Joe talks about his life and background and why he became a teacher (2:20)
The decision to go into education came early for Joe and his love of working with kids (3:55)
What motivated Joe to get his master’s degree early on in his career (4:50)
His early career path and getting a second master’s degree (6:00)
A great story about the unlikely way Joe landed his first interview when he thought he didn’t have a chance, and wound up getting the job (8:00)
The joys of being an administrator in a small, close-knit community (12:20)
How and when Joe decided to make the move from teacher to administrator (17:15)
Having the right perspective enables you to work well with teachers and parents (19:10)
What enables you to sleep well at night as an administrator (21:00)
How Joe stays on top of his game as an administrator (21:43)
How to deal with criticism on the job, and understanding the different types of criticism you’ll face as an administrator (23:40)
What it’s like to work full time and earn a master’s degree with a growing young family (25:50)
Some of the most important lessons Joe learned on his journey from teacher to admin (28:30)
An administrator should strive to create an environment where he could leave tomorrow and things would continue pretty much the same (30:00)
One of the most meaningful stories from Joe’s career in administration (32:10)
The best leadership advice Joe has ever received (34:37)
The two books he has co-authored with Tony Sinanis (35:05)
Joe’s top book recommendations for school administrators (36:35)
His top app/tool recommendations for school administrators (39:33)
Joe talks about the importance of his favorite educational quote (40:45)
Why listening to students is something that all top administrators are good at (42:40)
Good advice for administrators on working with teachers (45:28)
What Joe has learned that he wishes he had known at the outset of his admin career (49:50)
Books mentioned in this episode
Apps and tools mentioned in this episode
Connect with Joe Sanfelippo
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Podcast Session #14
Show notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/joesanfelippo/
This is the Educators Lead podcast with Jay Willis, Session #14. Let’s go!
Intro: Dr. Joe Sanfelippo is the Superintendent of the Fall Creek School District in Fall Creek, WI. Joe holds a BA in Elementary and Early Childhood Education from St. Norbert College, an MS in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MS in Educational Leadership, and a PhD in Leadership, Learning, and Service from Cardinal Stritch University. Joe is also an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Viterbo University. Joe has taught Kindergarten, 2nd Grade, and 5th Grade. He was also a school counselor and a coach prior to taking on an elementary principalship in 2005. Joe has served as a principal in suburban and rural Wisconsin. He has been the Superintendent in Fall Creek since 2011. So, that’s just a brief introduction Joe, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Dr. Sanfelippo: I think you kind of nailed it Jay, I mean that’s me and that’s how I started out you know, getting into the process of you know, what I want to do when I was, you know growing up and I started you know I coach, I started coaching at a pretty young age, you know just in high school and just in college and loved that and I think that part of me and all it was when I was in high school a lot of times, you know when I’ve worked with younger kids in terms of like just from playing sports that kind of thing. I keep thinking, man this is just like so exciting to see them get excited about something so that made me feel really jacked up about what it could look like and trying to find a job that I could make people feel that way. That was definitely something that I want to do so, go into teaching; simply was a natural fit for me. I think that was a, it just turned out to be a real cool deal because I started working with you know younger kids when I was in you know, when I got out of college, I started working with younger kids in the town that I was in and teaching some classes and volunteering and you know and doing some stuff at day care centers and that kind of thing and I thought, oh man this is just, you walked out of that with this energy that you just, you needed to get. It’s almost like an addiction but you just want to get back and help kids and you want to get back and help and you know the people in that area. And then just turned into you know just kept growing and growing and how can we affect more people on that capacity. So it’s been a pretty cool journey at this point. I think hopefully I got a long way to go.
Jay: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about the decision like at what point did you make the decision you wanted to go into education?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, the first thing honestly, I think it was really early, like I think I always knew I want to teach in some capacity. I just didn’t know like what. Just that I want to teach and I always get along with kids really well and so I think that really kind of you know lended itself to jumping into elementary, and once I got into elementary school, like those like the first day then I got there and I get in my class walks in. I just felt like yeah, this is what I need to be doing. And I guess I’ve always felt that way. So I think no matter what job I have, that connection with kids is really really important and I think I not even think I know that I need that on a regular basis just to kind of get my energy up.
Jay: Yeah, so tell us about the actual career path; you went to St. Norbert College right?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yup.
Jay: And then that’s where you got your degree in elementary childhood. Now, so that it’s interesting to me that the MS in Educational Psychology, so tell me more about that side of it.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Sure. So when I’ve left, when I left college and get a job I think, what are the things that; it was interesting because as, I don’t know what teacher contracts looked like in your area but in our area, when I started, teacher contracts would you know, the salary was based almost solely on your educational level and your years of experience so the, the best way to make more money honestly was to get yourself over as far as you could in terms of education process. And that’s what if I start that process early enough then I feel like I could really make a good living you know, in this field by getting over to the right as far as I could so I knew that at some point I’d love you know do something different and I didn’t know when but I thought ok, so if I start with this, if I get a degree in educational psychology so it allows me to be a school counselor if I want to do that, but I must try that so I did that and it was funny how that path kind of worked out because I went in to a I think, well I’ll just have this you know, and I think that you know it would be cool that now I’m in a classroom right now and maybe if I get to be a school counselor at some point I can try to effect change you know in a larger capacity and it just so happened that I got the degree and then like a month later, I got hired to be a counselor so a job just kind of fell into my lap and I thought oh yeah, that would be cool. I will try that so, I left the classroom at that point after I got the Master’s in Educational Psychology and you know that was a really cool deal too because I was a school counselor in rural side of Green Bay and Ashwaubenon and I moved in.
