Curt talks about his life and background, and his love of trout fishing (1:40)
Switching career plans from attorney to teacher, and becoming an elementary teacher by accident, and teaching at a private school in Albuquerque (4:00)
Making the decision to move from teaching to administration after four years (7:30)
Juggling teaching, coaching, family and graduate school (10:50)
Some of the biggest challenges in moving from teaching to administration (14:08)
Advice for those who become admins in the same school they taught in (16:25)
Curt shares a story about seeing one of his graduates come back and thank him (17:30)
How being an administrator changes the relationships you had with students and families when you were a teacher (19:20)
How to stand out when applying for administration jobs, and why you may not want the first job you’re offered (20:30)
The best leadership advice Curt has ever received – be a good listener and think before responding (22:39)
Being fully present and engaged with a student or teacher who needs your help (23:15)
The importance of respecting and nurturing the culture of your school (24:25)
Several books Curt recommends for current and aspiring administrators (24:53)
Why all school leaders should be on Twitter (26:08)
Curt’s favorite educational quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world” (28:00)
Advice for admins for working with their students (28:44)
Advice for admins for working with their teachers (29:40)
Curt’s “time machine advice – what he knows now that he wishes he’d known when he frist started on his path to becoming a school administrator (31:04)
Books mentioned in this episode
Apps and tools mentioned in this episode
Connect with Curt Rees
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Podcast Session #18
How to Unplug and Be Fully Present When Talking to a Student or Teacher
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/curtrees/
Curt Rees: “Turn off your computer monitor, flip your phone over, put your phone on hold or whatever it is so that you can be very present for the people that are right in front of you.”
Welcome to Educators Lead where we interview leaders in educations to offer inspiration and practical advice to help launch educators in to the next level of leadership. I’m your host Jay Willis and thank you for subscribing to our show.
Jay Willis: Hello Edu Leaders! Jay Willis here and I’m excited to introduce our featured guest today Curt Rees. Curt, are you ready to launch?
Curt: Absolutely! I am.
Intro: Curt Rees is the principal of Northern Hills Elementary in the Onalaska School District in southwest Wisconsin. He’s been an administrator for 15 years and before that he was an elementary teacher. He is a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky with a research interest in how district policies address student data privacy. In addition to work and study, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two kids. That’s just a brief introduction Curt, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Curt: Yeah, so where I’m at is in the school district of Onalaska right on the Mississippi river in Wisconsin so right on the border with Minnesota.
Jay: That’s a beautiful view up there.
Curt: Yeah it is and before we have moved here we lived in the St Louis area and both my wife and I are from the midwest, when an opportunity came up, she’s a university professor so she got her job first, and so when we had a chance to move back here to the midwest we were absolutely happy to do it. Great school district – three elementary schools, one middle school, one high-school, total about three thousand students, test scores look pretty good for the district in general. And our high school was named Blue Ribbon School and in terms of free and reduced lunch population at our school we’re about 50%, which is common for some elementary schools out here. There’s pockets that are a little bit different from that. 75% of students are white, and our biggest minority population would be Hmong which is an Asian sub group.
Jay: Ah, interesting. So what’s something interesting about your personal life that most people would know?
Curt: My passion when it’s not my family or education is I love trout fishing. Well, fishing in general but trout fishing would be that’s what I prefer and fly fishing and also the President of our local Trout Unlimited chapter and there’s a lot of conservation work, so it isn’t just about fish, it’s about making sure we’re taking care of our natural resources. So there’s a lot of work grant writing with other conservation group and the department of natural resources, because there’s a lot of funding that’s that out there that’s available to Trout Unlimited and conservation groups just to take care of our resources. This part of the United States, it’s gorgeous area and the gorgeous areas that I really like are the ones that have streams on them.
Jay: I have been fly fishing once in Colorado, and I had a couple, well, I had several bites and i have several that were within 10 feet of me catching them but yeah, I never really actually got any all the way to me, so unfortunately, but it was a lot of fun though I really enjoyed it. It was a good time. So tell us about your career path.
