A Leader Please ... Finding Effective Leadership in Uncertain Times

Mark D. Benigni, Superintendent of Meriden Public Schools
Thomas W. Giard III, Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Staff Development of Meriden Public Schools


 Mark D. Benigni
Thomas W. Giard III
Facing an accountability movement that includes a new teacher evaluation and development system, as well as the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balance Assessment conversion, educators are operating in uncertain times. Add to the mix, shrinking financial resources and additional federal and state regulations and the need for distributed leadership becomes even more essential to the success of our public schools. So how will we secure dynamic and effective leaders? We have seen schools and organizations launch nationwide searches, enlist the assistance of head-hunting firms, hire marketing agencies to capture their message, and at times just panic. We also have seen school districts hire non-educators to lead their school districts with limited success and questionable results. What we have come to realize is that our greatest opportunities lie within our own district. How will we develop our most important resource-- our staff? How will our organization support our employees' hopes, dreams, and desires? How will we assure that every school has an effective leadership that supports staff and assures student growth? And, of course, how will we pay for it?

Investing in Personal and Professional Growth

In Meriden, our teachers' union and management decided to address this problem head on by developing leadership capacity at all levels to improve student achievement and assure leadership continuity, coherence, and effectiveness. We knew we had to inspire, excite, and motivate our staff by investing in their personal and professional growth and including them in the decision making process. Our central office team and union leadership discussed The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly, and we took his message to heart and we put his thoughts into action. Matthew Kelly stated, "An employee is responsible for adding value to the life of a company, and a company is responsible for adding value to the life of an employee." So we began to systematically plan on how we could add value to our teachers and staff by developing a support framework and a comprehensive and coherent talent development system (See Attachment).

As Meriden rolled out their new teacher evaluation and development process, a commitment was made to provide educators with the development and growth opportunities they may need. So union and management created the MTSS Team (Meriden Teachers Sharing Success) to recognize our exemplary educators and to provide support and growth opportunities for teachers (See attached). MTSS team members, tenured Meriden Public School teachers, who have taught the same grade level for years and led their students to substantial student growth for four consecutive years, opened their classrooms for peer visitations and availed themselves for reflection. MTSS Team members can assist their colleagues in the continual growth process.

Professional development line items finally opened to individual teacher requests. By reallocating funding that was used to pay outside consultants, we were now able to honor teacher professional development requests and pay our own teachers to provide training to our staff teams. Teachers could now choose professional development opportunities that they felt would best support their learning and growth. Teachers volunteered to serve on administrative interviews, help design interview protocols, and facilitate teacher feedback surveys. We decided to develop tomorrow's leaders today as the Meriden Public Schools launched the Leadership Academy. The mission of the Meriden Public Schools' Leadership Academy is to build and develop leadership capacity throughout the district through collaboration, professional development, and support in order to increase and sustain student achievement. The program is designed for aspiring teacher leaders, current teacher leaders, and effective teachers looking to increase their personal and professional growth, and aspiring administrators.

Meriden Leadership Academy

The Meriden Public Schools' Leadership Academy is a two-year learning experience that includes targeted in-district professional development sessions on all facets of effective leadership, attendance at select conferences, shadowing opportunities, and the development of district leadership projects tied to school improvement plans. Several leadership academy participants designed schools and district initiatives that have become common operating practice in our district. We are developing a cadre of educators committed to developing their leadership skills, expanding their leadership knowledge base, and taking an active role in school and district improvement and student success.

Participants gain an enhanced understanding and ability to apply professional practice, concepts, and values in learning and leadership. Session topics included: Mission and Vision; Culture Leadership; People Leadership; Instructional Leadership; and Organizational Management. The Meriden Public Schools' Leadership Academy is a collaborative effort between the Meriden Public Schools and the Connecticut Association of Schools. Stacy Whittington, one of the vice-presidents of the Meriden Federation of Teachers stated, "Leadership Academy has been an extremely valuable opportunity to increase knowledge of how to become a more effective teacher leader within my school as well as the district. Throughout the academy many meaningful conversations have been had with fellow teacher leaders, administrators, and academy facilitators about how to become a more effective leader, about how tough decisions are made, as well as how new initiatives are created and implemented."

Together, union and management are breaking down the barriers that have isolated educators from their colleagues and peers. Our peer-coaching program provides educators with an opportunity to observe other educators in action. The premise of our program is that our best teachers are our best teachers and that educators can help educators improve student learning. The major roles of a peer coach are to collaborate, provide beneficial feedback, share effective teaching strategies, and reflect on teaching and learning. Peer coaches use an established protocol to share honest and open feedback with their peer coach and to guide their reflections on what they learn from each other.