That’s, it was really really nice area; there’s a lot of really cool stuff going on. And so yeah, I loved it there and I coached there and I had just some really great people that I worked with and kids that I got to coached and got to work with. So I still get a chance to connect with now you know what would be like almost you know, fifteen years later so that’s kind of. Those are really cool couple of years of you know experience that I had you know in that Ashwaubenon and so once I got into the counseling thing, it almost triggered this need to effect change in a bigger capacity so I thought, oh my goodness and now I’m counseling and I could work with individual kids but now your chance to see all the kids and then I got that and it was almost like an addiction again, my holy cow, I can get in and I can effect change and help people take change on larger capacity so that’s awesome. What are, what would an administration degree looked like or how could that work out.
So I started, and then I went and got another master’s degree in educational leadership and I think the reason that I did that was just again to have that as a like to be able to diversify what I was doing so at some point, if I wanted to be an administrator that I, that I could and as fate would have I guess, my wife went to school on the other side of the state to college, the near side of the state, and was hoping at some point to get back in our lives to get back to that area. And there was a principal opening in this area and so I just kind of took a shot in the dark, thought I’dl just apply and see what happens and like I had no business getting an interview for that job, I mean absolutely none, I had no experience. I knew nobody in the area. I mean my resume wasn’t crazy good at all but what ended up happening was when I got the when I was talking to the deputy superintendent about, I actually asked them at one point like, “How did I even possibly get an interview for this job?” and so that was really a funny story because I, with my resume I sent a, that was a CD at that time or video of things that I would you know like almost like a video resume of what I could do, almost like a trailer of what I could do for the school district. And he actually said to me, “I took it home because honestly I was gonna laugh at it, I honestly was just gonna laugh at it of what in the world did he do” and so he takes in home and he puts it in a and he kind just like just staring at it and his wife walks in as says, “You should really give that kiddo a look” and sure enough, I get to, I get a call to come in an interview and when I started interviewing for that job for the principalship, it just ended up, it was like, you know, you kind of like get on a hot streak and you know like questions are just flowing and you know you just like totally on point with your answers and it was really a good fit. And it turned out to be a really good fit and that was in Eau Claire and I’m so thankful to them for giving me a shot to do, to do the principal job in a way that, that allowed you know, it just oh I guess that I had no business being in that room at all so …
Jay: So what’s in that video? That raises my curiosity.
Dr. Sanfelippo: So I just honestly, it was like a, it was like an infomercial. It was like a 3-minute infomercial about what I could do to, you know kind of raise the energy level, raise the excitement of what happened in your school district and what happens in your school, how could we celebrate kids, how could you know, empower teachers and yeah that was really it. I don’t think, you know I haven’t watched it in, I should actually go find it, and watch it, but it’s I’m sure it’s been buried somewhere. I actually I don’t want to watch it, let’s leave, let’s leave it alone because that was a long time ago but …
Jay: You could romanticize it now if you don’t watch it.
Dr. Sanfelippo: That was the best thing that ever happened to me. Taking it right there. I like it. I like it. So yes, it that was it, it was like a 3-miunte infomercial and we still talked about it, I guess so I have lunch with that guy and you know, you know we’ll just talk about how it, he just shakes his head and said, “Yeah, I just took it home to laugh at you and I really did. I had no intention of bringing you in for an interview” and the rest saw it and you know he’s like, “You know, you deserve to get into that room” and once I got in the room. Oh I just like, I guess it just worked you know, yeah it was pretty, it was pretty cool story considering that’s it if you know, a lot of people are trying to get into administration and kind to find out whether foot the door is and how to get like how to get to the interview and that’s, it’s hard sometimes because there’s a lot of politics that go along with school districts and I loved to say that there is not, but there flat out is.
Jay: Well, there are two things that stand out to me about that story and both of them just point to throwing yourself out there. I mean just getting yourself out there. I mean like you said, you just kind of throw out your resume thinking there’s no way in the world that I would get this but then the second thing is, you also added to that CD, that was like and both of them well kind of put yourself out there. I mean you knew that there was an opportunity for people to laugh at that and think, “What in the world is this” but you did it. And that’s what you know, that’s what made you successful that eventually. You know that’s ultimately that’s what helped you land that job.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Oh yeah, without question yeah, I’m not sitting here if I didn’t do that and that’s and now I’m in a different school district so I got that job and I loved it. I had a great time in Eau Claire. It’s a wonderful experience and all. It’s just a small school with 250 kids, no 220 kids and but we were in a large school district who serves 10,000 kids in our school district which is the largest in Wisconsin, it’s like it would be like a second tier. There were like 4 large districts then the next tier of the district is about 10,000 so you know it was still, it was cool and I loved it and I could see our building changed and I could see the culture on what was going on our building and then I just got to the point where I felt like you know, they needed a new voice and I needed something different that was just you know, I just needed something different. And my family and I had, we talked about, you know my wife, has always wanted to move to a smaller school district in a smaller community and I like grew up in a larger school district and you know obviously working in the green bay area and then working you know in Eau Claire.
