Michael shares a little about his background, family, and early morning weightlifting (1:50)
Michael’s decision to go into education and his career path (2:54)
The point in his education career when Michael decided to move from teaching to administration and why he made that decision (5:12)
Some of his biggest struggles when making the switch from teacher to administrator (6:08)
Some of the lessons Michael learned from the struggles of those early days (9:05)
The importance of owning up to your mistakes, and the right way to do it (10:30)
One of the best moments from Michael’s career in administration (13:37)
The best approach to take when you’re taking an admin position at a new school (15:31)
How your impact on a school changes when you move from teaching to administration, and why it’s worth it (16:50)
The best leadership advice Michael has ever received – people can’t support what they don’t know (20:08)
The ability to empower people is one of the most critical skills successful administrators need to possess (22:05)
Michael’s book recommendations for Edu-Leaders (24:00)
Michael’s advice for administrators on working with the students you serve (27:00)
Michael’s advice for administrators on working with the teachers you serve (28:27)
If Michael had a time machine, and could go back and give himself advice when he was just starting his education administration career, here’s what he would tell himself: You don’t always have to be right; it’s OK to make some mistakes. (28:58)
You can always make the right decision by asking “What is best for the kid?” (30:06)
Books mentioned in this episode
Connect with Michael Berry
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Educators Lead Ep. 33
Get Your Head Right by Asking Yourself “What Is Best for The Student?”
Show Notes: http://www.educatorslead.com/michaelberry/
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: Michael is currently the principal of Richmond Elementary School in Richmond Vermont. He grew up in Gouverneur, New York and both of his parents were also educators. He received his undergraduate degree in children’s literature in elementary education from Castleton State College and later a master of education leadership from Union Institute and University. He taught second grade in kindergarten before becoming a principal. That’s just a brief introduction Michael, but tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Michael Berry: Sure, I live in Central Vermont with my wife and two daughters and a whole slew of pets that I can’t even name. I’m lucky to be the proud principal of Richmond Elementary School and to have made connections with tons of educators across the state in the nation and just love my job.
Jay Willis: So tell us something interesting about yourself that most people wouldn’t know?
Michael Berry: Wow. Well I’m pretty open so that’s tricky what most people wouldn’t know… Every morning I get up at 4AM and I lift heavy stuff before I come to work and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now to feel really good about that and that most people don’t know I do that.
Jay Willis: So like, 55 gallon drums or is it like weights or?
Michael Berry: Weights and kettlebells, medicine balls, things like that. I go down in my basement and just do heavy stuff for about an hour before I head off to work.
Jay Willis: Got you, that’s great. So I guess tell us a little bit about your career path. Maybe from the point that you graduated from college to where you at now.
Michael Berry: Sure. So I went to Castleton State College with the full intention of focusing on children’s literature and I was thinking I would like to write or go into publishing. And then the education just kind of went in hand with it and I wasn’t really sure. I grew up in a household of educators so both my parents were teachers my mom taught K-12 art my dad was a high school business teacher and my mother’s parents were also teachers and all of our friends and families and peers and even our neighbors were teachers or principals. So I was immersed in it, and when I went to a college, honestly I really didn’t think I wanted to go that path. But about half way through my undergraduate I realized, yup that’s the path I want to go down, so I jumped full bore into elementary education.
And when I graduated I applied to about probably 30 jobs and this is back before applications were online and anything like that so this was individualized letters. I got one response. To come in interview at a little school at East Montpelier elementary school and they had a second grade teaching position and I remember I went and I was wearing my dad’s suit it was a little too big for me and I interviewed, I brought a big portfolio and all the college folks were telling us we needed that to bring in interviews with the pictures with me and kids and things like that. Luckily they said this is the guy we want to take a chance on and they invited me to come and work there and I stayed there for about 8 years. Taught second grade for 3 years or 4 years and then when the opportunity to open a session of full day kindergarten came up and I jumped on that and finished up my time there in kindergarten before I took my first principal job at Underhill Central School.
