Kirk Linton is a Vice Principal with the Calgary Catholic School District and is the recipient of the 2015 Distinguished Vice Principal of the Year award from the Canadian Association of Principals and the 2015 Alberta Distinguished Leadership Award from the Council for School Leadership. He is a champion of inquiry-based learning, technology in schools, physical literacy and the Arts. He is also a trumpet player and recovering band teacher.
Find Kirk Linton’s Blog at https://kirklintonblog.wordpress.com/
Kevin DeForge is a Principal in the Calgary Catholic School District and was selected as one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals in 2016. Kevin was also the recipient of the 2014 Alberta Distinguished Leadership Award from the Council for School Leadership and is a speaker for various conferences and organizations like uLead, the Calgary Regional Consortium and the Rural Education Symposium. Kevin, a self-professed “techno geek”, is an advocate for student driven learning and believes in the integration of technology with inquiry-based learning to best support today’s diverse learners. Kevin is a competitive runner and enjoys time with his family.
Find Kevin DeForge’s Blog at http://kevindeforge.blogspot.com/
Kirk and Kevin share a little about their families, backgrounds, and hobbies, including Kirk’s love of music (he’s a recovering band teacher) and the TV show Survivor, and Kevin explains how he and Kevin began working together. (2:57)
Kirk and Kevin recount their career paths from college to where they are today (5:58)
Why and when they made the decision to move into school leadership (7:47)
Some of the difficulties and struggles they encountered during the transition from teaching to school administration, including a spouse’s diagnosis with cancer (9:35)
How they kept going through the challenging early days on their admin career path, while also making family a priority (13:10)
How those experiences made Kirk and Kevin better persons and better school leaders (15:15)
Some of the greatest experiences of their careers so far (and the greatest definition of fail ever!) (20:06)
How admins and teachers can work together to build a great culture of learning (25:10)
What to do when you find yourself in a situation where you need to convince other admins and teachers to buy in to your vision (28:07)
How the impact you make as an admin differs from the impact you made as a teacher and why it’s worth it to make the move (31:42)
How aspiring admins can help themselves stand out while applying for their first job (36:30)
The best leadership advice Kevin and Kirk ever received (38:15)
Relationship building is one of the most important skills a school administrator needs (39:10)
Kevin and Kirk’s book recommendations for school leaders (39:55)
How to stay in the zone at work while struggling with personal issues (41:24)
Their advice to school administrators on working with the students you serve (45:57)
Their advice to school administrators on working with the teachers in your school (47:00)
Here’s the advice Kirk and Kevin would give their younger selves if they could travel back in time to when they were just starting out in school administration (49:00)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with Kirk and Kevin
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Educators lead Ep 43
Students Come First, Systems Come Second
Welcome to Educators Lead where we interview leaders in education to offer inspiration and practical advice to help. Launch educators into the next level of leadership. I’m your host Jay Willis and I want to thank you for subscribing to our show.
Intro: Kirk Linton is a vice principal with a Calgary Catholic school district and is a recipient of the 2015 Distinguished
Vice Principal of the Year Award from the Canadian Association of Principals and the 2015 Alberta Distinguished Leadership Award from the Council for School Leadership. He’s a champion of inquiry based learning, technology in schools, physical literacy, and the arts. He’s also a trumpet player and recovering band teacher. Kevin DeForge is a principal in the Calgary Catholic School District and was selected as one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals in 2016. Kevin was also the recipient of the 2014 Alberta Distinguished Leadership Award from the Council for School Leadership, and is a speaker for various conferences and organizations like uLead, the Calgary Regional Consortium, and the Rural Education Symposium. Kevin, a self-professed techno geek, is an advocate for student driven learning and believes in the integration of technology with inquiry based learning to best support today’s diverse learners. Kevin is a competitive runner and enjoys spending time with his family. That’s just a brief introduction. But maybe one at a time, starting with Kirk, tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Kirk Linton: Well Jay I’m lucky to have a supportive wife. We’ve been together for 13 years and have 3 small boys. I’ve got a nine-year-old a five-year-old and a two-year-old who are my joy and inspiration and who also drive me crazy a lot of the time but they’re a lot of fun. And I also am a trumpet player so I play the trumpet and the piano and I’ve been involved in music since I was just a young kid. Still a musician to this day and in my heart of heart I think I’m still always going to be a musician and I still think of things like job interviews as auditions and presentations as performances.
Jay Willis: Yeah so. So tell me – a recovering band teacher. What is that about?
Kirk Linton: I was a band teacher for about 8 to 9 years but the problem is I think once you’re a band teacher you’re just always kind of a band teacher; it gets inside you. It’s definitely a job I always loved. It was one of my favorite things to be a part of; the students were always so receptive and engaged and music’s just such a powerful thing in anyone’s life so. I don’t think I’ll ever let go of that title.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well very good so you’ve got three kids you said?
Kirk Linton: Three kids; three little boys – 9, 5 and 2.
Jay Willis: Very good. So maybe tell us something interesting about yourself that most people wouldn’t know?
