that we did previously,” said Principal Leday. “It also gave me an opportunity to find out more about what areas I needed to grow. My journey has always been about continuous improvement of self and of my practice. And the [principal] profile that we now have actually allows me to see and measure myself, see where I am and where I need to go.”
This spirit of continuous improvement is shared by the district administration who gave Leday his promotion. The framework they’ve developed with the School Leadership Working Group helps to not only develop principals like Leday, but positively impact entire campuses.
“The areas of growth that we've identified for the campus fit the areas of strength for me,” Leday continued. “And so because of that, I've been able to add value to the campus where I'm located instantly, as opposed to just being there and learning the ropes and trying to figure it out for a year.”
And, having seen firsthand the importance of articulating a vision of excellence, Leday has developed his own for his new campus. “Our vision is FAMILY: Focus on relationships first. Accept responsibility for every student. Monitor resources to make sure they're used effectively. Inspect all plans to make sure that they are efficient, effective, timely, and, if needed, change. Lead learning experiences that are relevant to our students. And then yell and celebrate every success no matter how big or small. And so I do a lot of yelling and celebrating. I try to provide care [and] concern for all of those around me.”
That care and concern is vital to retaining an effective educator workforce. “When you talk about teacher burnout and teachers transferring and leaving the profession, that really comes down to a principal,” Dr. Russell illustrated. “How are they cultivating, nurturing, and sustaining their educators?”
The creation of a nurturing school culture, in turn, can empower families, earn trust from the community, and ultimately increase student achievement. “Parents really do understand the difference that a principal makes. If you're not in a school or you don't have children currently attending school, you don't necessarily see that. But the days are gone where the principal just makes sure we have heat, light and ventilation. They influence everything.”
That enormous influence is what makes undergoing the complex and difficult work of the improving principal pipelines so important. Dr. Russell and her team are far from finished: they have just embarked upon another yearlong cohort of continuing school leadership learners, putting into practice their stated commitment to continuous improvement.
“Great principals make a difference,” Dr. Russell concluded. “The principal sets the tone for the school. People look to the principal for how to respond in good times or in challenging times. How they interact with people becomes the culture of the school. Their core values transcend throughout the school. That's the power of a positive and effective principal.”