Curt: Yeah, so my career path is I wanted to be an attorney, which was the first thing I wanted to do. My first BA is actually in Political Science, but then once I got 2 years done when i realized I don’t want to be an Attorney you know I talked to some other attorneys and knew the type of work that they did, just didn’t seem as fulfilling, as something I wanted to do. So I thought about where have I been happy, feeling fulfilled in life and of course it was education. I had some fantastic teachers through elementary and middle school and high school and even some college professors so that’s what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a high school history teacher in college but there’s a million people who want to do that and actually I couldn’t read a map correctly – that’s one of the reasons why I ended up in elementary education. I have to set up my own clinical placement so I go to this school and walk in and talk to a principal and let him know what I wanna do and said “Yeah sure, we can get you going here” and I didnt go beyond the office and I was leaving I look at the school and realized I was at the elementary school I walked in to a wrong building. I was too embarrassed to go back in and say, I’m sorry you know lets cancel that placement coz I’m at the wrong spot, so I ended up in a first grade class and I was there a couple days and I realized elementary is the place where i wanna be.
Curt: So I got my elementary degree at Augustana College in Sioux Falls South Dakota and my first teaching job was actually at a private Jewish school in Albuquerque where my wife got her doctorate. So I’m not a Jewish person so actually this was before the internet becomes helpful back in the mid 90’s. I actually would go to Barnes & Noble on a weekend and get the Albuquerque newspaper and look at the line ads and you know and call the school that had ads. I called this school them and got an interview, set up a job offer and then I realized it was a Jewish school and called the principal back and said, I’m really sorry but um you probably think I’m Jewish, and he’s like, Oh No I know you’re not jewish or anything we just want good people and good teachers. So I was teaching a third and fourth grade a combined class in Albuquerque so a million miles away from home, fantastic experience just a great community at the school. All of my students’ parents knew that my wife and I are there and didn’t have family in town so someone had us over for dinner on Friday and Saturday all the time, loved it. So then my wife finished her doctorate, we move off to the St Louis area. We were on the Illinois side of the river where i taught third grade and sixth grade and it was in the Highland school district and really enjoyed that, that’s where I got my master’s degree at Southern Illinois University. My first administrative job was associate principal for half of the day and I got a little bit of experience. You know I had a lot of recess duty and a lot of lunch duty, so I didn’t get a lot of educational leadership and stuff but you can certainly learn a lot there and then I got my first principal job in that same school district too. I only taught four years before I become administrator, so I never did become that master teacher but things just work out. I didn’t intend to be an administrator soon in my educational career but things just happened and you know I got good people supporting me but since 2003, I’ve been here in Onalaska as an Administrator.
Jay: Was there, I mean you say you kind the fell in to I guess to administration, was there kind of a point you made the decision that that’s the direction that you’re ready to go?
Curt: Yeah, I always had some sort of leadership role in whatever I’ve done know so in school, I was class president for a few years, I was a pretty good student and other things that I’ve done like campus government and few other things and so I enjoyed the leadership aspect. Once I started teaching and working with a few administrators some I didn’t think…well some had problems and I thought they could do a better job and found myself thinking “man I could do a better job than you” you know a little bit of arrogance being a new educator at that time. Then even more important was just working with some principals who were fantastic leaders and just really operated their school well, treated the staff well, treated the kids well, and you can just get that great sense of community from the students, staff and the parents. So that was the most influential, just modeling myself after what those individuals had done for their schools and districts.
Jay: So what was the point at which you started to go to that direction like move from the teaching, teaching a class room towards school leadership?