Jay Willis: Wow and so how long have you been there?
Michael Berry: Well I was at Underhill Central School for 3 years and then I moved here and I’ve been here for 4 years… 5 years.
Jay Willis: Okay.
Michael Berry: 5 years. Wow, yeah. 5 years in Richmond Elementary School. So I’ve been a principal for 8 years total.
Jay Willis: 8 years. Okay, so at what point along the journey did you make the decision to move in to school leadership?
Michael Berry: Well it’s interesting; I described it to somebody…there’s certain people who have strengths and kind of find their niche and things like that and it just kind of happen I think organically there are people who really understand science education and that’s their passion that’s where they gravitate toward. The same with math or language arts or whatever it might be. My path always kind of… I kind of landed in the administrative realm, I like structures and school culture and really thinking big picture and how to support people and I always kind of fell into that zone even when I was teaching. So I was encouraged to go to a graduate school for leadership by my principal at that time and it just felt right like it’s where I wanted to be and needed to be.
Jay Willis: So what are some of the biggest struggles that you encountered along the journey cause I’m sure that you know just taking extra classes and trying to juggle that along with working and all the other things that you’re involve with you know. First of all, how did you juggle all that effectively and then second just what are some of the other struggles that you encountered?
Michael Berry: Juggling the course work was interesting. It was right at the time my oldest daughter was born and which is crazy as it is. But I found a great program at Union Institute and University that really allowed me to be a part of a cohort over two years and have some freedom and choice in what I was studying or researching or writing about that was applicable to my daily work with students. And then there were these residential times where you’d go to the campus for a week or two during a summer or vacation so I was able to manage it pretty well and that worked really well for me but the biggest key to it was that every ounce of research that I was dealing was directly connected to my current teaching work so it wasn’t like I was doing something completely separate from what I was doing with my own students or in my own classroom or in my own school. So for example, one of my projects was around the budgeting process, so I used the work that I was doing to work with my current administrator and my teaching team around budgeting and so it was applicable to what I was doing and that made it make sense honestly it made it a lot more valuable I think and then you know the struggles along the way were just the time constraints but also making that shift from being a classroom teacher to administrator is not an easy shift. I think it feels like it should be easy but it’s not always easy for a lot of reasons but you know that transition took a good 2 years before I really understood the journey.
Jay Willis: So what are some reasons that you think it’s not an easy transition?
Michael Berry: I think, you know, teaching is tough because it can be isolating, you can fall in to your silo of teaching and it’s hard to make those connections and because you’re teaching all day you’re in the classroom and you’re not seeing what’s going on other rooms and it’s hard to empathize and understand where other people are coming from. When you become an administrator you see the whole picture and you really need to think about everybody’s needs and how you can support them for success. So it’s just a little bit of transition and a different view of point each day. It’s a wonderful transition in a wonderful view of point but it’s slightly different and that I think is just a sense of perspective and it takes a while to really grasp that.
Jay Willis: So I guess and just thinking about some of the struggles that you encountered along the way in what ways… Maybe either it’s through the journey or even maybe as the first year as an administrator, what are some lessons that you’ve gained from those, because it seems like in my life you know that some of the biggest challenges and the greatest adversity that I had to go through while I’m maybe wouldn’t have chosen some of the obstacles that I had to face and help me grow and learn a lot through the process. So what are some ways you think you grew, as an educator through those?
Michael Berry: Oh gosh yes, well I made a lot of mistakes. And that like you said is one of the best ways to learn but I think as you’re making those mistakes it’s just best to own them to be open about it and you know every time I’ve ever spoken in front of a group of people I said I’m probably going to mess up, and I’m completely aware of that and I’m working to get better and I’m very transparent about what I need to work on myself and I think that’s something that I learned through that process is that taking that ownership and would really being active about learning from their mistakes and admitting them and owning them and it’s an amazing experience because you can see this immediate growth and support from the people around you. They probably wouldn’t have if you didn’t acknowledge it.