Those are larger areas in Wisconsin so I know I’ve been like small town America and to really kind of connect with what it really looks like but everything that you hear about small town Wisconsin or small town in USA wherever the case maybe, whatever you want to talk about. Everything you hear about it is true like yes, there’s something different about living in a district that is, like everybody is here on Friday nights like everybody goes to one place for a game or for a concert and that’s how when I moved to so after I was in Eau Claire for a while. There is, one of the guys that was in Eau Claire when I was there, it was a district like an assistant superintendent in Eau Claire had moved out to Fall Creek to take an interim superintendent job and just as that one point would you just you know, “You want to come on and take a look at, we have this opening” and so I did and honestly I didn’t know what to expect that I walked into a room and but you know actually, in before I’m driving in the town and I see kids on the street and are just decked out and everybody’s got green hands. Everybody has green hands, everybody like everybody in the town. So I’m driving through, I saw maybe 5 or 6 people, I asked some driving in the town at different houses but every kid had green hands. Every one of them and it was all Fall Creek Crickets stuff. And I thought, that’s really cool. So I started talking about that in my interview. And though I wanted the interview to go forever like I wanted to keep talking to these people about what Fall Creek was all about. What I could do to help about if it’s a good match because I really had nothing to lose at that point. It was like, I’m happy where I’m at, at the same time I think that they you know, the group that I was with, I think they need another voice to get to another level and I think that you know maybe I could help build something else somewhere different, that kind of things so, so having that conversation just keep coming back to you know, coming back to you and what we can do to help and how could it be part of something bigger and they had the same kind of vision I thought, oh man, this is really really fantastic so, it was a no brainer and to come out and be the principal and then, and then a year later I interviewed for the superintendent job here because the interim that was there decided to move on and then he asked me to talked to him about the superintendent job, I’m like, ”Yeah, ok I’ll just give it a shot” and here I am so it was, it’s been a really cool path outside, it’s just like I said in it, everyone just to be a process from the superintendent stand point. They want to be clear that we were on the same page and I just because they have only known me for year at that point and I was the board and so the board I’ve seen were talking and I said, “What do you expect of me?” and they said, “We you know, we have a lot of really cool things going on in Fall Creek, we just don’t, there’s not a lot of people thatknow about them” and I said, “Well that to me, you know what like, I am not the best superintendent that you hired, could promise you that but I am definitely the loudest superintendent that you will ever hire, so there are good things going on here, I can promise you that people will know about it” and I think we made that you know, we totally delivered on that promise because I loved the fact that people are talking about the work that we’re doing in Fall Creek across the country and that makes me, that just jacks me up.
Dr. Sanfelippo: To be able to kind of go places and hear people screaming, “Go Crickets” and that kind of stuff, I mean that’s that’s amazing.
Dr. Sanfelippo: There’s really a cool feeling.
Jay: And this is your 4th year as superintendent there?
Dr. Sanfelippo: This is my 5th superintendent year.
Jay: 5th year ok.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah.
Jay: So, at what point along the journey did you make the decision to move into school leadership? Was it when you’re a counselor, you kind of mentioned that.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, I think that’s kind of where it started like I was just trying to figure out places that I could kind of impact change in larger capacities.
Dr. Sanfelippo: And you know, and you know there’s this old mentality of like, if the administrator dark side and you know like and oh you’re on that side and you’re on that side, come on, like were all in these things for kids and so I we’re doing all of these things for kids then we should act like that. I mean so you know it’s not about, you get out on one side and I get out on the other side and we make decisions and you do your stuff and I do my stuff. It’s like what, we’re together to try to figure out these thing out because you know, school has to look different for kids. I mean, if school looks the same way that it looks, looked for me when I was a kid, they were doing it wrong. Kids, they deserved something different and I think I found a group of people in small town Wisconsin, small town USA. That wanted to do things different. That wanted change the way that school looks. That want to give kids a different opportunity and that’s I mean like, that’s beyond exciting to build a work with that group of people that just like totally get set. And like we’ve tried so many different things here and no point has anybody in this building ever said, “No” to anything that we’ve tried. And we tried some really crazy stuff but at the same time, I hope that they feel valued in that process and if you feel like, they can go out and empower their kids and they can go out and empower their colleagues to try something that was that they never thought about before because they were like “are we gonna get support from the administration?”