Curt: Oh, probably you know the first move was just you know getting to a graduate program so this is when in Illinois and the way their program work is a you go to a master’s program and you can get your master’s degree and your principal license at the same time. Ah, so really the first move was also thinking about moving up on a salary schedule, being honest about that and knowing at some point I would move in to an administrator role. So, I said alright let’s get this master’s degree done, you know bump up on the pay scale and very quickly as soon as I was done I had an administrative job. But it was a really good graduate program, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, so I really learned a lot – some great practical experience that went along with it. The more I learn about being a Principal or Assistant Principal the more I learn to realize that I wanted to do it and thankfully I was in a school district that gave me some great clinical opportunities and subbing for administrators here and there. Sticking my toe in the water a little bit that’s when I knew, this is the job I would enjoy that I can be successful with.
Jay: That’s good, and what point was that when you started to take this classes just like you were married at that time, did you have kids yet?
Curt: Nope. The day I graduated, so both my wife and not yet born son were on stage with me. My wife was a professor as the same university so she was the one who hooded me. So the day I graduated our son was born a month later. I have some teachers and other friends who are thinking about going into administration and one thing I do to talk about a lot with them, you know, just making sure that you got a good sense of how to balance your life with time, work commitments, whatever your hobbies happen to be, but then also your family too. It does take a lot of time, but you know it’s an enjoyable time. You really have to be good at setting boundaries and priorities.
Jay: Well, how exactly did you budget that and juggle all the different things that were going on with your life, both you and your wife had successful careers that point, you were a teacher and she was a professor right? So, how did you juggle that?
Curt: well, It actually worked out like I mean I’m a pretty efficient person with using my time as it is but the graduate work I think kind of the prepared me for that whole time in management. So, I’m taking two classes first semester, I’m also coaching wrestling in the school district, being a husband but also being a teacher too, so I realized that you know if I’m gonna do all these things well I just have to really pay attention to how I’m using my time. So, going right from graduate school and having an administrative job I think just juggling all that graduate work and the coaching just had prepared me to make the most use, make the best use of my time when possible. Then I actually… something I really enjoy reading about is time management, well that sounds incredibly boring, but a there’s a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen and I loved it. So, that’s kind of my whole philosophy with taking care of my responsibilities that I have. So, the app that I use to manage all my tasks is called Omnifocus, it has different categories, one of the categories is called husband and dad coz I wanna make sure that Im heading to my son’s middle school, tonight his got a band lock-in so I got that on my calendar I’m one of the chaperones to do that. In just recognizing if I’m going to be a successful parent, I’ve got to have good health – that’s physical health and mental health so taking care of time is one really important way to do it.
Jay: So, I guess there something I haven’t really considered a whole lot before but you feel like the graduate school process and just learning how to budget your time effectively and be efficient probably prepared you well for being a school leader.
Curt: Yeah, it did. Just because the amount of work so that’s what I did every night, I’d get done you know at school, get my coaching activities out of the way so then it’s either homework or class every night. I think what it taught me is that really pay attention to the prep time you have during the day and use that time well. Along with the graduate school, and realizing I have all that time, was I had some great mentors this was in Highland Illinois and the superintendent there Jim Burgett fantastic guy he’s now retired but he would always encourage all the staff most especially the administrators, set your priorities, put family first, whatever you do for your faith make sure that’s up there. If you do all that well you’ll do your job well and I just appreciated him saying that. I knew that’s how he lived his life but you know that’s whenever would kick off a new school year he would remind us with that not only with the administrators but also to the staff members too so I just appreciated hearing it but then also seeing some great people model to make it happen.
Jay: Yeah, that’s good. So, I’m sure that somewhere along your journey there were probably some challenges that you encountered since you were moving from teaching to we kind of talked about that a litle bit, using your time effectively, but what were some of the biggest challenges you encountered from your journey from a teacher to a school administrator?
Curt: For me specifically, it was going from a teacher to school administrator in the same district. That was a challenge because it really changes your relationships and it wasn’t necessary a negative thing but when you’re peers with somebody you know it’s different in you can say things and do things but once you become that administrator your held to a higher standard. You should hold yourself to a higher standard you know and I understand that but you know sometimes my humor can be a little sarcastic and a little dry. I would have to be careful about some of the things I would joke about when I’m just one of the guys or one of the teachers coz I remember making a mistake – a teacher I really admired, we taught in the same grade level and then I became the assistant principle and I kinda joked about something that was picking on her and it offended her and I absolutely understand it.
