As soon as Principal Renita Perkins saw the teacher's tears, she had a pretty good notion about what was wrong.
At the teacher's prior school, affluence and two-parent homes were the norm. On the flip side, Nashville's Cumberland Elementary has mainly disadvantaged minority students. Perkins had discussed this potential problem with the teacher when she hired her.
But now, here she was, at her wits' end over two difficult students in her fourth-grade class. Their behavior had crossed the line into physical fighting.
"I had to stop myself and say, 'Wait a minute. Don't make a prejudgment,' " says Perkins, who'd had a particularly hectic day. "I listened to the whole situation, and I just had the realization that she is working hard and doing her best." Perkins also recalled that the students had acted up quite a bit the year before.
A gentle ear and tips for the teacher plus a disciplinary action delivered to the students in a way that only a principal can-worked like chicken soup in clearing the distraught woman's mind. The next day, as she thanked Perkins, the teacher revealed that she had just gotten her best night's sleep in three weeks.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. That reminder to listen is just one habit helping Perkins and many others at Metro Nashville schools to lead more effective and fulfilling lives-both on and off the job.
When Director of Schools Pedro Garcia arrived in the district, he unpacked more than his belongings. His two previous districts in California had implemented training in Stephen R. Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The director decided it would be a good move for Nashville.
To Garcia, the training is a means to an end. It's no coincidence that his line of thinking is a Covey habit, too: Begin with the end in mind. Metro's vision is lofty-to become the top-performing district in the nation. But thinking big suits this mecca of country music.
Covey's habits are "a life-changing model that give people the tools to get
from dependence, to independence, to interdependence," Garcia says.
And by people, he means everyone from administrators, teachers and counselors
to students, support staff and maintenance, food service and transportation teams. Covey is "about personal leadership within your job or role," says Sharon Anthony, director of staff development/alternative programs. "From the time the kids get on the bus,"
they should be getting consistent messages from adults," adds Wallace A. McNelley, an assistant principal at Maplewood Comprehensive High School.
The Greatest Gift
Administrators and central office staff got first dibs on the training in 2002. This summer, all employees became eligible for it. The district's general fund budget covers $150,000 for the monthly three-day workshops, Garcia says.
Garcia kicks them off with motivating words about challenging yourself, says Nancy Moore, the Covey trainer who runs the workshops. He will refer to the training, held at local Lipscomb University through a deal that provides a rent-free, technology-equipped room (and even some cookies), as a gift.
It's a word that often appears later on evaluation forms, says Anthony. To help staff members view it that way, the district issues training days beyond the regular professional development allotment.
After Garcia makes his exit, the real work, which includes some tough soulsearching,
begins. For example, participants discuss emotional bank accounts, which contain "all of those things that hurt us, harm us, make us feel good," says Anthony. "Every interaction we have with someone is either a deposit or a withdrawal."
More specifically, a compliment may come off as criticism if the personal relationship isn't strong. Participants "are very moved by that. They start thinking, 'What I say and do and how I say and do [it] has an impact,' " Anthony explains. "There are a lot of foreheadthumping moments."
Another common epiphany is that change can be a welcome challenge. Moore remembers one principal who arrived visibly upset about a school reassignment. As the workshop covered being proactive, Moore saw his attitude change to one of hope and
possibility. That personal turnaround has paid off for others. "He's made the school absolutely someplace a kid would want to be," Moore says.
Covey's emphasis on a balanced life is "a constant struggle for not only me but for every administrator," Garcia says. Anthony has seen a lot of teachers "make commitments to take better care of themselves. You just give and give. Sometimes you've got to get replenished."
Julie Waters, Garcia's executive assistant who has spent 30 years in Metro's central office, knows who's who and what's what in Metro. Still, the training provided valuable contact with distant colleagues. "I got to know them better on a day-to-day basis and [learn] what their offices are faced with," she says.
Of her boss, Waters reflects, "It really is fantastic that [Garcia is] trying to bring everyone together so we all have the same values and guiding principles."
The Tipping Point
By June, nearly 1,000 employees will have had the Covey experience. A few dozen of them are trained as trainers of the seven habits. Metro's commitment to Covey is probably more intense than in any other U.S. district, Moore says.
Yet, it's not the only skill-building avenue for administrators. The year-long Principals Leadership Academy of Nashville covers such topics as data analysis and what drives achievement. PLAN alumni continue training and often turn to each other for support.
Garcia also personally teaches leadership classes. "I just feel like I want to keep on learning," says Perkins, who is now enrolled in her third Garcia course.
Meanwhile, 1,449 vocational students have gotten a taste of Covey through workshops based on his 7 Habits for Highly Effective Teens book. Next year, student council leaders may have the chance to do Covey training, Garcia says.
The lessons won't likely be new to them. "Students hear people talking about it, and we have posters of all the seven habits in our office ... [and] in the hallways," McNelley says.
The training efforts add up to a better district overall. In Moore's first experiences
in Nashville, she observed a fear of the unknown that's common with new leadership. Since then, she's seen "more people accepting and embracing change and really trying new things and to be innovative."
As more people study Covey, his principles start to impact the organization, Garcia says. "You tip to where a significant population is trained in the seven habits. ... That's when you see results."
Those results surface daily in better relationships and a shared vocabulary. "All ears turn when someone in a meeting says, 'This is a chance to sharpen the saw,'" Anthony notes. "We say it in a light manner but that means everybody's speaking the same language."
At Maplewood, McNelley says staff and students seem more actively engaged compared to last year. He attributes achievement gains and less disciplinary actions in part to the Covey training. And at Cumberland, Perkins is seeing teachers giving up more after school time to tutor children.
Anthony says it's a short-sighted move when districts cut back on staff development, thinking that it's "one step removed from inside the classroom- when really it's the heart of what's inside the classroom."
Melissa Ezarik is features editor.