Jay: Yeah, you know what I take away from that? And correct me if I’m wrong but just I feel like when you pour yourself out for others, I would guess a lot of administrators that get into a principalship and kind of like you talked about the dark side of administration. I would think that the difference between those who are super effective and those who are, who are actually making a difference in well connected with the teachers and the students. It really has to do with your perspective and your focus. Because if it’s all about self-promotion then yeah, I could see where there kind of would be a dark side to that. But if you really focus on what’s the best for the school and what’s best for the kids then you’re really all working together on the same team.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, oh yeah. That’s a huge deal because it is much more about like what everybody else is doing you know if you’re pulling together, obviously you’re in a much better situation but there are times throughout the course of my job, when I have to make decisions that aren’t popular that people don’t like but when I make those decisions, I think because we’ve built up a lot of social capital at this point where they feel like, well he’s not just a guy in the office making decisions, he’s also in our classroom, he is also walking through the hallway, he is also at a game, he’s also wherever. Then I think that you’re in a much better situation and I think the problem might, I think honestly from a superintendent’s perspective, you know we, as an organization or like as leaders, in the superintendent profession, we do not lack ego at all. Ok, I mean let’s be honest and I’m not exempted from that at all. Ok, at the same time, if that I mean because you have to be able to take shots because you are the one that’s making calls, you are the one that’s getting heat from the community or from the politicians or whatever. That was, I mean, whoever it’s coming from. But if you can reflect a lot of that stuff and understand that decisions that you’re making are best for kids and best for teachers then I think you get to still sleep well at night. You might not sleep all at well but you can sleep better knowing that you’re trying to do what’s best for kids. And I think our, our profession in general; the people that are the best, the people that are the best superintendents in the country are the ones that continue the learning grow. Not the ones, who get there, get to the office and think that they have arrived and once you think that you arrived as a superintendent like you’re the boss, you’re the man, you make the decisions, you are sunk. You’re leading a learning organization, if you’re not leading the learning in that organizations then you’re doing it wrong. That’s what our job is. To lead learning organizations so we need to get out and model that’s what we’re doing.
Jay: Yeah, so how do you do that on a consistent basis like what do you do to continue to sharpen the saw as Steven Covey would say, or just to continue to learn and grow?
Dr. Sanfelippo: I think the first thing is that you develop a network of professional educators that you can count on and ask questions to go beyond like the day to day operations of how can you solve or how can you help me solve this problem but how can you learn and grow together and the fact that I can call educational leaders across the country and have a great conversation about school and about what it could look like and how it could look different. That’s the biggest thing for me. So the connections are without question. The biggest piece of the learning for me because you could, the more connections that you have, the more people that you’re connected to the, doing great things, the better off that we all are because we want to try to emulate the things that are going out on different districts.
Jay: It’s community, the community. That’s probably the best way to being able to continue to learn.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Without question. Without… and I think that the other side of that though is you need to make sure that you’re connected to people not only that, that share the same vision and value but also of those people who don’t. Because if you are just connected to people that are doing the same things that you are, then you never get that other perspective and it turns into an aqua chamber. And you have to be willing to kind of diversify your thought process in understanding that there are a lot of different views out there and if you shut those off then you’ve just talking you know I guess into an aqua chambers wind tunnel of yeah everything’s going great. Everybody is doing great stuff. Well yeah, that’s true but what’s the other side of that you know, what’s the counter, what’s the counter point that at least have the discussion. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do have to acknowledge that it’s there.
Jay: Yeah. That’s good. So how do you differentiate between things that are just you know somebody’s maybe cynicism versus someone who actually brings up a valid constructive you know criticism.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Well, I think you take everybody at face value. You take everybody’s you know comments at face value. Meaning we want to make sure that they understand that whatever they say even if it’s completely off the record that it’s coming from a place where they are. And if I devalue that, if I just say, well that’s just that person being that person, I have totally devalued the opportunity that they might be giving me to grow. So, though I mean that you know, connect with that person on a personal level, or I might think that they’re just trying to stir the pot, that kind of thing, and then at least I still have to acknowledge that what they’re saying is real to them. You know and I think, I think you have to kind of waive thru some of the, I mean there’s a whole notion of there’s the naysayer and then there’s the antagonist. And I think that there’s two, those are two distinctly different people. Like the naysayer, the one that’s gonna call you on stuff that you do because they don’t think it’s a good idea. You have an argument about something that they feel is not gonna work in that situation. The antagonist is just going to argue, to argue, to argue so if you say that the sky is blue, they’re gonna say “No, it’s green.” That’s just the way they work and that, that’s not getting us anywhere. But the naysayer that has a good point, find out where they’re at, about why, have them you know, provide some relevant information on why. I’ll listen to that person every single day. If it’s just, “I just want to fight”, you know I don’t have much time for people who just want to fight. But if you just want a, if you have, to kind of wade through that, I’ll ask people so like what’s your experience with that. Why, you know. I understand, I don’t understand where you’re coming from, but I’ll also want to see where you’re coming from, so tell me what’s your experience that brought you to that conclusion.
Jay: Put it back on them. Yeah, like…
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah.
Jay: That’s good so, so tell me a little bit about just a kind of backtrack and talk about because I mean you have a lot of degrees.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah. It’s true.
