Recently, Michael Arnold interviewed educator Cindy Hunter for The Teacher’s Lounge podcast. Cindy is a long-time learner, teacher, and administrator, and her leadership experience provides valuable insight for any educator. We’ll pick up on the second part of the conversation below, but you can also read the first portion in another CT recent blog post.

Michael Arnold: Let’s talk about some of the wisdom you have gleaned as a leader. Tell us a little bit about your PhD program. What are you studying? What are you getting from that? How has that helped to equip you?

Cindy Hunter: I have had two lifelong dreams. One was to have my PhD or my doctorate. I’d like to be Dr. Hunter one day. And the other is to write a book. Then I’ll be done. My husband says this is my last degree. This might also be the third time he has said that this is my last degree, so we shall see.

When I look at my doctorate program, I think the biggest difference in this program versus all of my education prior to now, is that it is not just facts. I’m not learning a bunch of data or even a bunch of strategies, but rather crafting a leadership style that follows best practices. The higher levels of education have allowed me to find my own personality. It has caused me to question some of the things I’ve done in the past. If nothing else, it causes me to do a lot more asking why I do that or why I do not do that or what would’ve been a better way? It’s teaching me to not assume I’ve got it all together.

M.A.: I can probably anticipate your answer here, but I can hear a lot of leaders saying, “I don’t have time to chase after another degree.” How would you respond to that?

C.H.: I don’t know that it’s about the degree. If a leader says, “I don’t have time to be learning,” then their priorities are wrong. Why do schools exist? For learning. What do we expect our teachers to do? We expect them to be better teachers every year. If we are not modeling that in some form or fashion, then we’re not going to get it back from them. My goal for the whole time I’m doing my doctorate degree is to always be reading something that’s not required. Am I picking up books related to my role? Why should I make mistakes if I can learn from somebody else who’s already made the mistakes? Am I involving the rest of my leadership in those conversations?

Last year I had my whole administrative team read a book together and we met every week and discussed the next chapter. It was a 15 minute meeting. It wasn’t like it took forever, but it set the tone and it also put us all together on the same page. There’s something about challenging yourself to question your own leadership that makes you a better leader. If you don’t have time to be reading at least one book, or regularly listening to a group of podcasts, or joining an accountability group with like-minded administrators from your region, I challenge you to put something down.

M.A.: I think one of the thrusts of your current doctoral work is raising up teacher leaders. Would you share a little bit about leadership among faculty?

C.H.: The high school that we’re getting ready to expand to is our leadership academy, where we believe that every person is a leader. Our curriculum in the new high school is built around that concept. The whole thing is, you imitate the leader in front of you. First off, in our curriculum, Christ is the ultimate leader we want to follow. Then as we’re following Him, who’s following us? Somebody is looking at you to be a leader like you.

Starting with myself, I model those leadership skill sets and then pass leadership responsibilities to my staff who are going to lead however I lead in good ways and bad ways. Am I transparent enough to tell them I messed up the way I handled something? Are we having discussions about the good and the bad in such a way that those staff members who we’re building up as leaders see the process and see the questioning, instead of just having a decision dictated to them.

For example, right now we have outgrown our building. We’ve outgrown our number of hours in a day. We are blessed at the moment. It is a problem, but we are blessed. We have parent conference day coming up, and our middle school has reached the point that it is impossible for every parent to see every middle school teacher in a single day unless the parent conferences are five minutes long.
So, the middle school teachers brainstormed an idea of how they thought they should solve the problem, and came back to me for my decision on their answer. But the answer they had reached would’ve gone against our mission. It would have allowed whoever signed up first to get an appointment. It would have been easy for me to just send them an email back and say, “Nope, that doesn’t work. Here’s what we’re going to do.” That would have been the quickest and the easiest solution. Actually, the easiest solution would have been just to tell them from the beginning and skip the whole process of their involvement.

Instead, I went back to them and we had a conversation. I told them that missionally, I can’t tell 50% of my parents that they’re not going to get to meet with you or that they’re going to have to take off work on another day to meet with you after they’ve taken off work to meet on conference day with their other children’s teachers. That doesn’t align with who we are. Given that, let’s brainstorm another solution. We came up with a much better solution, but it took a lot longer on my part and a lot more patience and a lot more of just laying it down and not dictating. The intentionality of that was to teach them the unseen part of leadership, of what my filter is, and how I get to a decision. I want them to see and understand what I do, and learn how to think and make decisions as they’re raising up people who are following them, whether it’s a new teacher who comes on staff on the middle school team, or a student who has obvious leadership skills.

M.A.: So, do you have a process for going from brand new teacher to mentor teacher leader in your school? What does that look like?

C.H.: It is not as structured as it needs to be. It’s definitely a work in progress. This year we grew to the extent that I have a significant number of new staff, more than we’ve ever had. Given the whole world of education right now I have a lot of brand new teachers or teachers who left the public school and came to private school which is a whole different world. I have two teachers who left middle school and came to elementary. How many different ways can you be a new teacher?!

We spend a good deal of time initially in the course curriculum maps because they don’t care about the rest of the piece until they understand what they’re going to teach. That’s really where we start. Then all new teachers are assigned a specific staff member that has been here for a while as their person to go ask a question of. So with those first questions of, What happens when the copier is jammed? Who do I go ask? they don’t have to ask the administrator when they’re still trying to figure out if it’s okay to ask the administration that kind of question.

