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School & District Management

What Principals Learn From Roughing It in the Woods

Principals’ problem-solving and pluck stretched
By Denisa R. Superville — October 29, 2019 9 min read
School leaders paddle across a Missouri lake as part of an outdoor leadership experience that had them navigating the deep woods and put their collaboration, decisionmaking, and other skills to the test.

What do rock-climbing, rappelling over a 30-foot wall, and trying to find your way through nearly 10 miles of woodland, some of it at night, have to do with running a school?

If you ask some Missouri school leaders who spent 72 hours doing just that—they’ll say, a lot.

“Problem-solving as a team and having to make a final decision among a large group of people; gaining consensus within a group, and then everybody supporting that decision along the way, relate well to what you do in a school every day,” said Brice Beck, an assistant principal at Cape Central High School in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

He was one of nearly 90 principals and assistant principals who participated in the state’s “outdoor leadership experience” for school leaders.

Each fall, school leaders from across the state spend three days in the woods, away from the pressures and routines of their buildings to engage in a series of challenges that organizers say push them to strengthen their leadership skills and test their mettle, both professionally and personally. The experience immerses principals in activities in the outdoors—this year’s camp was in Potosi, Mo.—that take them outside their comfort zone, organizers say.

They must work in teams, with people they recently met, to accomplish their goals. That requires them to sharpen their communication skills, build trust, and collaborate with others who, in many cases, do not share their leadership styles—all things principals must master to effectively run their school buildings.

They also have to find the balance in knowing when to take charge, and when to fall back.

Candace Ramey, right, gets guidance as she navigates an aerial course at YMCA Camp Lakewood in Potosi, Mo., earlier this month. Ramey was among a group of principals challenging and strengthening their leadership skills.

“None of [these initiatives] can be accomplished individually, and so, in that respect, it’s similar to what we are trying to accomplish in a school building,” said Jim Masters, a former superintendent who is the coordinator of educator evaluation and training in the state education department.

To be clear, Masters stressed, “It’s not just ‘go out and play in the woods for three and half days and hope something sticks.’ ”

“It’s a very intentional process, and we work hard to make sure that the connection to practice is self-evident,” he said.

Throughout the tasks, school leaders reflect on how what they are doing is applicable to their day-to-day work, how they could use those skills in their buildings, and how what they are learning will help them become better leaders once they return to school.

Testing Leadership Styles

They rock-climb, rappel, paddle canoes, and undertake an hours-long, goal-oriented form of hiking, called orienteering. Principals must observe each other and write those observations in a journal, which every principal receives at the end of camp. Each one also has to do personal reflection.

Activities such as rock-climbing and rappelling address personal perseverance and force principals to confront doubts they may have about their abilities.

Lessons From Principals’ Camp

Jenni Hayes
Principal, Grandview Elementary School, Higginsville, Mo.

Attendance Year: 2014

One Lesson: Hayes learned to surround herself with staff who would ask the right questions and help think through details and execution of initiatives.

“You learn to really figure out who you are as a decisionmaker and how to rely on other people to help you make better decisions,” she said.

Action: Hayes rebuilt her six-member leadership team to add staff members who were more detailed-oriented. Now the team, whose members rotate based on the school’s needs, is comprised of people who are big-picture thinkers like Hayes, but also others who are deeply invested in the process.

“In general, I had surrounded myself with visionaries and quick starts,” she said. “They also were just ‘let’s try it, let’s go.’ And I had a whole staff of people who were going, ‘we don’t have enough information. We don’t feel comfortable with this. What is our end goal?”

“I got people who like lists, because I am not [one of those people],” she said. “They have really helped our entire staff feel more comfortable having a voice and sharing.”

Pablo Flinn
Principal, Normandy High School, Normandy, Mo.

Attendance Year: 2007

One Lesson: Flinn learned not to fall for the “aura of consensus,” by assuming everyone’s on board or understands what he’s asking for just because no one asked questions or viscerally disagreed.

Action: Flinn started using a simple tool, one that many teachers often use to check for student understanding, called the “rule of thumb.”

A thumbs up indicates the person is on board. A thumb to the side means the person is not 100 percent persuaded, has questions, but may be willing to move forward. A thumbs down means the person has questions and cannot move forward.

“That doesn’t say that’s a negative,” Flinn said. “It just says I need to help this person understand or this person needs to feel heard before we move.”

“The idea is to give it a shot, and if you fall short, OK, there will be other opportunities for success,” Masters said.

But other activities clearly stress teamwork—including gathering feedback and building consensus—and how leaders need to adapt as circumstances change. Take for example the orienteering hike, the activity that most school leaders interviewed by Education Week cited as the most grueling.

Divided into groups of 12 to 15 people, the leaders had to collect up to 15 flags, which were planted at various intervals along a course that took them up steep inclines, down into “hollers,” and paddling a canoe across a lake.

They started around noon, got a crash course in using a compass and a topographical map and were sent on their way. They were expected to cook a spaghetti dinner over a campfire along the route.

Their tools were what they had packed in their backpacks. One principal had garden shears, which came in handy when they needed to clear the trail. One brought rope. Another, after checking with colleagues who had do this before, packed a laser pointer.

Some school leaders were experienced hikers; others had put on hiking boots for the first time. Some were meticulous planners—or “fact-finders,” who prefer a detailed plan on how to get from A to Z. Other school leaders were “quick starts,” who once they got the task, were rearing to go. (The principals had taken an assessment in the summer that categorizes their leadership style.)