Jay: And you, now were you married through all of these schooling or through them after these?
Dr. Sanfelippo: I am. I am. I’m still married. I was. You know she’s gorgeous you know its fine. So yeah.
Jay: You still are married.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Well yeah, yes. So I’ve got all my degrees, my gorgeous wife Andrea who was an educator as well. She taught 2nd grade in Special Ed and now she is, she went back to school. Now she’s a nutritional therapy or a nutritional therapy practitioner. And so she gets to teach people you know, about their health and connect with them and she is amazing in what she does. So she’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen. And it’s like if you understood the process of like what it is really looks like and getting you know, getting more education and getting people to experience this. And she’s a total cheerleader when it comes to the stuff and she understands it and she’s you know she’s always learning and trying to get better too. So I think that if you have that support in that process then I think you’re in a good place. The biggest issue honestly like when I started my doctoral program, our kids were really really young, really young and that for the first couple of years because my doctoral program was 4 hours away and I had to go on weekends. That was kind of a struggle but at the same time we all knew what this was for and I need to get it done early be done with it so we can experience this stuff that’s happening now with them. You know, games and concerts and events and all that stuff. Now I can be there for all of those things and not be thinking about when I’m going to class. That’s a pretty big deal. So looking back at it, I think we made the right decision, but at the same time, it was kind of a, you know, sketchy. It was sketchy in that for a while you know it’s just like, ok let’s schedule this week. How much time to get done and like getting the kids to bed and going back to work that kind of stuff so it’s a, yes, there was a different but at the same time she’s incredibly supportive and like you said, she’s an unbelievable teacher in her own right so I think, I am very very lucky.
Jay: Yeah, I can attest to that as well. I wouldn’t be where I am if it hadn’t been for the support of my wife along the way and her standing by me through some of my crazy ideas you know, and still supporting me. So just along that journey, and through some of those difficulties, it sounds like I’m guessing that probably the scheduling and just the massive amount of time that you had to commit to in order to pursue the additional degrees was probably one of the biggest challenges but what would you say was one of the biggest take aways like through that journey, and you know from becoming, from being a teacher to becoming a superintendent, what were some of the greatest lessons that you learn along the journey?
Dr. Sanfelippo: The first lesson that I learned is that it’s really, it’s about connection and it’s always about people and whatever process that you’re gonna put in place whether it’s like a different instructional practice in your classroom, a different you know professional development opportunity in your school, a different way to communicate with the public in from the superintendent’s perspective, it’s always about people and if you think that it’s not about people then you need to leave. You just need to get out. Because there are enough people that want to do this the right way then you just can’t be here because we have to be able to connect with the people that we’re working with. We have to be able to connect to the community that we’re working with and with the kids that were working with.
Otherwise, you know, we can totally be automated to be honest and the personal connection throughout the course of this process that you need to understand that people need to understand that without that personal connection, you really have nothing. And you’re not, people will work with you when they think, when they think and know that you care about what they do. Otherwise, like for, like from the superintendents stand point, you know superintendents in Wisconsin roll over every 3 years. So there’s like a 3-5 of your shelf life of superintendents so what happens is, superintendents go to a school district. They implement all these change and then 5 years later they leave and then somebody else comes in and does the same thing. But there’s no personal connection to that process.
You know I could, hopefully I could leave right now if I left this Fall Creek right now which I’m hoping that I don’t have to do. And there’s a board meeting in this week, and if they decide that then that’s ok. So but if I leave, I think we’ve developed the process that put in place, that it doesn’t matter who the next person that comes in. Though the next person that comes in is gonna realize that things are going really well in certain areas, some will need to be tweaked to get better obviously but the connection that we’ve made to the process, because it so teacher-driven, is so important that I don’t think the board would bring anybody in here to continue this work, if they didn’t have that vision. Because it’s about the people that built the program; all the best things that happen to this school district, I had nothing to do with. All I was, was a microphone. All I was, was a megaphone. A big, you know choose somebody to shout the cool stuff. And to be able to you know, to be able to walk through you know, go into other towns and like talk about this stuff that were doing. To walk through an airport and have somebody scream, “Go Crickets” you know, and to go to a keynote and have somebody say at the keynote that they know more about our school district than they do about their own school district. That’s crazy cool to me. And that’s what it’s all about because now people know about the work that way and that’s so empowering for our teachers because they know that their audience is bigger than the people that are right in front of them. And now, what did they do, now they talking to their kids about that because now the kids understand that the audience is bigger than the teachers so they’re gonna, it’s going to get better. And if our teachers know their audience is bigger, then they’re gonna get better too. We have just the place into that situation where we have people that get that and they want to do what’s right and they want to make sure that everybody in the world hears about it which is awesome.
Jay: Yeah, so I’m sure that you’ve been in school administration for a while so I’m sure you have some, some amazing stories just some really positive, uplifting stories to share but if you could take us to one of the most meaningful stories of maybe the impact you’ve been able to be a part of or at least be able to witness as an administrator.