Jay Willis: Yeah, own your mistakes. Yeah, well and so what are like, how all does play out like when you say own your mistakes how does that look?
Michael Berry: So if it can be from large to small if we messed up on a message that needs to go to a family at school, probably I’ll be the first one to say hey I’m messed up I’m really sorry how can we make it better? There’s no hesitation there, the hesitation does nobody any good. So just really getting out there and owning up to things and helping the process move forward. It really helps and I think it’s a quality that needs to be in school leadership.
Jay Willis: Yeah, so maybe once you’ve made that what you did, determine yes I did make a mistake because I’m like. Obviously you don’t want to jump in and say every time when maybe you didn’t make a mistake or somebody was just being really sensitive or something like that. But once you’ve actually made that distinction, and you know that I did mess up and just own it, be open with people and let them know, that hey I goofed this up and I want to address it very quickly and I totally understand what you’re saying about that because sometimes like I let things go too long and I realized maybe a day after a conversation with somebody that I really you know I said something that I should’ve had or whatever and then I just kind of let time pass. Maybe I had the intention of addressing it with them but I just never did and then it’s just kind of built up and at some point that person, especially if it was kind of a negative conversation, it just kind of simmers and it never really goes away but just simmers and then that person could lose respect for you they could disconnect from you, a lots of different things so if you just, I love what you said there if you’re just own it but do it fast like as soon as you are aware of the fact that you messed up just address it right away. Chances are it will only get worse if you just kind of sweep it under the rug and pretend like it didn’t happen.
Michael Berry: Well it tends to get worse and tends to branch out and create other issues and problems it doesn’t move anyone forward. That’s the most important part is yeah, I made a mistake how can I help it fix that now? And that’s just really modelling for everybody, and modelling for students as well.
Jay Willis: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going to say. That it’s just a great example for others and I think that it’s so often that one of the things that I was catching from a lot of the great leaders here that you have to be humble down you don’t have to act like you’re an ivory tower, you’re untouchable and you just, you know sending out commands for people to do things but realize that you do make mistakes, admit your mistakes, be humble and people will admire and think more of you because of that and your willingness to admit your weaknesses.
Michael Berry: That’s exactly right. And I think it models risk taking. That you’re willing to take a risk, you messed up you made a mistake and you’re learning from it but we want our educators, we want our students be willing to take a risk, willing to make mistakes and learn from them and if we expect it out of them we’ve got to expect with ourselves.
Jay Willis: Yeah, so you’ve been in school administration for a while, I’m sure you have some great stories that you could share about the impact that you’ve been able to witness and be a part of, but what’s one of your best or most memorable moments as a school administrator?
Michael Berry: Yeah there’s a lot so it’s tough to choose from. Each year is a different adventure and one of the most powerful moments for me as a school administrator was in my previous school that was on Underhill Central School – working with the staff and working with a different instructional model and it wasn’t necessarily the outcome of that conversation or any of those things that I’m super proud of. I think they were powerful but the process was so amazingly organic and just genuine innovation where everybody in the school was involved in the conversation it felt so incredible it started with we were looking at our master schedule and trying to figure out different ways that we could do things with the resources that we had and we threw it up on a chalkboard in my office and everybody in the school just kept going in and out of my office for months just adding things and erasing things or making notes and it was just genuine and that was powerful. It stands out in my mind as one of my proudest moments not because it was something that I myself did but it was something that was so collaborative and so organic and so just true it wasn’t contrived, it wasn’t designed there was no angle in mind from the beginning it was just creation at its purest that was very powerful.
Jay Willis: So when you get to, so you’ve been a principal how many different schools?
Michael Berry: 2.
Jay Willis: 2 schools. Okay so in your experience what’s the best way to approach it when you go to a school for the first time as the principal? Like what’s the best approach to take?