Kirk Linton: I don’t know… I’m a big fan of the show Survivor. I tend to spend my Wednesday night so holed up watching Survivor. Everyone’s got to leave me alone during that part of the day.
Jay Willis: Very good. All right so then next Kevin. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Kevin DeForge: Yeah much like Kirk I come from an education background and my wife is a teacher in Calgary Catholic as well. So the end of the day doesn’t necessarily end we still have those educational discussions. And I have two little boys at home as well and again part of the way we drive things, myself and Kirk is that we think about our families as well so what can we do to help other kids with our kids in mind? And then when I talk to my wife it’s what are things we can do to also support the teachers out there.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well give us a little history there with. How did you guys first start working together?
Kevin DeForge: Kirk and I?
Jay Willis: Yes.
Kevin DeForge: Well we were, Kirk was the vice principal at Holy Spirit school in Cochrane. And I was the principal so they assigned me to the school and he was already working there so they brought us together as a team.
Jay Willis: Yeah.
Kirk Linton: Just got lucky. Just had Mr. DeForge show up. , we get assigned to a school; we don’t interview directly into a school position. So we just have the good fortune of ending up together.
Jay Willis: OK. Well very good so. So I guess. Tell us a little bit about maybe starting off with Kirk here again. Maybe tell us a little bit about your career path maybe from the point you graduated from college to where you’re at now.
Kirk Linton: Well when I graduated from school and education I ended up as a band teacher in small town Alberta. My very first job. It was only a little town called Didsbury. It was the kind of school where the entire town shows up for things like a band concert. So it was like a very supportive place, I had a great principal that really supported me and took me through things. I ended up taking on a few different contracts and then at the end of the day I ended up teaching band at a few schools, one of which was a K-12 school in another kind of small town which gave me whole range of experiences in teaching all different levels of kids right so. So that was a great experience and then from there I ended up going into a junior high in Calvary. And then I started to get the itch, I got the itch for leadership and started to want to look a little further down the road, where I want to go with things, and at that point that’s when I decided to move into administration from there.
Jay Willis: Yeah so good from then, so Kevin tell us a little bit about your journey.
Kevin DeForge: For myself. It was kind of a gradual process I started working on a reserve school teaching and. What happened was eventually I kind of found myself doing a lot of things on my own and it was mostly because it was just such that the administration wasn’t quite working with things so I started to do those things on my own. And then when I came into Calgary Catholic I was working in a classroom and the principal saw some leadership skills in me and it got me into a coordinated teacher position which eventually led to me going into official administration as an assistant principal.
Jay Willis: OK. Kevin was there kind of a specific point in time when you made the decision to move into school leadership?
Kevin DeForge: I would say that a few years into the assistant principalship I started to realize that some of the skills and talents that could spread further so I started to look towards moving into a principalship. And so now just on a lower level but on an upper level and having more influence throughout the district so as a principal you have influence in the school. But because of meetings that you start to impact other schools and other guests throughout the district. That’s kind of where I went from there.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Kirk how about you? Was there a specific point in time when you kind of made that choice or was it kind of a gradual thing?
Kirk Linton: Well I don’t think there was a specific moment that I chose it but for me it was – I really want to go back and get some education right so I went back and I got into a master’s program. I just wanted to continue learning into so many interesting and fascinating developments happening in education between brain science and between things like technology and inquiry and I think it was around the time of the twenty first century learning kind of coming into the forefront. And I was given the chance to sort of start taking on some teacher leadership positions. And that was really when it began to happen. I remember walking into my master’s program. the very first day I went in there and they said. Just so you’re setting a very strong signal off to those around you that you’re interested in leadership and the professor there made a prediction he said I’m predicting that most of you are going to end up in leadership within the next year or two and. And I thought to myself he’s crazy. Like why would we all decide to go on to admin at this point? But what? Lo and behold, here we are, so he was right.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Well so what are some of the biggest struggles you encountered along the journey to school administration? I know that the extra class work and just juggling, managing your time effectively, is typically a challenge. But what were some of the biggest struggles that you encountered?
Kirk Linton: Are you talking to me Jay?
Jay Willis: Yes.
Kirk Linton: I didn’t really have the typical experience of heading into admin from the standpoint of…first of all I went it so that the education side first – I did my Master’s first. I think I got about two thirds of the course work into my master’s degree when we were having some personal stuff at home and my wife had found a lump on her neck and so we what we found out is that she ended up being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So she actually had cancer.
It was one of those things that you have a make or break moment there where you sit down as a family and decide (we had a two-year-old at the time) and you have to decide do we continue pursuing this? Is this something of value? Or do we ditch it focus on getting healthy? Which I mean it was absolutely the most important thing for everyone there. But what I found actually is a ton of support. I had lots of support around me both through my Master’s program and also at work. Also through family and friends and so it really was a process of everyone coming together. And it gave me a focus during that time so it was a pretty low time for my family but it was one of those things that having the focus and having something to work towards and having people around me that supported be made it just a massive difference for us. So it was a tough time, but it was something that became a source of strength and it was something that I think it helps to inform me now as a school leader heading into schools.