Dr. Sanfelippo: So, ok so there were a couple of things that really stand out to me in this process. And the first one, was a young man that we do; we do have a principal of the day, ok so and then like the principal of the week or month or whatever to kind of depends on the process that were into that point. But the young man in my, in my first year here a principal, I was a, we were doing the principal day and he’s with me then during the morning and portion of the day and were walking around like you know every morning I walked through every classroom, say hi, ask if anybody needs anything that kind of thing and so he did that with me and so he’d walk into the classroom and he goes and shakes the teacher’s hand and says hi, you know what my name is Jacob, I’ve been I’m gonna be here and you know if you need anything so I mean, so you got to see a 2nd grader doing that which is really cute you know and itself. And so I’m walking down the hallway and as I’m walking down the hallway, I just like as I do all the time, and I just grab a piece of paper off the ground that was there right just those pieces of scrap paper on the ground. I throw it away and I kind of walk on and knew thinking not to get it and so about 3 weeks later, I got an email from his dad and he and his dad were walking through the hallway to a game and I was walking to the hallway, the young man starts picking up little pieces of paper and throw them away and I guess then his dad looked at him and said, ”What are you doing?” and the kid just said, “Dad, this is what we do here” and that was it. So that to me like totally personifies like what we’re all about. Just a little of little things like that, that really make them, that make what we’re doing here meaningful to people. You know, that’s really a cool thing for me.
Jay: Yeah, well that’s a neat story. So I’m gonna run through some rapid fire questions if you’re ready for those?
Dr. Sanfelippo: I’m ready.
Jay: Alright, so what’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Never give up the opportunity to say something great about your school.
Jay: That’s good. What would you say is your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Oh man, I would say, the biggest strength is to, is to celebrate the work that our kids were doing.
Jay: Now you’ve written a couple of books is that right?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, yup.
Jay: Ok so what’s the title of those?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Ok, so the first one is The Power of Branding and that’s really about how you can tell your school story and make sure that people know about the great things that are happening in your, in your space and second one is Principal Professional Development: Leading, Learning in a Digital Age and both of that through Corwin and that one is about how you as a principal can lead in learn at the same time as supposed to making it feel like it’s one more thing that you have to do. And I co-authored both books with one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, leader, non-leader whatever but Tony Sinanis is a principal in New York and if you have an you need to have … his that he’s just, he is one of the most unbelievable people you will ever ever met in your life and the way that gets people to connect and grow in his space in Jericho is beyond anything that I could even fathom doing so I’ve been very lucky to work with him and those two books with hopefully more on the way, where it’s gonna be something that you know, we can kind of live and hope people to take and learn and grow from.
Jay: Ok and so obviously those would be two books that you’ve recommend but are there any other books, you know by the way I’ll put these on the show notes as well so you can check those out. Are there any other books that you’ve recommend for school leaders or aspiring school leaders?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, the two, I’ll give me the two best books I’ve read this year that I think are total game changers and one is What Connected Educators Do Differently by Todd Whitaker, Jeffrey Zoul and Jimmy Casas. That book is phenomenal; it gives you really relevant tools and connections to how you can do things differently as a connected educator, as a leader in your building and the other one that just absolutely blew my mind was the The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros. That book is completely game changing so if you get a chance to read either of those two books, you are gonna feel definitely inspired to go out and do crazy cool stuff because George’s book is really about how you can you know, change the mindset of how you do things in school and Jeff and Todd and Jimmy’s book really gives you some tools in terms of how you can make more connections to people and both of those are you know for my administrative perspective, are essential if you’re gonna move the needle and you know create change because we talked about change a lot like everybody wants change, everybody wants something different but nobody’s you know not nobody but few people are willing to put themselves out there and try you know make that happen and you know what, it’s not always their fault because everybody answers to somebody like I am answer to a board of 5 right. If you are a principal, you answer to your superintendent, if you’re a teacher, you answer to your principal. Everybody answers to somebody and if the people that you are answering to don’t get it, don’t really believe in it, it makes it a lot harder to kind of move the needle in terms of what you’re doing in your space. Having said that, you totally can. You totally can. And I wouldn’t want anybody to use that as an excuse to not move the needle because they think they’re gonna get shut down. The way to do it is to make sure that people that you answer to have some stake in the outcome. Meaning, they have to like for me as superintendent, I have told you, we don’t lack ego right, we want to know how it’s gonna benefit us.
Dr. Sanfelippo: So go tell them; how it’s going to benefit them, go tell the board how it’s gonna, you know being a school board member is not awesome. It’s not awesome like we talk, my high school principal talks about all the time, he says if it doesn’t have to do with the 3 B’s they don’t hear about it, it’s not beans, bosses or balls. It’s not about transportation, food or athletics then they don’t hear about it. So if you give them good things to talk about. If you give them a stake in the game. If you give them an opportunity to really shine so they can have good conversations with people, they’re going to buy in to what you have to say.
