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Lighting the Fire: Leadership in Education

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Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal

Dave Veale interviews Jeff McAloon, Principal, Touchstone School as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.

Imagine an organization “where the unique strengths of individuals are developed and critical thinking, self worth and self-discipline are cultivated.” Sound like a great place to work?

This is part of the mission that is upheld by Jeff McAloon, principal of Touchstone Community School. I arrived unannounced to interview Jeff and had a chance to see the mission in action – it was very impressive. If you think about it, one of the most important leadership roles in society is educating our children – the leaders of tomorrow.

Running an independent co-operative community school is no walk in the park and I was curious about what would compel someone who had cut his teeth in a corporate environment to make such a radical career move. Jeff is a big believer in trying things once and this philosophy has helped him navigate the ups and downs as he leads his organization to fulfill its mission.

I started my interview by asking Jeff if he sees any parallels between running a school and running a business.

A: This is an interesting point. I sometimes get the sense that people are uncomfortable talking schools and the business of running a school and I don’t see why. Our objective is to have a phenomenal product – an outstanding education – to expand the curriculum and bring up great students. Our students are both the product and the client, if you will.

Q: To support having a “phenomenal product” what do you, as the leader, need to focus on?

A: The first priority for me is financial stabilization because we are only 11 years old. It has been a struggle from year to year. We face challenges such as whether we can even open the doors the following year, or can we hire these teachers or do we have enough kids to fill this class. So my first priority has been to come in and try and get our legs underneath us from a financial standpoint, from a staff and resource standpoint, and even the support structures for the students and the parents.

Q: In my understanding, a principal is both an educator and an administrator. What is your role as leader of Touchstone?

A: Good question. I really see our academics and our teachers as the educators. I see my role as supporting them and creating an environment for the educators do what they are amazing at – educating.

Q: What do you see as the important elements of leadership in an educational environment?

A: I really don’t differentiate this environment from any other environment. I have had the opportunity to work in a number of different industries and I don’t think it matters what your product is – the common denominator among all successful environments is the people. If you can’t get the right people together, working effectively together, then it doesn’t matter what your end product is. I don’t think you can achieve greatness without the right people.

Q: When faced with the challenges of running this school how do you encourage your people?

A: I try to encourage people to really grab on to the concept that there is a solution no matter what kind of challenge we are confronted with. We tend to think about future possibilities or potentials based on our perceptions today. I like to challenge people to say, “Yes, that’s a constraint today, if we were somehow able to remove that constraint and to forget that it even existed, could we succeed here?”

Q: What helped shape your philosophy on leadership?

A: I was lucky enough to attend a program at The Pacific Institute, based out of Seattle, delivered by Lou Tice. Tice, who started his career as a high school teacher, did a lot of research around leadership potential, cognitive psychology and sports psychology. He took the psychological theories about how our minds operate and translated them into laymen’s terms, into stories. He was a storyteller. It was a great program and it really completely transformed the person I am. Not just the kind of employee or leader that I am, but the kind of father and the kind of person I am in the community. I look at things so differently as a result of this program.

Q: So that experience was transformational for you, it totally changed your perspective on how you lead?

A: Yes, it really did. And since then, this philosophy has become second nature.

Q: What are the toughest decisions you have to make as a leader at Touchstone?

A: I recognize that every parent is looking out for their individual child and I can’t possibly fault a parent for that, it’s their job as a parent. But, sometimes as a school, we need to make a decision that is right for the entire school. Now having said that, I really strongly believe that we have never made a decision that is not right for the individual child, but the parents have not always agreed with that. It can be tough trying to explain to a parent that this is actually the best decision for your child, for the whole class and for the whole school.

Q: Ultimately, what is it that you want for your clients/students?

A: There is no way we can teach these kids everything they need to know going into the 21st century. Things change too quickly, there is too much out there. We can give them a really solid foundation, though. We can get them jazzed about learning – “Wow this is cool.” If we can get them excited about learning, then they are going to be lifelong learners and they are going to learn, adapt and change with the 21st Century, and not get left behind.

Q: You have a lot of great quotes on your office wall, which one sums it all up for you?

A: I always point to this quote: “Education is not the filling of the bucket, but the lighting of the fire” by William Butler Yeats.

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com. His column appears every other Thursday. To read past columns go to www.LeadershipUnleashed.ca

Published February 24, 2011 in the Telegraph Journal

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