Jay Willis: Yeah. My wife actually went through cancer right after the birth of our first child our nine-year-old son. So I can understand…job and just managing anything – it really does help put life in perspective for sure. But it certainly makes things difficult.
Kirk Linton: We’ve got a lot in common. Yeah, I think it changes how you deal with people. I think it helps you to see the humanity in everyone. And to know that everyone’s going through their own journey and bringing their own stuff with them every day when they come to work. And your kids – when kids are coming into your office or into the school they’re all bringing their own stuff with them. And I think it just makes you a little bit more human.
Jay Willis: Yeah. Yes, Kevin what would you say were some of the biggest challenges that you faced just in the path to becoming a school administrator?
Kevin DeForge: Well, things for me weren’t as dramatic as that but it was balancing life between family and work So you’re doing a assistant principal job. You’re coming home to a young boy – at that time I had one and then the second one on the way. My wife was working so there was that. It was trying to balance life in general where you have three facets of your life coming together. And it was kind of one of those things where you really had to be careful and I took all my courses online so that I could spend the time face to face with my family. And then when they went to bed I could work on the Master’s part of things.
Jay Willis: What are some ways that you did manage that? So that your family still felt like they were important. What are some ways that you I guess continue to stay connected with your family and still make that a priority in the midst of all the chaos?
Kevin DeForge: For me it was sectioning off time. And so part of it being an online course meant that I could do things when I needed to, how I needed to, and submit it in various ways. So that was great. But the other piece of it was, not starting until a certain time when everybody was in bed and the night was done, homework was done, and life was going on…that’s when I could take it and start doing some of the masters work. And yeah that meant a lot of sleepless nights and getting up early continuing with life at work but that’s what we had to do to balance it out.
Kirk Linton: I agree. It was compartmentalizing some of your life – you’ve got to be able to leave different things at different times. You also have to be able to let it drop at some point and say “I’ve done enough. This course work is important but now I’ve spent enough time on this and now it’s time for my family time or this work thing.” I found that the whole process of going into my education my master’s degree energized me, so I feel like it brought energy to my personal life, it brought energy my professional life, and so that for me was a huge deal. It was just getting energized all the way around just from learning. I think the other piece too, is that I can be a little proud sometimes but it was a good opportunity to say I can’t do it all. I think it was allowing people to help me and help us. I like to be really independent, try to do my thing and take care of my own business, but at the end of a day I think, going through the process that we went through taught us to take a step back. And sometimes allowing other people will help out. I couldn’t have gone through it without my family, without my in-laws, without all these other people who came around and just helped out and so it’s allowing those people to do their part in your life. I think it takes a little humility too.
Jay Willis: Yeah. That’s not easy.
Kevin DeForge: I mean family was key for me as well. But a lot of times the in-laws kicked in when I had to get assignments done.
Jay Willis: Yeah, yeah well so I know that for myself. And one example would be when my wife was battling cancer, I know that even though I probably wouldn’t choose certain circumstances that I have encountered in my life. At the same time, I can’t deny how I’ve grown through those times of adversity so. And fact even like my most difficult professors in college, I did not like them at the time, but looking back those are actually some of the classes that I learned the most from. And so I guess my question would be like through some of the struggles that you encountered on the path to becoming an administrator and maybe even speaking to like your first year or two in an administrative role, what are some things that you learned and how do you feel like you’ve grown through those struggles?
Kevin DeForge: Who do you want to start with Kirk or myself?
Jay Willis: Just jump in.
Kevin DeForge: Start off, I think at in terms of the struggles I think I learned how to stay the course in a lot of cases where you if you’re doing the right things for kids and education whatever the struggles may be, you can bring people on board and start to move forward with things. And they made me grow as a person and made me start to really reflect on what I do and why I do it and what is my purpose. And filter out the things that are important and continue to move with that as well. And sometimes people working with you or challenging you make you realize that this wasn’t something to stand on or something to worry about. And so I’ve learned to sort of move forward in the ways that are best for the people around me.
Kirk Linton: The same for me. Like I was saying before, the way to admin for me was paved through teacher leadership. Which is kind of a different beast altogether and I think we tend to underestimate the role of teacher leaders in a lot of ways. When I became a formal leader in a school I feel like I actually had less of an influence in some ways really because when you’re a teacher leader, you’re a colleague, you’re someone who comes alongside the other people that you’re working with and sometimes they’re willing to be influenced by you or to do different things that they might not be able to do for a formal leader who comes in and dictates a certain thing and they might all disagree and they might not want to take part but as a teacher leader you might have that say.
The biggest thing for me was having a vision that is open enough and flexible enough that you can allow other people to be under your umbrella. I think I came in with a really specific idea what I was hoping to accomplish. I think I went hardcore into trying to accomplish those goals right off the bat and I ended up putting a few people off and just having a little bit of conflict along the way. Which I think even a little bit of conflict goes with the territory – you’re going to have issues where people are not going to get along, they may not agree with you, they might have a different take on things. So you have to expect that to happen, but you also have to create the room for your vision to shift and change and it needs to be owned by the people around you.