Jay: That’s great advice. Is there a technology tool like an app or software that you recommend to other school leaders something like Boxer or Twitter?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Well, Twitter is the first one for sure because it does two things for you. It allows you to connect to educators as a leader first of all. And secondly, it really gives you the opportunity to celebrate the work that’s happening in your school. And if I was gonna choose one, I think if you’re choosing one platform to celebrate the work that’s happening in your school, you have to choose Facebook because that’s where 75% of people are. But at the same time, you can utilize things like Instagram and Twitter and Facebook all together so like if you use Instagram, you can push to Facebook and to Twitter all in one space. So that way, you’re not only reaching your parents but you’re reaching your high school kids who use Twitter on a more regular basis. And your middle school kids who use Instagram on a more regular basis. So now, you’ve really, I would try to find a way to make thing you know more seamless so it’s not as much about the. It’s about the process of telling a story but find where your audience is before you do that.
Jay: Yeah. What’s your favorite educational quote?
Dr. Sanfelippo: My favorite educational quote, oh my goodness, probably from Todd Whitaker: It’s people not programs.
Jay: That’s good. That seems to be a theme that comes up frequently just through a lot of the guests just talking and I’m guessing it’s probably because there’s a constant pull as an administrator towards you know spending time with paperwork and with you know policies and programs and that kind of things and is that kind of I mean, I guess, is that kind of why that seems to be a theme you think?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Oh yeah, definitely and I think you have to find the right fit. You know I think the, if you know my board is so supportive of the work that we do and the work, you know the policy, the paperwork; that all gets done. Sometimes it doesn’t get done like you know we push deadlines pretty hard with a lot of that stuff. But I push deadlines with that stuff because I’m you know, out all the time like we try to get out of this office a lot and spend a lot of time with kids and with teachers and in hallways and all that stuff and my two administrators here I honestly, I have no idea when they get there paperwork done. They’re never ever in their office ever. So which is awesome, I loved it, right. Because that means they’re with kids somewhere so you know and with teachers and whatever but there in the spaces where kids live and I think you know, you have to be out and about to be visible but you have to also you know from an instructional leadership perspective is not just about being visible, it’s about being visible in coaching at the same time.
Jay: What advice would you have for working with the students that you served in your schools?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Listen. The minute that you think that this place is more about adults than it is about kids, we have totally missed the point. This place has to be about kids. Has to be no matter what, it has to be about kids and we are, we are moving in that direction, we are not there yet. And our people know that and at the same time they also know that were celebrating the great things that they’re doing but they’re like, our time in, I’ll tell you Jay, our teachers are awesome like the connections that they make with kids, fantastic right. They haven’t even scratched the surface of how good they can be. I can’t wait until they emulate. We’ve just started this, a whole professional development process changed through years ago and they’re just starting to realize how empowered they are in creating their own plans, in doing their own stuff. We treat it like genius hour and so they pick whatever they want, however they want, do whatever they want, give them a full five full days throughout the course of the year that are just completely dedicated to that goal development process where we don’t have any agenda items at all and anything. They grow on their own. They connect to who they want to, when they want to, how they want to and then they’ll just tell us about it at the end. Now we give them more money for doing it.
Jay: Yeah, I like that. I often feel like, we are the thing that gets in our way most often so I feel like kind of the thing that, the take away that I’m getting from this is, if you get out of people’s way and not only get out of their way but also encourage them to innovate and bring out the best of what they have to bring to the table and that’s obviously gonna help them do that for themselves. You’ll be amazed and they’ll be amazed of what they can actually accomplish.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Oh yeah, yup. And you know when we first started doing that, still they kept things really close to the best.
Jay: Yeah, they didn’t know.
Dr. Sanfelippo: But you know what, couple of years later, the goals that people come up with right now are just sick. I mean they’re totally sick.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Like there’s 3 years ago they said, “Are you kidding me that’s true, what you gonna do like, come on, come on that’s pretty out there” and now they just do this as if it’s not them. They’re jumping on stuff, connecting with people, you know making connections across the world. It’s just like come on; we are far, there are 820 kids in the school district Jay, 820 and were making connections with people all over the world. Come on man. That’s about people, that’s about putting the right people in place and empowering them and our teachers; the way that they operate in this capacity, come on man. They are just like forget it. I just want to get out of the way and just say, just go get it.
Jay: That’s so great. What piece of advice would you have for working with the other educators that you lead, in your situation, both the principal, and you know, any of the other school administrators but then also the teachers.
Dr. Sanfelippo: I don’t think the advice changes. I guess you know, you listen first and talk later you know, the more that you can listen to them, where they’re at and how they’re feeling, the better. When I feel the most disconnected from our building and there are times throughout the course of the year that I do, that I feel completely disconnected because some of the stuff that goes on in the office like a couple of years ago when we went to a friend and we had a lot of planning going on through the referendum about the building construction and that kind of thing. I just did not feel connected to this space and it wasn’t because, I was still all visible but I wasn’t it’s more about like the drive by wave that it was about getting in and talking to people and that’s when I realize that it’s not as much about the first question. It’s about the 2nd question. That’s how you get to something specific that’s gonna help them, allow them to do the talking so you can listen to them so getting past the first question is really an important component from a leadership perspective.
