Guest Post: The Courage to Lead

Today’s guest post, The Courage to Lead, comes to us from one of the most dedicated leaders I’ve ever worked with. Nadine Naughton, a vice-principal in our school district, is a source of sunshine for all those who cross her path, as well as a shoulder to lean on when one needs support. Nadine leads her team of staff and students with purpose, creativity and genuine love. I hope you enjoy what Nadine has to share about leadership from the heart.

The age- old question about whether leaders are born or made is a well- worn cliché. After over a decade in diverse leadership roles from teacher-leader, district leader to Vice Principal, I have come to believe that a bit of both are present when analyzing and learning from influential leaders. Indeed some individuals are born with natural tendencies towards leadership much as one has a natural aptitude for sports, the arts or Pythagorean theory. However inspiring leaders must remain life- long learners and reflective practitioners to achieve mastery in this complex and challenging role.

My master’s degree in leadership provided me with theoretical and conceptual touchstones on which to operate as a leader, but it is the daily work in schools that has deepened my thinking and developed my skills as a leader. Underlying every action a leader takes must be the firm and unwavering practice of courage. I define courage in all areas of school leadership as decisive, fair and caring action in the pursuit of justice for children.

Niccolo Machiavelli in his historical work The Prince states, “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” Leadership is not for the faint of heart.

Within the education system and in our schools in the 21st century we are teetering on the edge of a new order of things. Fundamental changes to curriculum are necessitating changes in instruction and assessment. Ongoing developments in brain research are forcing educators and stakeholders to re-envision learning from a passive “sit and git” perspective to an active, inquiry-based one. The balance of power has shifted; the learner must take the wheel firmly while the teacher assumes the comfortable position of passenger. The role of technology and its potential for teaching and learning is so profound that it has many of us spinning as we try to determine how best to implement and support this rapid and undeniable force in our schools. The impact on teaching today is profound; and change is difficult.

We cannot establish a culture in our schools or district that expects and supports risk-taking behaviours in the pursuit of new ways of doing business unless we are courageous. Whether it is participating in the inquiry process with colleagues about improving instruction and assessment practices, initiating difficult conversations with staff, parents or colleagues, or challenging systemic structures, leading is a feat that involves both the head and the heart. The root of the word courage is “couer”- translated from French meaning “heart.” Challenging what has always been and forging new ground in schools, can be frightening. The moral imperative to act in ways according to what is just for the children and families we serve requires leaders to stay in touch with their hearts. I have never found that my heart has led me astray in making a choice between what is difficult and what is right for a child.

Leading in a culture of change is exhilarating but it also forces leaders to run towards the fear and not away from it. Courage propels the runner somewhat like the wind at one’s back. As we grapple with the rapid changes imposed upon our system through the forces of globalization, technology and economic uncertainty, what was and what needs to be for our students and the teachers that serve them, depends on courageous leadership.

Courageous teacher leadership in our schools is the heart of innovative and promising change in how we do what we know we must do for our students to become communicators, collaborators, and creative problem solvers in our world today. The single most important factor in improving student engagement, learning and achievement is the quality of the classroom teacher. This is no longer a debatable statement. International research and practice supports this fact in all high-functioning education systems. Our highest quality teachers catupult themselves, arms wide open, into new assessment practices and new strategies that are brain-friendly for kids. They stay abreast of current research, engage in the inquiry process with peers and utilize social media to extend their connections. They blog, tweet and share what inspires them as teacher-learners: often inspiring others on their journey. They do all of these things as still arrive each day excited and energized to forge new ground with the students in front of them. That is courage.

The role of the principal is to ensure that teachers continue to receive the support they require to develop into master educators through ongoing, collaborative professional inquiry, access and training in educational technology and learning-centered conversations in our hallways every day. There are countless tasks a principal must undertake in the course of a day, a week and each year. None of them takes precedence over supporting courageous teacher-leadership in schools.

One of my preferred courageous authors in school change and leadership, Alan Blankstein profoundly proposes that, “Courage is the connective tissue between knowing what needs to happen and getting to the business of doing it.” Dig deep and find the courage to lead.


Nadine Naughton

Vice Principal
Gordon Head Middle School

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Courage to Lead

  1. One of my leadership role models! Nadine has the rare combination of a super-charged intellect and knowledge base along with true caring. She loves kids and she loves learning. This shows in all of her work. Thank you for this article Nadine. Very important reminders for this time of the year. I promise to lead with the heart.

    • My treasured friend and colleague, Eric. Many of my foundations come from sitting beside you for 2 years on the learning journey that was our masters. Thank you for your continued faith in me and for your unbeatable sense of humour. Every OB High student who learns alongside you remarks- Oh Mr Simonson- he’s the best! You already lead with heart.

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