That was a big lesson so that was a challenge for me but then also something kinda surprising that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for was a lot of counselling type tasks that I guess that come to a principal. There an article I can’t really remember the author of it but it’s about the principal as pastor and some of the things that will come to you just because of your role, i remember probably I was like 28 years old on my first administrative job and I had a dad come visit me and the Principal was gone so he talked to me just a little, let me know that his wife was in a bad mental shape that she’s been checked in to a facility. I wasn’t quite sure how to talk to the kids about it. This is before my own child was born I wasn’t quite sure what to do but there are many things like that come up when people come by and confide in you and some pretty heavy stuff and just recognizing I may not have the answer but if I can just be a good listener, know what resources to help this people turn to, that’s probably the best I can do.
Jay: Yeah. So, how did you overcome that challenge of just transitioning from being a teacher to administrator at the same school like you know how did you overcome that challenge or thinking about our listeners what advice would you have for someone whose doing that very thing?
Curt: Just be very transparent with the reasons for some of the decisions you make. The reasons should involve what is best for kids and some of the people say that you know a lot of times sounds clichéd but really I think that’s a powerful statement you know what is best for our students that’s what’s best for kids. So, you know whatever decision you make might be best for kids but it could be inconvenient for staff specially people who you would consider friends. So, knowing as principal what are your own principles and base your decisions on those things.
Jay: So, I’m sure that since you been an administrator in education for awhile i’m sure you have some great stories just you know the impact that you’ve been able to make it your own students, teachers but if you could share or maybe just one of your most meaningful significant stories with our listeners.
Curt: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s the most significant I guess but it’s one of them it’s so very fulfilling and reassuring…many of my first students are now mid to late 20’s and it’s fun to reconnect to them through social media, Facebook through the most part. It’s the reason why I got a facebook account and when it’s first came out I could you know connect with some of my previous students and I’ll talk about one young man Ed Gilmore, and I knew him I knew his brother real well and I had Eddy in class and a couple of his other buddies. Then to see what he’s done with some of his life he’s getting at acting now and with some movies and it’s cool to see. As I was moving once I guess I found a note from him, you know that he and another friend Billy Watson had written to me they must have been seventh graders at that time and he sent it to me and thanking me for helping him out and I was their Sixth grade teacher. So, I found that scanned it and you know tagged Ed, Bill and Matt and they wrote some nice comments. I love stories like that but the seeing what my previous students what they’re doing and you know no one has cured cancer like that but just to see them happy, successful people, they’re parents now, they have jobs, some of them moving to education. Those are like momentous things anything like that but I guess it’s gradual success that really that make me feel good about something with the work that I’ve done.
Jay: Yeah, so what would you say is probably the biggest difference an impact that you notice between the impact you have as a teacher in a classroom and the impact you have now as an administrator?
Curt: The Impact well, I’ll answer this way, what I really miss being in a classroom is the family that you develop. These are your kids and you got them for the whole year and you really get to know these kids very well. What I notice is that different now as an administrator cos I get to know some families so much better. Ahh you know you have like 3 or 4 kids I’m like have them for school in ten years so I’ve been with my current school for 12 years now and you get to know some families very well. To see all their joys and sorrows that happens to their families that where I can help, so like when I can see a family is struggling financially or they’re having some other issues just you know where am at I’m able to help by connecting them to the resources that they need for their students.
Jay: So, here’s a question that’s coming in from one of our listeners. What can aspiring school administrators do to help themselves stand out during the application process?