They’re all assigned a specific teacher. These experienced teachers are not necessarily mentors as if they’re spending time pouring into them and helping them become better teachers. Instead, it’s more a safe place for them to get over that first 30 or 60 days of, I’m afraid my boss is going to think I’m not a good teacher if I ask this question.

There are two other aspects that I think help new teachers. First, if they’re in their first two years at our school, whether they’re a teacher with 50 years of experience or fresh out of college, they meet either weekly or biweekly, depending on their experience level and needs, with the dean of students to just discuss what is going on in the classroom. Tell me what’s working, tell me what’s not working. Many of those conversations are 10 or 15 minutes long, but sometimes they stretch into, Can somebody go cover this class because we need to finish this conversation? Those conversations open the door to transparency. They create safety and security, and it’s with the right person.

Then this year we added a book study, with Jim Burke’s Letters to a New Teacher. He goes through every month of the year and he writes a letter to first year teachers and it’s appropriate to what you would normally be doing in a school year at that point. In lieu of staff meetings once a month, our group of new teachers comes together and we cover the topic of that month’s chapter.

We’re getting ready to do parent conferences so we had teachers who had just survived last year as their first year of parent conferences share that it’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to be worried about it. Then we had teachers who have been doing it for a long time give the new teachers some hints to get through it. Then the administration spoke up and said, “Okay, now here are the expectations.” Having the teachers serve in those different roles is when you start to see who’s a natural at it and ought to be brought in for teacher orientation week to give more training. You also see who needs to be coached more about how to mentor because they’ve taken it too far.

M.A.: Absolutely. So it sounds like you do have a structure, layer upon layer with a lot of flexibility, a lot of opportunities to try things and to talk and to bounce things off.

C.H.: Yeah, I live in a box. I have four straight sides and four 90 degree angles and one door. That is my life. That’s not a really good model for the people side of the job. It is a great model for the policy side, for getting processes in place and all.Where I’m stretched as a leader is, how do I have some curvy walls in there and maybe an extra window?

M.A.: Yeah. I think we’ve all had leaders that just kind of carbon copy what they read in a book somewhere and force it on their current situation, and everyone’s just left kind of shape shifting, wondering about, How do I fit into this box? Nobody enjoys that.

C.H.: I would take that and go back to your question about how my PhD fits into all of this. It is in those conversations in the classroom when it goes from, this author just said do this, to, let’s talk reality. How does that really look here? You’re going to pick up a book and incorporate it with your staff. If it doesn’t work, then you wait for the next book and you pick it up. Find a group, find that accountability, find those conversations that are leading to filtering it through and picking the one or two main ideas out of the book that really apply to your culture. Laying the rest aside doesn’t mean you’re bad because you didn’t follow the whole book.

M.A.: With your permission, I’m going to ask two more questions. First, what makes faith-based education different and worth the investment from your perspective?

C.H.: I believe education changes lives. If you believe that, then what you’re teaching them becomes incredibly crucial. If you look at all of the leaders in the world, they may not have university degrees. They may not have some high set of credentials, although many do. But every one of them will tell a part of their story that has to do with the fact that they were learners and it was that learning that caused them to reach greatness.

Education is what changes our world. Education is what changes our students and our people. If you believe that, then you have to believe in the place where your kids are going to school. Then the question becomes, how do you want your children to be changed? If you look at the number of waking hours this child has in seven days, the classroom is where the largest number of hours is spent. What do you want them to look like when they come out of that school? What are you willing to expose them to or not expose them to?

Faith-based education is just the incorporation of learning in an excellent fashion. Not only are students going to be able to do calculus, but they’re also going to be able to have a personal relationship with Christ. They’re going to be able to defend their faith. They’re going to be able to open that Bible and study it and question it and learn from it, versus listening to some TV preacher who may or may not actually be teaching Truth. They’re going to know when it’s not Truth, and they are going to walk away from that. It’s not just about what I teach them in the classroom as far as facts. It’s also about what I’ve taught them about growing up, about what they’ve learned to become, about who they’ve become. They become who they are based on what they’re exposed to. Our kids will go to the colleges of their choice, but they’re going to leave our school grounded in their faith.

M.A.: Excellent. That’s a great answer. Second question: If you had a minute to just challenge or equip other school leaders, what would you say?

C.H.: Ask for help. Find that group where you can say, I’m struggling with this. What do you think? I don’t know how to do this. There is no single program that equips a school leader to do all that you have to do. We are the accountant, the HR specialist, the curriculum specialist, the politician – we are everything. There is no program that helps with that. Admit what you don’t know and go searching for the resources or the programs or the people that do know and join them in the support and exchange of what you bring to the table and what they bring to the table. I heard someone say once that God never created you to be a well-rounded person, but He created you to be part of a well-rounded team. As leaders, we can feel very isolated and on an island. Take your part of the well-rounded team and find the rest of the team.

Cynthia Hunter has always had a passion for education, declaring at a very young age that she wanted to be a teacher and then later that one day she would have her Ph.D. After more than 10 years in the classroom, she discovered that her passion was for figuring out what wasn’t working, what was preventing a student from learning or a school from accomplishing its mission. With a bachelor’s degree in Special Education she returned to the classroom and completed with a Masters of Arts in Christian Education and eventually an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration (and currently working to complete her PhD). She left the classroom and led a professional development program for an American school on foreign soil and then eventually took over the position as director. Presently she serves as Head of School in Charleston, SC, where she was charged with revitalizing a school that had lost its mission focus and was struggling with declining enrollment. Three years later the school has seen nearly a 60% increase in enrollment and a re-enrollment rate of more than 80%.