Michael Berry: Just to listen. You know, just be quiet and listen. Take everything in, have empathy for people that are talking to you and try to understand where they’re coming from and as you do that I think you here a things pop up through these conversations that you can start to pick out and really consider how you can support school community with those things. How can you move them further, I think the other thing is to really take up a positive approach to you, what’s going right and often times new leaders show up at school and one of the first things that happens is we focus on the things that aren’t working and because we want to make things better that’s our natural reflex we want to get in there, we want to make things great but there’s also the element of celebrating what’s going really well and making sure that you are sharing that loud and clear with the staff and the community and the kids.
Jay Willis: So I know that some of our listeners that might be wondering that are not in school administrator that they’re concerning it, pursuing it maybe at the moment they’re thinking about making that transition from classroom teacher to school administrator or for sometimes teacher’s affection, they call it the dark side. Right? But they’re maybe worried about losing that connection that they feel with the classroom students and I’m sure some of that happens but speaking to that concern how would you say your impact is different now as a school administrator than it was as a classroom teacher and why is it worth it?
Michael Berry: Well yeah I’m a firm believer that you can make any job what you need it to be and what you want it to be and so I think that there’s this kind of method that once you become an administrator you know you’re removed from kids and I don’t think that has to be the case. I think you know certainly there are days where you’re not getting in classroom as much as you want, connecting with kids as much as you want but the way I look at those is I can of like see it as a leadership kind of thing where I do whatever the school needs me to do in the moment and if in the moment that means that I’m in my office taking phone calls and doing something that’s what the school needs, that’s what I’m going to do. But at the same time I think there are tons of ways that you can find connection points with kids. It kind of looks a little bit different than it does when you’re in a classroom… but it’s certainly not anymore limited because you’re not a classroom teacher, so if anything else you have an opportunity to connect in more ways than you did before and it’s very powerful. It’s all what you bring to the table. So if you’re not connecting with kids that’s probably something that you need to change in what you’re doing; it certainly doesn’t mean the end of connecting with students.
Jay Willis: Yeah, and then what kind of I guess have you seen the impact, even the story that you’ve shared that’s good I’m sure, that was just awesome for you as the leader to see what was happening in front of you like everybody getting so involved and engaged.
Michael Berry: Yeah that particular example is interesting because the thing that stands out to me is the collaborative nature working with teachers and when you see this genuine collaboration and the amount of movement and support that could mean for their kids it’s pretty awesome. But you know every day you see these trails of connections to something that you’ve done or something that you’ve supported or enabled or empowered that impacts kids in a positive way and it comes back to you tenfold cause it’s just incredible to see you know a call to a parent telling them how awesome their kid was in school that day and just seeing the impact that that one simple thing can do for the kid, for the culture of the classroom, for the culture of the school it just keeps rippling out in such meaningful ways. That’s very rewarding.
Jay Willis: So I’m going to roll some rapid fire questions if you’re ready for those?
Michael Berry: Go for it.
Jay Willis: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Michael Berry: People can’t support what they don’t know. That’s the best leadership advice that I ever received, it’s a mantra that I use constantly and that applies to teachers, to parents, to community members, to school board members. If you’re not effectively communicating what’s going on or what needs to happen or where you’re going you can’t expect people to get behind it. You’ve got to be a good communicator.
Jay Willis: So what are some things you have in place to help you follow that advice consistently?
Michael Berry: I think one of the things, there’s several things that we have in place, for external and internal communication. We use social media, those kinds of things we do a lot of video to really show people what’s going inside the school…those kinds of things, but I think the biggest thing with communication is slowing it down… Often times we want to move very quickly and initiatives in school happen very fast but it’s important to take time to make sure your stakeholders know what’s going on in a timely fashion. That means your administrators, your teachers, your parents, educators, your community members, your parents, your school board, and the kids, all of those people need some form of communication about what’s going on and that might not be able to happen in a 30-minute email. You might have to think about how you’re really going to roll things out and communicate and do it right. I guess that’s just the message – to take the time to do it right and it will pay itself back it really does.
Jay Willis: What would you say your biggest strengths as the school administrator?