So at the end of the day, I have to share my vision and then I have to let it go. I have to release it and I have to allow it to grow into what it’s going to be. I think for me it was also focusing on the fact that I’m not going to get everyone to come on side with me. As a school leader I have to focus on the few; I have to go from a strengths based approach; I have to go to the people who I know are going to take ownership, they’re going to run with the thing, and then allow them to grow in their own way. As opposed to trying to impose my own vision on everybody all the time. And I think so for me, the key to it was focusing on those few people. And really making sure that I allowed them the room to move and take ownership on their own, rather than feeling like I was the one in charge of where the vision went.
Kevin DeForge: We tend to call those people “tall poppies.” Those are the people on staff that we know can go with it, and can take a lot of the leadership roles and so you want to encourage the tall poppies to do the things they need to do and not get in their way. Because then the vision actually spreads faster. And I find that if it’s coming from me all the time I’m coming from Kirk all the time, then teachers are going to wait you out if they’re not buying into that vision. But if other teachers are getting excited about it and seeing new things happen and things are happening all around them. They want to be a part of that in some little way.
Kirk Linton: For me it was is the idea of critical mass. There’s a tipping point where you’re going to move a staff where you’ve got enough people enough moments of moving forward that those few people who are never coming on side will eventually either just fade away, they’ll choose to leave, or they’ll come on side. So it’s just getting those last few people and sometimes you don’t even need to have those last few people to have a change in the school, transform the school enough that you’ve got the vision there.
Jay Willis: So I guess you’ve both been in education and school leadership for a while, so I’m sure you have some really awesome stories of just the impact you’ve been able to be a part of in the position that you’re in. But if you could each just kind of take a moment and share like one of your most meaningful stories of impact that you’ve had a chance to be a part of.
Kevin DeForge: Do you want to go first Kirk?
Kirk Linton: Sure. I think for me there’s a couple things that pop to mind. The first one was just the chance to work with Kevin DeForge here. When you have a principal/vice principal relationship it can be a little tricky especially in this situation that we have where you’re assigned, you’re placed into a school. It’s kind of like an arranged marriage -you might be a little tentative, you’re a little uncertain but you better find some chemistry real fast. I was lucky to work in an environment with Kevin that was open. It was trusting and collaborative and it was lots of fun. At the end of the day, we laughed; I think we laughed almost every single day and I think that can’t be underestimated. Because the mood comes down from the admin and it spreads really quickly right you sneeze in the admin and the whole staff has caught a cold. So, in our case, we just had fun. We were constantly laughing. We’ve got lots of pictures that could show up on the Internet mistakenly – things like dressing up like fairies and duct taped to walls and all kinds of stuff going on.
We talked a lot about the what/if thing. So what if the best happened? What if the things that we wanted to occur could actually occur? A lot of times we also did a lot of WTFing, which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. But the bottom line is we always asked the teachers. What can happen? And just say to them it’s OK to fail. I think it’s one of my favorite sayings from Kevin is the fail stands for First Attempt In Learning. And I think you encourage that not just for the students. But with the staff. And with me as well right so there was a sense that it is OK to fail, it’s OK to try and have it not go well. What’s not OK is just not trying. So when the best happens, when you have a chemistry, between the admin and you have a similar vision in openness and honesty and fun, I think anything can happen.
Kevin DeForge: Have to agree. I would say working with Kirk has been great and I did enjoy our time together it’s sad that they split up the dynamic duo. That being said I’ve moved on and I’m working with another assistant principal who’s doing fantastic as well and so I think part of it is seeing the best in everybody. And wherever you go adapting to what the culture needs to be. In terms of bright moments, I think for myself and Kirk I know that one of the great things that we started over at the other school was something called the genius hour and it was based around career and technology foundations. And it was the busiest hour of our week, watching kids do passion projects – kind of based on that Google platform of 20% of their time is spent doing passion projects – watching kids do that and being a part of that was just it was like a highlight for both of us. We ran nonstop, we answered questions, but have tons to show for. And the kids really delved into it, they enjoyed it. It was always on our feedback forms of first thing that they love the most. And so as an administrator that impact has been deep. And we still even are speaking about it throughout the province and even with uLead for instance in Canada so is it taking a little bit of a risk once and but it was worth it in the long run. So I think for myself, of course working with Kirk and working with other administrators, is always something you have to have fun, you’ve got a lot of whatever’s coming your way. But the other piece is even bringing in new things that drive the kids to enjoy what they do every day.
Kirk Linton: I think for any of us at the end of the day it comes back to kids; it comes back to the students. It’s always going to be those moments where you’ve turned a tough situation around. And you see a kid light up. When you see that engagement, see them kind of go from a being a kid who just hated school or was unhappy in their life or had challenges and they turned things around. And I talk about student engagement but we also talk about teacher engagement, and the fact that teachers as people also need to find their calling. Going back to that purpose – I think everybody needs to find their purpose and sometimes we as admins, as leaders, we need to help them dream . So what’s our dream for you, what’s our dream for the school, what’s our dream moving forward together? And I think that once you’ve assigned or are given some purpose to what you do and you go back every day to thinking about what’s the core of the work, which is the kids, you go back to that time and again. It will feed you all the way through.