The district works with the National School Reform Faculty to provide consistent standardized training for all peer coaches. Through pre-observation conferences, observations and debriefing, both the observed and observer deepened their understanding of their own practice. The essential teaching competencies of effective instructional techniques, knowledge of subject matter, classroom management, and professional skills and responsibilities will be explored. Kenneth Wong and Anna Nicotera stated, "The strength of peer coaching lies in its potential to promote a culture of collaboration and professionalism among teachers."

Partnering with Higher Education

Our in-district college partnerships have provided unique learning and professional development opportunities for our staff. The Master in Education Certification Program from the University of New Haven is housed at Lincoln Middle School in Meriden. This program only accepts students with bachelor's degrees who are interested in careers in education. The program also requires participants to complete a year-long internship in a public school setting and many interns work with a teacher mentor in our district. Our teachers are sharing their expertise and assuring that future educators have the foundation and skills needed to be successful. This partnership has provided Meriden with exceptional substitute teachers during the program and strong teaching candidates after completion. Meriden teachers and college professors also participate in their very own peer-coaching program. This will provide opportunities for teaching peers to observe one another in their classroom setting and assure a successful public school (K-12) to college transition.

Southern Connecticut State University runs an educational leadership cohort model at Washington Middle School in Meriden. This administrator certification program has been well received by our staff and has encouraged many teachers to begin their journey into educational leadership. The cohort model provides for additional support through district colleagues. The in-district location has made the program easily accessible and convenient for our staff. It has also allowed coursework and discussions to focus on our district initiatives and has helped us build a cadre of future administrator applicants. As an urban school district with salary constraints, building on our pool of administrative candidates is not just helpful--it is essential.

The Meriden Public Schools partners with Lesley University and Middlesex Community College. Lesley University has provided international reading experts who have designed targeted professional development to assist our teachers in the conversion to the Common Core. Lesley professors have spent time in our district building the capacity of our full-day kindergarten teachers as well as our elementary teaching staff. District administrators are also participating in training through Lesley. Middlesex Community College has run enrichment programs for our middle school students, held open forums with our guidance staff, and worked on a pilot program to assure that our students are college and career ready.

In an era of increased accountability, we must remember that greater support will lead to sustained improvement. The final four components of the Meriden Public Schools' Talent Development System are new teacher induction, executive coaching, administrator professional development, and non-certified staff professional development. Our new teacher induction program includes classroom walkthroughs, book studies, discussion groups, scenario role-playing, and cohort support. This is in addition to all the requirements of the Connecticut Teacher Education and Mentoring Program.

The Connecticut Center for School Change provides executive coaching for new administrators. Site visits, weekly check-ins, literature reviews, cohort meetings, and leadership scenarios are major components of the program. This specialized professional development is in addition to monthly administrators' meetings and our annual leadership retreat. The Connecticut Center for School Change is also working with the entire Meriden Public Schools' team on taking data teams to the next level, successful learning walk protocols, and district coherence. Our non-certified staff professional development is in consultation with outside providers and includes our clerical staff, maintenance and custodial workers, as well as our substitute teachers.


As a district, we are moving forward together with a good balance of trust and compromise. We are a collaborative team that has created a unifying vision for our district. We believe that every child is entitled to a high quality education, that teachers and leaders impact every child's achievement, that collaboration improves student learning, and that building leadership capacity at all levels sustains our mission to see our students make positive progress. Just this past year, we saw the highest scores in district history in Grade 3 Reading, Grade 5 Science, Grade 6 Math, Grade 7 Reading and Grades 7 & 8 Reading and Writing. We also have experienced greatly improved school comates and cultures. Since 2010-2011, suspensions are down 32 percent, expulsions are down 80 percent, and arrests are down 54 percent.

Teachers, as well as all staff members, are able to share their ideas and thoughts on how we can improve our district through our new online "Innovation Exchange", which is where staff can submit innovative ideas to move the district forward. Simon Sinek states, "The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen". In the Meriden Public Schools, we value our staff and we know that effective leadership is much more than simple compliance. Leaders create a following, even in uncertain times.


Mark D. Benigni (mark.benigni@meridenk12.org) is Superintendent of Meriden Public Schools and an adjunct professor in Southern Connecticut State University's Educational Leadership Program. Thomas W. Giard III (thomas.giard@meridenk12.org) is Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Staff Development of Meriden Public Schools and an adjunct professor at Sacred Heart University's Educational Leadership Program.



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