Curt: I would just say, most of good applications are gonna look similar but I guess that my experience with teachers…notice the paper stuff or whatever the online application program you know looks good. Just be you, be human, and my advice is often if I would be picking about the first administrator job is don’t take just any job because sometime they’re open for a reason – could be a bad environment, bad central office, just a toxic school, so be careful what you’re getting into. I guess just to answer your question is be you, let them know who you really are because when I hire teachers and when we hire other administrators in the district you know there are lots of candidates; it’s just about the right fit. So, just be 100% who you are so that they can you know choose you because you’re the right fit for them, but then also they’re the right fit for you too. If you have a good sense of humor, don’t overdo it, but be funny if you are passionate about that your faith or whatever happens somehow appropriately part of the application process or the interview, let those people know who you are.
Jay: Yeah, that’s great! Rather than trying to be something that you’re not and then after you get the position realize that you’re really not a good fit and nobody’s happy at that point right?
Curt: Yeah, even if you love your job there will be days when you have a tough time getting up in the morning and going to work, you don’t want that every single day. Be who you are, be genuine and all the people on the other side of the interview table are doing the same thing for you. So that you can have a relationship that is beneficial to you but also for the students, staff and parents in school.
Jay: Very good. I’m gonna transition now and give you some rapid fire questions now. First off, what’s the best leadership advice that you’ve ever received?
Curt: Be a good listener, I mean absolutely be a good listener and don’t respond right away sometime that’s all people want I mean this is good advice for husbands too. You know what just be a really good listener and ask when someone tell you something you know just get what they really hope to get out of it ask if you just want me to listen or are you looking for advice.
Jay: So, what advice would you have now that you’re a school administrator you have a billion things kind of running through your head that your trying to juggle, on any given day so when you have a student or a teacher that’s sitting in front of you and they have an issue that they really need to discuss with you. I mean what are the strategies or what do you do to get yourself fully present and engaged right then and there and talking to that person who’s in front of you when there’s a billion other things going on maybe some like really serious other things going on.
Curt: Yeah, I think you just have to be honest on everything that’s running through your head especially when someone just stops in. For example I had a parent just stop and see me yesterday about a thing she needed help with and I knew I have an upcoming appointment in 15 minutes, I just said “hey I’m happy to help you out but I have to leave in like 10 minutes, if thats not enough time for you lets schedule something else for you we’ll come back and take care of it.” And she just said “no I’m fine we can take care of this in five minutes” and we did. But then just like were preparing for this podcasting you know there’s somethings, Turn off your computer monitor, flip your phone over, put your phone on hold or whatever it is so that you can be very present for the people that are right in front of you.
Jay: Right! What would you say is your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Curt: I really pay attention to culture and a I think nurture the culture very well and you know the culture that we have with our school is that very community centered, making this a great place for kids and to come and teachers too, so extending that same feeling for parents so we want them involved. I really pay attention to culture.
Jay: Do you have a book or two that have made an impact on you as a school administrator that you recommend for other school leaders?
Curt: Pretty much everything Todd Whitaker writes and I love that stuff. He’s a direct person with a great sense of humor. The books that he writes are very practical meaning you can read them and you can go do those things. So What Great Teachers Do Differently, What Great Principals Do Differnetly, those were excellent. He also wrote a bookwith Steve Gruenert called School Culture Rewired, that’s one that I’ve read recently thats fantastic. There’s a book Crucial Conversations; it’s very helpful because as leaders certainly in education there are some conversations you have to be prepared for. Just to be honest be direct and also be humane and Crucial Conversations can help you do that.
Jay: Yeah, I heard a quote recently that like the impact you have as a leader is in direct proportion to the number of difficult conversations that you’re willing to have.
Curt: Yeah, that would make sense to me.
Jay: Yeah, that was really interesting. Is there a technology tool like an app or software that you would recommend to other school leaders?
Curt: I can go very basic; I would say twitter. Because twitter allows you to connect with some other educators who are engaged and enthusiastic about education you probably won’t see any lazy educators on twitter because it does take extra work and it’s not the twitter itself that has 120 characters that can save your life but the connections with other school leaders and other educators. That what could really benefit you whether it’s articles that they share or experiences they share and I know you interview other people and I got to know those other people on twitter first so that was our initial relationship started. Now it’s easy for me to call any of those folks or private message or just to connect with them to help me out with something I might need.
