The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors. We will be sharing more author spotlights with you, and hope you enjoy learning about these writers who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following interview was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.
This month’s spotlight interview is with Susan Stone Kessler, Ed.D., April M. Snodgrass, M.Ed., and Andrew T. Davis, Ed.D., three principals from Nashville, Tennessee, and coauthors of Free Spirit’s forthcoming title, The Principal’s Survival Guide. Read on to learn about how the trio met, why they decided to write a book together, and how they find time to have personal lives in addition to running their schools.
Q: How did the three of you meet? And what prompted you to team up to write The Principal’s Survival Guide?
Susan: We teamed up to write The Principal’s Survival Guide because we felt that our shared experiences and lessons learned along the way would be helpful to others. We were hoping that our experiences could save others some heartbreak.
April: We all met working at the same high school together where Susan was an assistant principal and Andrew and I were teachers in leadership roles. When Susan became the principal of her current school, she hired Andrew to become one of her assistant principals. After graduating a group of seniors I had worked with for four years, I joined them a year later in an academic coaching position, later becoming an assistant principal. We began speaking at conferences about our work turning around a failing school and about how to survive the job of principal. These presentations resonated with conference goers, especially our session entitled “When Do I Sleep?,” which is all about being a principal, and we were often told how helpful this session was to aspiring, new, and current principals. We thought that putting this into a book would help even more people taking on one of the toughest but most rewarding jobs anyone can have.
Q: What was the best/most rewarding part of developing this book?
Susan: The best part of writing this book was the reflection component. The ideas described in the book are from our experiences, our successes, and our failures, and when you are a practitioner, and you actually have an opportunity to gather your story, it is rewarding to see that the journey has been rich and memorable. We are mid-career administrators and have much to continue to learn as we navigate our journey.
April: The process of putting all of the different aspects together and seeing how it could be useful to a principal. To me, the fact that the book is practical and real world, which is so different from what you usually learn in education classes, is the most rewarding part. How often in an education class do they talk about ways to deal with an angry parent, what to do when a teacher doesn’t like students, or how to talk to the media? But those are real-world experiences principals will have and need help negotiating.
Andrew: The time we spent talking about the concepts and the stories that went with them was a BLAST. Many times, we would be laughing recollecting or creating stories that had us in tears, but the rewarding part was seeing that the concepts we write about, especially the nonnegotiables, are actually a part of our individual practice.
Q: What is your favorite part of being a principal?
Susan: I love the concept of leadership. As a student of leadership, I keenly observe how others in our profession and in others handle leadership challenges. When I face a difficult decision and feel fear, I remind myself that leaders are rare and that helps compel me to do what is right and not what is easy. As a principal, I have many opportunities to be challenged about my leadership decisions.
April: Helping others succeed. My job is to support, to push, to problem solve. It is to be the bad guy when needed and at other times the hero saving the day. It is always to help every student graduate prepared for life beyond high school and every teacher to find success.
Andrew: Working with students was always the highlight of being a teacher and assistant principal, but now as principal, getting to support teachers and help them grow in their craft, while knowing how many more children that impacts, is the most rewarding part of being principal.
Q: How about the hardest part of your position?
Susan: When things go wrong, and they sometimes do, for all principals, you have to be strong, insightful, and decisive, and you don’t have the luxury of time to write a list of pros and cons. That’s difficult, but those situations, always make for the best stories!
April: Always feeling like I can’t seem to do enough or give enough. There is always more to be done and more students and teachers to help, and it is very easy to feel overwhelmed and lose sight of what is being accomplished.
Andrew: When you have supported and tried to help a teacher grow in their craft, but either due to inability or refusal to change they don’t grow. As a result, children aren’t learning, and you have to move that teacher from the school or the profession.
Q: What do you do to encourage a culture of tolerance and respect in your schools and communities?
Susan: We work hard to model respect for others within our school community. Our teachers treat our students with great respect, and we promote the idea of groups of students gathering under the umbrella of educating others and promoting respect.
April: Modeling what tolerance and respect looks like to my teachers and students, and then holding everyone accountable to create that same environment. High school can be a mean and scary place for kids, and that should never be because of a deficiency on the part of the adults in the building. Work must be done every day to ensure a nurturing environment for students where they can grow to productive members of society.
Andrew: The word tolerance is in our school’s mission. We read it every day. To put those concepts into practice, we have character lessons, stress the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile (we are an IB World School), and most importantly, I try to model those concepts every single day through my words and actions. We are a public school, every stakeholder in the community has a right to be there and have a say in their community school. The challenge for the principal is managing those different inputs that sometimes compete against each other.
Q: Principals are some of the busiest people we know. How do you like to spend your free time outside of school? Do you even have any?
Susan: I am a wife and mother of three children so I spend my free time at the extracurricular and school events of my own children.
April: As the mother of two boys ages 7 and 7 months, time outside of school is spent with my husband helping them grow into strong young men and “examples of what good students should be,” a phrase my oldest has heard more times than either one of us can count. In what little free time that leaves us, my husband and I enjoy watching movies, especially anything of the British/PBS variety, and with our son, anything superhero related. I also knit, crochet, and sew, mostly gifts for others.
Andrew: First comes family. I have three elementary-age daughters and a wonderful wife that often don’t get to see me as much as I would like due to the demands of the job. So when I do have free time, I try to make it family time. I also love to read, work out, hike, golf, and watch football, but those things don’t happen as much now that I am principal. That is a true challenge!
Q: And finally, our favorite question for authors: What makes you a “Free Spirit”?
Susan: I don’t like being told what to do. As a free spirit I challenge ideas and assertions and love to do things “my way.” I don’t want to break rules, but I like to see what rules are more brittle than others.
April: In my view, there is always a better way to get things done. I am the problem solver and the fixer of things. I am not afraid to make a decision, try something a different way, and deal with the consequences if it does or does not work. I am about cutting through the red tape and just getting things done, which in the world of education can be rare indeed.
Andrew: I think of myself as a very laid-back and humorous person, but I know that education is truly the light of knowledge that opens so many doors for people. Thinking about that and trying to convey that to children often gets me really energized, and I feel like a circus ring master to get them excited about learning, whether it be Shakespeare to an early morning class of high school seniors, or the parts of a sentence to a class of second graders.
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