Jay Willis: When you guys were working together. . . what are some ways that you as a principal/assistant principal, what are some ways that you feel like you can work together effectively to create a culture? What are some components of…if you have somebody else, whose kind of got the same vision and passion that you do, what are some ways that you think you can work together with synergy to help create that culture?
Kevin DeForge: Well I think that’s part of it – when you have the same kind of views and passions you allow that to happen. And egos don’t get in the way. The simplest thing is that you share things. You talk about it; it’s collaborative. And then you open it up to people and sometimes putting yourself out there is of course risky but it’s fantastic. So for the two of us I think the biggest thing we ever did was not only demonstrate through our interactions that things were OK, that we were getting along fine and that we had a similar vision, and that we had very similar personalities, and had fun all the way. But also, showing the teachers it’s OK for them to do the same things and encouraging that in them. And getting into the classrooms and getting out there and collaborating with them and asking the hard questions that you have to every once in a while that put you out there. “This may or may not be working; what do you think we can do to change it?” And I think Kirk was great at being able to accept that as well when teachers might come to you and say, “You know what? This isn’t working so much, so how do we tweak it?” Rather than standing in a trench and digging in and say, well it’s got to be my way. But I think part of what we learned throughout the process is how to be flexible in what we do, how do we put the kids first always. And then still move forward with a strong vision.
Kirk Linton: What I was going to say is that you don’t always have to have the same vision, you don’t have to have the same outlook on education. All you have to have is an openness right and a willingness to work together to be collaborative and Kevin I think nailed it on the head there when he said you have to you have to leave your ego at the door a little bit because I think the ego is a lot of times what really shuts a lot of doors. And I think when I was talking earlier about having a vision that’s broad enough…it’s having a sense of the direction that you want to go. But allowing you to give your staff, your teachers, your students the reign to make some decisions and then be willing to move with them. It’s adding that authentic relationship where you really have that level of trust that I will trust that you’re going to make a good decision, overall together we share the same vision. But we’re going to move forward together. I think if we had that and I think that was such a critical part of the atmosphere in the school is that feeling of trust and the willingness and ability to fail and move forward in trying new things.
Jay Willis: So what if you find yourself (and I’ll ask this kind of one a time because you kind of can come at this from two different perspectives) but Kevin, I guess what if you find yourself a situation where you do have someone maybe in the assistant principal role. Who maybe initially, doesn’t have that vision? Like what are some things that you can do that would help them I mean obviously for them to be somewhat open to it is kind of a prerequisite right but what if it’s all kind of new to them? Like this whole way of thinking is completely different from the way that you’re thinking, and their vision maybe just isn’t the same as yours? What are some things you can do to kind of on board them? Like gradually, maybe it’s slow maybe it’s fast I don’t know because I don’t have that experience myself – but what are some tips you’d have for someone who finds himself in that situation?
Kevin DeForge: That’s a good question because I haven’t had that yet but I think that that’s inevitable at some point where you’re going to run across someone…it’s not even about the vision – it might be a personality thing that doesn’t work. I think the best thing I that I keep in mind is. I look at some major actions in the past when things didn’t go well and. And some of that is checking your ego at the door and being able to work with that person. And hopefully you can show that you’re collaborative with them and that you’re trying, and that you’re open to what they have to suggest. And part of it is giving them a voice in things, while also making sure that they feel supported. And sometimes for a junior admin, they’re always nervous about who they’re going to be with, what’s this principal going to be like. And it’s often reassuring them that it’s going to be OK and we’re going to…it’s like I said before it’s that whole fail concept…we’re going to have some problems. Things aren’t going to go great all the time, but we can move forward and I think part of what we’ve been able to establish, Kirk and I, is that some of the things we’ve done have worked really well and so we have proven fact behind what we’ve done. And some of that can actually even be brought to the junior administrator who may be a little bit nervous about the way we do things and reassuring them it’s OK. And here’s how it looks when it does look OK. So I think that’s the best advice I have is to be open, and also and incorporate them in what you’re doing.
Kirk Linton: I mean I think for me, we are at heart still teachers. We work with people to help them learn, help them develop. And we learn that, you have to meet a kid where they are, you meet the students where they are, you take them from where they are and you get them as far as you can. And I think when it comes to capacity, building capacity, it’s the same kind of kind of concept. So you need to figure out where your people are, where their heads are, what their personal lives are like all that kind of stuff and then you move forward from there. You build your capacity from the ground up, you work with those people and at the end of the day, it’s relationships. Right and it’s about trust. . So if you don’t have a relationship you’re not going to have that development that learning, that’s going to happen. And so I think the key to any of these situations no matter who you’re working with, it is to come at it with that sense of humility and trust in the willingness to build a relationship and start from a place of trust. And you know what, you may not be able to move as quickly toward your vision as you might like. But if you set those foundations and you create that beneath you as you’re going forward it’s going to really pay off down the road. So it might be a slower process it might take a little bit more foundation building but you’re going to get there.