Jay: Yeah, so if somebody were just brand new to twitter maybe a teacher who just made a decision to go into school leadership where would you recommend they start on twitter?
Curt: Oh, this is advice from George Couros, a principal and a speaker in Canada, he said pay attention to hashtags. If there’s a particular chat that you enjoy for example if I’m a new administrator here in the state of Wisconsin I would probably pay attention #Wischat because that’s a conversation that happens once a week or WIEDU and you if you have anyone tweetting any of these particular tags they’re talking about whats going on in education. And many more others. Follow some of those hashtags and follow those people contributing there. But also if you have someone you connect with you might wanna look at who they follow and follow those folks as well.
Jay: What would you say is your favorite educational qoute?
Curt: It’s you know gets used with many industries but “be the change you wanna see in the world”, you know just live your life like you want and we can’t control other people. I may be able to mandate a few things in school but if there’s something I wanna see happen in the world do it myself and role modeling for me is expected in a school administrators.
Jay: Yeah, what one piece of advice would you have for working with the students that you serve?
Curt: Really dial up your empathy skills, sometimes kids are gonna do and say things that might really offend us or make us feel mad and that’s why I think about the acronym QTIP Quit Taking It Personally. I mean just try to be sympathetic as possible so if someone does terrible try to get a sense about why they did that and where they’re coming from and what we can do to help them.
Jay: That reminds me of a Steven Covey…I can’t remember which book it was. He talked about seek first to understand; then be understood.
Curt: Right, one of my previous superintendents, Mr. Burnett, was a big Steven Covey fan and he would share that a lot with us and I absolutely agree.
Jay: Along kind of the same lines. What piece of advice would you have for a working with the other educator first in the building we had the teachers?
Curt: As leader as principal… relationships really get to know them, just make time to be in classrooms every single day you don’t have to be doing an evaluation or anything like that. Get to know your staff members, their teaching style. I think the best way to do that is to be present to them. The more you’re present in the classroom the less weird it’s gonna be when you come in. So, if you walk in a classroom and everything stops and they say “oh can I help you?” well, that’s a sign that you haven’t been in that classroom enough. But then also just get to know them somewhat personally, that could be doing social events with your staff, or just stop in and eat your lunch with the staff members.
Jay: So, if after the show people wanted to reach you out and connect with you what would be the best way to do that like on twitter?
Curt: Yeah, I’ll be happy to connect with you on twitter so my username is just curtrees I have the same username in voxer that another tool that I really enjoy but then if you have an email or anything like that it’s curtrees(at)gmail.com
Jay: Ok, great! So last question, and it’s kind of an interesting question but if you had a time machine and you could hop in it and go back to the point in time that you are a teacher at the time, and you made a decision to move into school administration what advice would you give to that younger version of yourself?
Curt: I would say, you don’t know everything. I don’t know, if you could ever call me arrogant, but I think there was maybe a point when I was you know really new in administration that i thought I knew more than I did. Especially about instructions, so I would just say look, listen more and watch more coz you’ll learn a lot from good people who are around you.
Jay: Yeah, very good! So Edu Leaders this has been a great interview. For today’s show and other resources just visit educatorslead.com and type curt into the search tool for additional notes. Curt thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Curt: Yeah, thanks Jay I really appreciate that your good conversation and I look forward to other podcasts that you produced and I’m gonna find the once that you put on that are ready.
Jay: Awesome! And that wraps up another episode of Educators Lead.
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Educators Lead is a podcast created to help launch educators into the next level of leadership. This show is for you if you are interested in educational leadership as an assistant principal, principal, superintendent, teacher or someone who hopes to be a school leader one day. Educators Lead offers inspiration and practical advice to help you lead more effectively. Jay Willis interviews school leaders weekly to discuss why and when these educators made the decision to move into school leadership, challenges along the journey, and stories that made it all worthwhile. Educators Lead is a great resource for any educator looking to make a greater impact.
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