Kirsteen James, the interim principal at Francis Howell Middle School in Weldon Spring, got back to the camp’s base at 3 a.m., more than 12 hours after her group departed the previous day.

James’ group got off to a rough start, taking five hours to find the first three flags and spending hours looking for just one flag, she said.

“It took a while to collaborate and come up with a system that would work for us,” said James, “not typically an outdoorsy” person.

Part of the problem was that there were too many cooks in the kitchen, or, as she said with a laugh, “too many principals on the trail.”

“We were all guilty,” said James, who described the exercise as a great opportunity to see how other leaders who shared her “quick start” style took charge and when they decided to step back.

Tired, frustrated, and after a number of false starts, they made it back to camp with 11 of the 15 flags, she said.

In a way, the orienteering was very much like a school, where principals just have to persevere when things get difficult, James said.

“You could apply our experience to leading change in school, moving an initiative forward when you have some resistance,” she said.

But the exercise could also be an allegory about resources, which are often in short supply in schools and school districts, Masters said.

Candace Ramey, an assistant principal in St. Louis, scales a pole to climb to an aerial platform as part of Missouri’s “outdoor leadership experience” for school leaders.

When the sun is high in the sky, the school leaders have tools at their disposal that they take for granted, including the availability of light and the ability to figure out a route by just looking around.

But as it gets dark, those things disappear, the landscape changes, and so do the group dynamics, Masters said.

“When it gets dark, you kind of reach that point of chaos ... ,” said Jenni Hayes, the principal of Grandview Elementary School in Higginsville, who attended the outdoor leadership experience in her second year as a principal and has since returned as a facilitator.

“I haven’t had anybody really yell at [another] ... But you definitely get these moments of chaos as they’re trying to figure things out, and you’re letting them fail.”

Learning From Mistakes

Mark Burlison, the principal of Blue Ridge Elementary School in Columbia, Mo., and his group made it back to camp at around 1:30 a.m., with 13 flags.

Along the way, the group got lost about six times because they made decisions too quickly and changed course a couple of times only to end up further behind, Burlison said.

At 11:30 p.m., they sat down to eat and made the decision to collect two more flags before heading back to the base. Some of the more experienced hikers wanted to continue, but they made the decision as a group to end the journey. Some were tired; knees and backs ached; and not all shared the enthusiasm for soldiering on.

“It’s the same way in school,” he said. “Not everyone is ready to get it all done yet. Sometimes you have to sit back and work your way to that goal.”

Burlison, a second-year principal, is a hunter and outdoorsy guy, but was reluctant to take time away from his school. He’s glad he did.

A big takeaway, he said, is the importance of being clear and detailed about his plans with his staff.

“My goal is to start giving more information to people so that everyone, regardless of how they learn, they can feel like they have a clear path on where we are going,” he said. “We might fail on that path ... but this is a path we, as a team, as a building, decided to go on. So more open decisionmaking, more conversations before I pull that trigger on getting it done.”

Having observed how others with his “quick start” leadership style led in the woods, Rodney Edington, principal of the high school in Green Ridge, Mo., said he got greater clarity on why a program he had tried at his school had failed.

When he arrived at Green Ridge, he wanted to transform the 25-minute advisory period into one that would provide interventions and supports for students who were struggling and enrichment for those who were on track. He’d had success with that kind of advisory design as a teacher in another school, but he did not clearly communicate the details to his teachers. The initiative petered out because there was no buy-in from the teachers.

“I wanted them to read my mind and do it the way that I thought I knew how to do it, and they’ve never had my experience,” Edington said. “But they did not know my plan. ... It definitely was not explained well.”

He plans to give the advisory period another shot next school year, but this time knowing he needs others to complement his leadership style.

“I know that I need to partner with one of the teachers in the building that can articulate the details of the plan, but still carry the vision that I have,” Edington said.

School leaders Marla McBride, left, and Jen Tiller consult a map before embarking on a 15-mile hike through Missouri’s Ozark Mountains.

Delora Scaggs, an assistant principal at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Jefferson City, is using what she learned about building teams to bond with teachers she’s working with for the first time.

“I just decided that before my teachers can trust me, they have to know me,” she said.

She’s checking with teachers every morning, not just to see if there’s a problem to be solved, but to get to know them as individuals. She asks how she can make things easier for those who are taking classes at night. She sends positive messages every week to let staff and their families know she appreciates their sacrifices.

In recent years, the program has evolved to more explicitly connect the camp’s activities to what principals do in schools, Hayes, the principal/facilitator from Higginsville, said.

The program was incorporated into the state’s leadership development system, which provides professional-learning for principals at all stages in their careers. The system is tied to explicit standards about what school leaders should know and be able to do.

Networking with school leaders across the state, including sharing successes and challenges, is also a key part of the program.

For Scaggs, an activity called “positive bombardment” left an indelible impression. Principals were asked to share what they noticed about their colleagues while observing them during the camp.

One school leader told Scaggs that he found it humbling and impressive to see a leader ask so many questions.

“‘You did not care that people [would] think that you didn’t know something,” Scaggs recalled the principal telling her. “ ‘If you are a leader and you’re not afraid of asking questions, your staff is lucky to have you because that means that you are going to show them that it’s OK to not know everything, and you’re always wanting to learn.’”

She’d never thought about her need for details in that way, she said.

“I really appreciated that,” she said. “Because a lot of time educators don’t get positive affirmations, a lot of ‘thank yous,’ or anything like that.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2019 edition of Education Week as Deep in the Woods, a Test of Leadership and Resolve

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