Kevin DeForge: We call those glacial moves because sometimes it’s so slow you hardly know what’s happening but if you get any sort of movement at all it’s worth it.
Jay Willis: That’s funny. So, kind of with both of you, you’ve encountered a situation where – I’m going ask a question because I know that some of our listeners are educators in the classroom currently, and they’re considering moving to what some people affectionately call the dark side, into school administration. One of the concerns though, is that they’re leaving the classroom behind. They feel like they’re making this significant impact on just a handful of lives but on a very deep meaningful level over the course of maybe an entire school year. And so their concern is losing that impact losing that connectedness that they feel. So I guess my question might be, speaking directly against to that concern. How do you feel that your impact now is different than it was as a classroom teacher? And then, why is it worth it?
Kevin DeForge: I think it’s about our approach. You have to look at it with an open mind. And so in the classroom, you’re kind of in an in a bubble in some ways and we’re trying to expand that. But for the most part, you get into little silos and you work and I think from an admin standpoint, you’re able to extend that influence. And it depends on who you are as an administrator – you could entrench yourself in the school and stay there and do your kind of things and not really worry too much so then you’ve done the same thing to yourself. But I think Kirk and I both of have been the kind of administrators that go out and we speak, we speak a different conferences, we spread the influence through things like this podcast.
And then I just had a talk the other day for a Calgary Regional Consortium and all the things that we are doing – the district has been supportive of us doing these things. And what we’re trying to do is spread that news to people. So the influence can stop with you, you can let it stay in the school year and do nothing with it. You may not even have a clear vision as to what that is. But I think Kirk and I spent a lot of time researching – from social media to reading, all those things…what’s new, what’s pedagogically working, and what’s going on out there in the world that’s really good for kids and celebrating that. And so what I say to people who are prospective administrators is that you have that ability to influence outside of the small circle of your school. The choice is yours as to whether you do that or not. You can truly just stay within, and that has impact on your school. Which is cool, but if you want to do more than that you have to spread those wings and fly higher and farther than just within your school.
Kirk Linton: I still have my moments when I’m driving home and I’m thinking to myself, “Man, it was pretty good to be a band teacher. What am I doing?” (Laughter) Honestly in some ways it was a tough move right because you go from being the beloved band teacher who you’ve got a huge impact with the student body, and the people love you, you put on performances, you’re just well-loved in the school. It was a great job. And so you move into a job where you’re a vice principal or an assistant principal and all of a sudden you might not be the most loved person in the entire school. You’re going to be making decisions that are going to be making people angry. You might have people who are upset with the way that you go about doing business. But at the end of the day, I found that it’s deeply rewarding, just in a very different kind of way. The impact that you have is different; it goes broader – you’re out to the parent community, you’re working with people on lots of different levels. You may not have that kind of depth of relationship specifically with some of those kids. Actually, that’s not really true because there are probably 10, 15, 20 kids in any school that you have very much the regular relationship. (Laughter) So like I said I think for me, it was the chance to learn something every day. And also I value my time as a music teacher; I think that there’s so many great things that music teachers do. And I think that the way that we approach music education…part of the vision that I’ve had would be to say, “How do we take some of the stuff that we’re doing really well in this one sphere and then move it out into the broader school community?” And like I said you pair that with all these other things that between inquiry and technology and project based learning and these different things and you see what can happen in schools. And that’s where you try to find out what are the opportunities out there. To make education in every area work in that kind of way. So that was it for me.
Jay Willis: So I have a question that I want to ask to just kind of change gears a little bit, that has come in from a couple different listeners who maybe they have everything that they need in order to become a school administrator, but they haven’t landed that first position yet. What do you feel like is something that would help set you apart during the application process?
Kirk Linton: Well like I was just said the way my journey was a little different from the standpoint that I went in to do my master’s first so I actually it wasn’t that I went to school admin and then went back and did my education. I kind of I went that route first, and so for me it started me down a road where suddenly I was taking on different opportunities. It’s a willingness to step out and I think there are an unlimited number of opportunities for people to take leadership chances in schools. There’s always something that someone can step in and they can take something over, they can create an opportunity that wasn’t there before. So for me like you said it was critical to go through the teacher leadership piece to step up as a leader. You don’t have to be given a position to become a leader on staff. In fact probably most some of the most influential leaders on your staff have no position whatsoever, right? They are the people who just have an impact, they have some charisma, they have knowledge, they have experience and they help to lead your staff. So for me it’s just a willingness to step up and say, “Hey I’ve got this skill, I’ve got this ability, I’m willing to work with other people. Let’s see where we can go with this whole thing.” Willingness to just collaborate and get out there and do something – I think that starts to send a signal that I’m really wanting to do this, I want to be a part of the leadership situation. And that I’ve got the skills to do so.
Jay Willis: So I’m going to roll through some rapid fire questions if you’re ready for those? We’ll have Kirk answer first, then Kevin. So what would you say is the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Kirk Linton: Well for me we’re good Catholics out here so the prayer of Saint Francis – it’s more important to understand than to be understood. It’s your job to listen. As opposed to being the one who is understood more most of the time.