Michael Berry: I think my biggest strength as the school administrator is really empowering people I like to take someone’s strength and enable them to do more within the school. I completely recognize, I cannot be everywhere in everything and there are people in the room any given moment that are better at something than I am. I am not going to stand in their way. Instead I want to amplify their strengths so we can all benefit from it. And that is something I’ve worked very hard to do and continue to work hard to do.
Jay Willis: I think that’s maybe something that some leaders have a hard time with at first because you know especially as a leader you’re super ambitious and you want make things happen and probably maybe you’re just, I know from myself maybe you want to be a micro manager like you want everything to be perfect right? And so that component where you’re willing to delegate to someone else and what’s interesting is that you find there are people that are much better than you at those different components once you delegate them out. And this was so hard but it’s amazing once you start to do that how you see how much better and healthy the organization is as a whole rather than being like a one man show. It’s a team and you’re getting the best of what every single person has to bring to that team instead of just the best of you which is going to be limited. I mean the best of any one person is limited but the best of everybody on the team though is going to be awesome
Michael Berry: Yeah, absolutely, it is significant. If people are considering going into school leadership, it’s something to really think – catch yourself when you’re not letting go of certain things, you know because it makes all the difference in your culture and ultimately the outcomes for your kids
Jay Willis: Yeah so is there a book or two that you could recommend for other school leaders that have made an impact on you?
Michael Berry: Yeah, I’m actually reading two books right now these were my latest good catches but there, you know I’ve been reading education books forever. The Iinnovator’s Mindset was just incredible, George Couros, that’s an amazing book right now. And then Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. Those are the two books that I’m just constantly referring back to, looking at things and thinking about culture and how to move the organization. They were exceptional.
Jay Willis: Yeah, of course, another awesome books though, who’s the author Joe San Felippo and who’s the other guy?
Michael Berry: No that other guy, Tony Sinanis, he occasionally has a nugget, occasionally. What he doesn’t tell you is that he gets his most of his materials from me. I’m just kidding. He’s amazing . Tony and Joe they both grow and create stuff, their blogs and their books are exceptional, it’s not just books right now, there are amazing educational bloggers out there. Tony’s blog is amazing and he updates from school, Joe has a lot of podcasts and there’s so much material out there right now and so many opportunities to connect with good leaders and learn from them it’s a shame not to take advantage of it.
Jay Willis: Yeah, that’s really a big thing that I’m getting from all the guests is just get connected and learn from other people and even in our conversation its really you know don’t expect that you’re going to get all the answers, don’t just be limited to the best of what you have to offer ,constantly be learning and growing from the best of what everybody else has to offer and then everybody will become better. Like if you’re contributing and you’re learning then everybody gets better from that experience so.
Michael Berry: Yeah and I hate to admit it but there are several times that I contacted Tony or Joe or George Couros and I’ve just ask them a question and used Twitter to say, “Hey, I’m stuck I don’t know how to do this and what’s your best advice?” and it’s amazing when you get somebody from outside that has different experiences different resources and different strengths to contribute like that, you don’t have to be alone on your island. Ad you could really do that today; there are no reasons not to.
Jay Willis: Yeah plus having the objective opinion versus your kind of it’s hard for you to see clearly. You know.
Michael Berry: Yeah, absolutely, I mean Tony you know… but yeah.
Jay Willis: And before I go any further I need to mention your website it’s https://principalberry.wordpess.com right? And anybody who wants to connect with you after the show they can find you in Twitter @prinicipalberry yeah, so. A couple of questions what advice do you have as far as a school administrator as far as working with students that they serve in the building?