Jay: That’s great. The power of the 2nd question. Absolutely a book title.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, absolutely! Maybe who knows we can, we keep talking about, totally I keep talking and you know we have, hopefully another one coming out soon but we’ll see.
Jay: Yeah, that’s great. So how could people after this podcast, after they listen. What’s the best way to connect with you?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Well, I think probably Twitter’s is the way to connect with me that would possibly been most of my time from a connection perspective. But looking, I’m @joesanfelippofc on Twitter. And also that’s the same on Boxer and on Instagram and you know I mean, so those three, you can certainly get hold of me and just reach out you know I mean like let’s talk about how to make things better for kids and for teachers and whenever you know, I don’t shut down a lot of conversations. That is I want to talk to people about how and where they’re at and how we can make it better and that chance through over the course of last year to do some really cool stuff and I’m speaking some really fun places and keynote a couple of different areas and those you know, to see people like really get genuinely excited about trying something different is so empowering for me that it just makes me you know, when I come back here, I can talk to the people here about the great things that they’re doing and how that’s empowering people across the country to do so.
Jay: That’s great. You know the biggest thing that stands out to me through all this conversation is that, it really doesn’t matter you know how big or small. I know probably some people might think that they just have a small school. You know what kind of global impact can we make or what kind of nationwide change could we start but just the passion and you know to have people yell at you through an airport “Go Crickets” that’s just, I just feel like there’s so much more power to be a conduit instrument and encouragement for change than probably what most people recognized and appreciate.
Dr. Sanfelippo: Yeah, you can’t like, it does not matter, and it really doesn’t. Like there’s no reason in the world that our school should be doing you know, there’s no reason that like we get a call from you know, the you know to go visit the Whitehouse as part of the future leadership stuff. There’s like, like we were real America and you know at the same time, we have people call us all the time to talk about the stuff that we’re doing. And like I said, the best things that happen in this building had literally nothing to do with me. They had everything to do with teachers and for me it’s just shout and connect with them so if I can take a great thing that they’ve already been doing, and connect them to another group of people who aren’t doing that or are doing them in a different capacity, to me you get two things, the first is the one you get some acknowledgement. The second one, you get more ideas.
Dr. Sanfelippo: So that to me is like that’s leadership. Trying to get more people connected to do great things and they’re gonna be in a much better situation.
Jay: Yeah. So the last question I have, if you could go back to when you were a teacher and you had just, maybe a counselor in your situation and you had just made the decision to move into school leadership, if you could jump into time machine and go back to that point in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Slow down. Definitely, without a doubt, no question, slow down. Your first I would say, your first initiative as a new school leader should be to listen to everybody. I came in with all kinds of new ideas. All kinds of new stuff that I couldn’t wait to get started and about 3 weeks I think people starts looking at me with these huge eyes because they didn’t know me right, the second time I did that in the second space that I was a principal, I just listened. That’s all I did. And we still got, well the initiatives actually, were very similar, in the first school and the second school, but at the same time the second one actually took less time than the first one because we listened to begin with, and we tried to see and the other thing I do is like simplify and stuff. Simplify everything that you do within the context of your, of the leadership process like, when you go, like in our, our school board has 3 goals, that’s it. We always keep that terminology you know. We always say, “We”, all decisions are “We” and we always speak that way. And we never give up the opportunity to say something great about our school. That’s it. Those are the 3 important rules. That’s it. Everybody knows that. Everybody, and we understand that and as we put that into our school too. This is what the board recognizes. This is what we might so that’s what you need to understand and they can recite those. I mean everybody, go to elementary school at the same time, everybody, if you ask a kindergarten or a 1st grader or the Fall Creeks schools, they’ll tell you. So simplify it and make sure that everybody is on the same page. But definitely before you even begin to try to move the needle in terms of what you’re doing, just sit back and listen because when you sit back and listen, you get a bunch of new ideas and you get people on board with what you’re doing and as you do it, if you’re out and celebrating the work that’s already being done at that point, now you’ve got them because now you’re celebrating that stuff from a social media perspective. Get out and you know and shout those things on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and wherever and you do that while you’re listening because they’re telling you about the great stuff and then you’ve valued that by putting your picture over that or valued it by tweeting something out about it or valued it by saying something on Facebook about it. Now you’ve created this conversation about value and they know you’re listening.
Jay: Yeah. Versus just you coming in you know, both guns blazing and then pushing your agenda on them right?
Dr. Sanfelippo: Absolutely, because and it’s not about people anymore, it’s about programs and like you said, “That’s not what it’s about man.” It’s about making sure that everybody in your space knows and understands that. It’s about the people collectively in that space needing to own the process otherwise the process will crush you.
Jay: Yeah, and then keep it simple. That was it, I really really like that. Great. Well, edu-leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com and type the word joe into the search tool to find his show notes. Joe, thank you very much for sharing your journey with us today!
Dr. Sanfelippo: Hey no prob Jay, thanks for the time. I appreciate it and good luck with the podcasts.
Jay: Thank you! And that represents 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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