Kevin DeForge: For myself, I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had ever read was that I can’t remember where I read it but the biggest thing I’ve taken from it was that every time a principal offers their opinion, in any way, shape, or form, it often shuts down discussion. So I’ve learned to sort of sometimes close my mouth and just listen and then I let people collaborate and then start to figure out where to go from there.
Jay Willis: What would you say is your biggest strength as a school administrator?
Kirk Linton: For me it’s probably relationship building. It’s making connections that benefit the school. It’s going out there and it’s empowering people to make decisions and empowering people to have a positive impact on the school. It’s all about relationships.
Kevin DeForge: I’d say the same. I think for myself it is building relationships it’s giving people room to fly. I’d heard of one point that it’s really good to make sure that this is a people business and you need to put money in the bank before you make any withdrawals. So for the most part I’m always trying to put a lot out there and doing as much as I can for the staff and students and making sure that I’m not making too many withdrawals.
Jay Willis: Do you have, is there a book or two that you’d recommend for other school leaders that have made an impact on you?
Kirk Linton: I think for me one of them was the book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and it’s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (good luck spelling that one!) But it’s a great book about engagement and he really was kind of the father of this idea about what it means to be really in the zone to really have a sense of I’m really engaged in what I’m doing. And I would say that in my heart I’m a musician and so for me that was so much a part of my education as a person and so what I seek in students is to create experiences that are that deeply engaging that they can’t even see what’s going on outside of what the project is.
Kevin DeForge: For me a couple of them would be…first of all, I’m really big into growth versus fixed mindset, so Carol Dweck is one of the ones that I’ve read, her Mindset book. It gave me a chance to perspective-wise start to open my mindset, because I think in a lot of ways I used to see myself as open minded and I’ve started to realize there are some areas where I’m pretty fixed so I learned to put that into my leadership and to bring it to my staff. I think the other one for me over the last few years is Lead with Humility by Pope Francis. That one has been influential in the sense that sometimes you’ve got to learn to be humble to be a good leader – that it’s not always leading from the front and getting people behind you. Sometimes you need to run alongside them.
Jay Willis: Yeah. So quick question, just in answering this question the thought that came up is in the positions that you’re in, I know you have to deal with a lot of baggage, that’s not your baggage, it’s other people’s baggage. But sometimes when you’re dealing with that and you’re trying to do what’s in the best interest of your students and what’s in the best interest of your teachers that are in the building. But of course you have a life as well and you have struggles as well. But as a leader, you don’t probably need to vent all of those things to those people who are supposed to be leading, right.? So how do you keep yourself in the zone like you’re talking about earlier – how do you keep yourself still focused on doing what’s right for the students in those times and maybe you have some serious personal stuff going on whether your wife has cancer or you have a death in the family? How do you keep yourself in that place and centered doing what you’re really there to do with all of that stuff going on?
Kirk Linton: That’s an excellent question, Jay. For me it goes back to purpose. It goes back to your purpose. So for me it’s, we don’t do this because it’s a job, we do it because it’s a vocation. So for me, in some ways you have to be able to leave your work behind. But there’s some ways that you never leave your work behind. And I wouldn’t choose this job if I could leave it behind. I mean it gets under your skin; it’s something that is a part of who you are and it’s part of your journey. And I think it’s not a bad thing to be a little bit vulnerable with people as a leader. You’ve got to be a little bit careful, because you don’t want to create waves when they don’t need to be there. But when I first started out at Holy Spirit School I think my wife had just come out of treatments within a year and a half; it was still pretty fresh. So one of our teachers asked us if we could do a Terry Fox Run. Terry Fox is the famous Canadian who passed away from cancer and ran across the country. And he’s a national hero. But they wanted to do Terry Fox Run and they said, “Would you shave your head for this?”
At the time they didn’t realize of course that my wife had just come through cancer treatments right so it was asking a lot because I was putting myself up there. And I’ll never forget getting up there that first time – it was only about a month and a half into my first formal leadership position. And I was put up there and I was having to talk about running for cancer and the cure for cancer and talk about treatments. And when I got up there I was able to say a couple sentences and then I choked up. I wasn’t able to go any further with it and I think it was both, freeing from the standpoint that it allowed me to show who I was the person and other people could see me as a human being as well, and allow people to connect with you on that human level. I mean like I said you try to meet people where they are so you can lead them and I think that when they see you as a human being that gives you a chance, it gives you a chance to lead them. That you might not otherwise get.
Kevin Deforge: I would echo that I think part of relationship building is that you actually show them that you’re human. And sometimes that means being vulnerable and that’s OK. And I often say to staff, the first thing I walked into this school and I said to them in my first talk with them was, “I’m not perfect and neither are any of you so let’s be imperfect together and let’s do the best we can. And I’m not out to outdo you guys, I’m out to learn with you.” And they see you as a lead learner and they want you to be a part of the that process with them. And so there’s times where…an old saying I once heard is, “It’s important to eat warm crow every once in a while and move on.” So you could spend your whole time defending yourself from that and sometimes I make mistakes and I literally will just say, “You’re right, I didn’t think that one through. I totally apologize and what can we do to fix this?” And so it’s sometimes putting that humbleness ahead. And eating a little bit of warm crow every once in a while.