Michael Berry: Yeah that’s a tough one, I think at different levels it would look differently. At an elementary level I think one of the best ways to connect with the students and just support students is to really empower their voice. We’re doing a lot of work this year thinking about student voice and how do we empower our students to really speak and share what’s going on with their learning and having choice in their learning, and just to express themselves in really different ways. And one example is we started a vlogging challenge this year, so I have 4th grade students that are vlogging – they’re creating video blogs of their life and then I do one also. But what has happened from that experience, we’re only half way through, but already the teacher and I are just dumbfounded by what we’re learning about our kids, things that we didn’t know about our own students. We just handed them our camera and said “Do whatever you want” and they have showed us their lives in a way that we could not have expected and that is very powerful as an administrator, as an educator, to make that connection with kids and support them in that way and see their confidence grow. You know and just be there for that person, be the person that they’re like, “Oh yeah, he’s the principal I can go talk to him”, that’s what it’s all about.
Jay Willis: So kind of along those same lines what kind of advice do you have for an administrator working with the other teachers?
Michael Berry: Again I think its listening and being very genuine, being transparent. That is probably one of the best things you need to do. Never have a little agenda or anything like that and let your teachers know what’s going on and they’ll have that same kind of respect for you that they’ll come to you and let you know what’s going on. It’s all about communication and relationships; it really boils down to that.
Jay Willis: So last question, if you had a time machine and you could hop in it and go back to a situation that you’ve just made a decision to go into school leadership, if you could jump in that and go back to that point… What advice would you give to that younger version of you?
Michael Berry: I think I would tell myself that you don’t always have to be right, you can make mistakes. It’s like what we said before I think when I was first going into it I really felt I needed to prove myself a lot. And in some cases that didn’t move the organization forward; it hindered it. And I think I would just be more open to admitting my faults and being very humble about what’s best for the kids and what’s best for the school community. I mean, I got there but it took a year before I really got that message and I would just tell myself, to take it easy on myself, I’m not going to be perfect, just do what’s right.
Jay Willis: So are there are times when you have been kind of consumed in that you know “not others” thinking, it like in those times has been there something that helped to wake you up out of that? And if so what you think would help someone kind of snap themselves out of it to where they change their perspective to the one that you’re referring to the one that you’re referring to where it’s about thinking about the bigger picture instead of just being wrapped up in the moment and in themselves.
Michael Berry: Yeah I think it’s a tricky question. There are some things that you could ask yourself… Several times during any sort of tense situation, if you say to yourself “what’s best for the kid?” and you really, really think that through sometimes you being right or making a point or whatever it may be – you may be in the right, but it might not be best for the kid. You know so, what’s best for the kid is always the right thing to do and sometimes that can help filter through those situations and I find that that’s helpful. It help ground me or if there’s a team and we’re dealing with a tough situation and we all need to recalibrate and get our heads on straight and we all ask ourselves “what’s best for the kid?” and if that’s different than the path that we’re going down then we need to evaluate and change course and that often brings things in the right direction.
Jay Willis: Yeah versus what’s best for me what’s best for us you know. That’s such great advice – as a parent I’m thinking about all the applications for that, because often you know you want to delegate something or have your child help with something or your child desperately wants to help you with something and you’re just like, your thought process is, what’s best for me and so you may just want to say, “No, I’ll take care of this, don’t worry about it, I don’t need your help” kind of thing. But really if you just step back for a second and just take a breath and think, “What is best for this child?” That is powerful, that’s great.
Michael Berry: Yeah and you need to remind yourself of that often, I think, during in school day.
Jay Willis: Yeah, well I’m sure yeah, because life happens right?
Michael Berry: That’s right.
Jay Willis: Especially for administrators there’s so many things going at school I’m sure that’s difficult and you have to remind yourself of that frequently I’m sure.
Michael Berry: Yeah you just have to go with the flow and that’s the other thing I always remind myself of and you know I’ve said it earlier but I’ll do whatever the school community needs me to do right in the moment. And that may have been what I had planned but that’s what the school community needs of me so that’s what I’m going to do…
Jay Willis: Good stuff, Edu-leaders this has been a great interview today. For the show notes at today’s show and other resources, just visit educatorslead.com and type the word Michael into the search tool to find more information about this episode. Michael thank you for sharing your journey with us today.
Michael Berry: Thank you very much this was a blast!
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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