Magazine article Workforce

Holding Hands with a Tornado

Magazine article Workforce

Holding Hands with a Tornado

Article excerpt

You think your work is tough? Try on the top job at a grade school. The typical principal endures daily phone calls and visits with parents. Meetings with teachers, support staff, administrators, union leaders, legislators, community members, and vendors. And hundreds of close encounters with yelling, running, jumping, jostling kids.

That's what makes Fred Burton something of a leadership marvel. He's the principal of Wickliffe Elementary School in Upper Arlington, Ohio. And he readily acknowledges the potential chaos that's a part of every school, describing the typical workday as "a little like holding hands with a tornado."

But from the very first meeting with Dr. Burton, you can't help but notice it. He's calm. Remarkably calm. Consistently calm. He seems to have the inner peace and self-confidence that all leaders seek. Picture a 48-year-old version of Mr. Rogers, complete with friendly smile and easygoing manner, staying serene in the midst of chaos. That's Burton.

As for organizational results, Burton and Wickliffe have plenty. The school, with 420 children from kindergarten to fifth grade, is home to last year's Ohio teacher of the year and music teacher of the year. It has been recognized as an Ohio BEST school, an award given by a major business coalition. And National Public Radio spent a day there interviewing students and staff for an expanded feature on progressive education.

So what are the leadership lessons from this teacher turned principal? One is to be observant. No matter how hectic things get, Burton makes a point of stepping from his quiet office into the busy hallway, so he can absorb all that's happening. He looks for positive stories-then he tells them over and over to reinforce the school's culture.

One day, after the bell had signaled the start of recess, children began hustling to the playground. Burton stood in the hallway, saying hello and smiling, taking it all in-when a piece of student artwork got knocked from the wall. The principal watched from a distance as an alert first-grader hunched down, grabbed the fallen art, and taped it back onto the wall.

Later that week, at the school's town meeting, Burton told about the child who had saved the picture from certain destruction. Then he asked the boy to stand up. The 419 other students responded with a big round of applause.

Burton also makes a point of drawing answers and solutions from the people around him, instead of trying to impose his own ideas. In one recent phone call, he listened to an anxious parent who felt that her child wasn't being sufficiently challenged. …

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