Kirk Linton: It’s funny how people are surprised when you apologize. They go, “Oh you’re in a leadership position, why would you ever say sorry?” But at the end of the day it just totally frees up the whole situation. “I’m sorry: I screwed up” they go OK and everything comes down a notch.
Jay Willis: That has a tremendous ability to deescalate, doesn’t it? “What? You’re not supposed to apologize! I was ready to fight! You’re going to take that away from me?” (Laughter) Yeah. So last couple questions here. What advice would you have for a school administrator as far as working with the students that they serve? Starting with Kirk.
Kirk Linton: I think the one piece that I would say is it’s all about students. Students frame every decision that you make and I think that you can’t go too far astray if you keep students kind of right in the middle of it. So students come first and the system comes second. And that relationship building is your first job as an educator and everything else comes second.
Kevin DeForge: Again yeah I’m very much a student driven leader so I find that giving students voice and choice is very important. And getting the staff to understand that that is a part of who we are as educators and this is where education’s going and that shift away from us being up in front telling people what to do to being designers of learning is important and people can generally relate to that so I think that’s the best advice is to let them understand that we’re here for the students. They’re our clientele and we need to work with them.
Jay Willis: So kind of along those lines, what piece of advice would you have as far as working with the teachers in the building?
Kirk Linton: I think it would be the same thing – relationships first. It’s about connecting with students and that they’ll learn. The learning comes second once you’ve got that relationship in place.
Kevin DeForge: For myself I think part of it is showing them that I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and work alongside them. I find that you can talk and talk a lot. But I’m the kind of guy who will just do ( Kirk’ll know that). There’s a few times where I’ll just come in and a room will be redone. Because we’ve talked about converting a lab into a café. Let’s do it, right, and it’s just done. And then all of a sudden people can get the idea that you’re going to go alongside them, you’re going to do these things and work with them and when things look a little rough, so supporting them whenever you can.
Kirk Linton: Yeah there’s a saying that the effectiveness of a plan is in inversely proportional to how pretty it looks so that you. So the fancier it is…is it a bound plan, have you had months and months to put together, is it going to actually turn into doing something? Kevin’s the type of guy, he would drive me crazy the other way, I’ll be honest with you. I’d say something like, “Hey, we should do something with this room” and next day he’s pulling stuff out and off the walls. I’m like, “We have no plan! Stop! We need to back it up!” (Laughter)
Jay Willis: So it’s a good balance is what you’re saying right?
Kirk Linton: That is exactly right. He’d be pulling up the carpet and I’d be like, “No! We don’t have new carpet!” (Laughter)
Jay Willis: Well there is value to both. Obviously there’s a plan. There’s a lot of value to having a strategy but then of course you can have kind of the analysis paralysis deal where you just sit around and think about strategy all the time and you never get anything done. Where you’re just having meetings about meetings and you’re like, “Are we doing anything in here.” There’s a lot to be said for just execution, just getting things done, instead of just talking about it. So last question I want to ask you to answer – it’s kind of a unique question, but if you had a time machine and you could jump in it and go back to the point in time when you had just made the decision to go in to school leadership and you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what advice would you give?
Kirk Linton: I would say just do it. It’s one of those things that I look back and I’m going, “I was a little bit younger…like was it the right time?” or, “It was a tough time in my life; should I have done all that stuff?” Paralysis by analysis is the same idea. I think at the end of the day I’d say to myself, “Go back and do it again it’s worth it.”
Kevin DeForge: I think for myself I would try to talk myself into not sweating the small stuff. I think there’s a lot of times that, when I was starting out in admin I used to worry myself over everything. Now in my head I can go instantly to the worst case scenario and go, “I can live with that” and move on. (Laughter) That’s the biggest thing is if you can live with whatever the worst case scenario is, you can move on and do what’s best for kids. That’s what I tell myself.
Jay Willis: Yeah I guess that developing that mindset has helped you kind of be more geared toward getting things done, right, just doing stuff. Probably because your willingness to just, to just mess it up, but be willing to do it is a lot of it?
Kirk Linton: That’s the whole idea of growth mindset right – are we going to sit here and be afraid of what’s going to happen or are we going to try to do it and just admit when we mess up?
Jay Willis: Yeah. So finally if one of our listeners wants to reach out after the show, what would be the best way to connect with each of you?
Kevin DeForge: I probably would say, through Twitter for myself. I’m pretty avid I’m a Twitter so my Twitter handle is @kevindeforge no spaces. Probably the quickest way to catch me.
Jay Willis: Awesome. Educators this has been a great interview today. For the show notes of today’s show and other resources visit educatorslead.com. Thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Kirk Linton & Kevin Deforge: Thank you.
Jay Willis: 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 three days a week 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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