Schools conference time to embrace bold leadership

“Embracing Bold Leadership,” the theme of the 51st annual Administrators’ Conference, was explored in keynote addresses and breakout sessions Oct. 11-13 in Biloxi.

With Dr. RaeNell Houston, new superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, coordinating the conference for the first time, several changes were made. She had three keynote speakers, instead of one, and orchestrated a welcome carnival where the 200 attendees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama could interact lightheartedly with the 60 vendors.

“We are at a pivotal time in Catholic education,” Houston said, mentioning how declines in enrollment nationwide, competition with charter and other private schools and fewer school-age students make the conference more important than ever. “We can’t do things the way we have always done them and expect people to come. Competition should force us to be bold and think outside the box and do things so we will stand out (when parents are choosing what school to send their child to).”

Houston said she decided on this year’s theme after reflecting on Pope Francis and his boldness in leading the church. She sought speakers who reinforced that bold vision for teachers.

Steve Ventura was up first as the keynote speaker on Wednesday. He discussed “Building Your Collaborative Leadership Profile: How Effective Leaders Support Collective Teacher Efficacy.”

Houston said Ventura demonstrated how the “success of a school depends the leadership of principals, administrators and teachers.”

Breaking down barriers

On Oct. 12, Simon T. Bailey gave insight to administrators from his new book, “Releasing Leadership Brilliance: Breaking Sound Barriers in Education,” that he authored with Marceta Reilly, who was a co-presenter in two breakout sessions.

Bailey used an aviation metaphor to show educational leaders how to break barriers in their thinking about education to better reach students and help them soar as they develop skills to make them employable in the future and to reduce the drop-out rate.

Bailey said leadership is caught, not taught, and he encouraged administrators to bring out the best in themselves and in those around them.

“The real job of a leader is to invite people on a journey to discover themselves as they follow you,” he said. “When they break the sound barrier, leaders have the potential to be the difference that makes the difference.”

He used aviation terms to explain what he meant. Teachers and administrators need to understand the “weight” and power of their calling; they work with others to reduce barriers and produce “lift” and “thrust,” propelling a school forward by developing strong teams that work to engage students and reduce “drag.”

He described brilliance or genius as “doing what you do that makes you come alive.” He said when brilliance is aligned with a person’s calling, the person is motivated and will leave an impact. He told teachers to remember that in their classrooms, “brilliance is ignited in an environment where you are celebrated rather than tolerated.”

He also shared what he and Reilly have found to be the key traits of a leader: agility, going the extra mile, sharing knowledge and developing relationships, challenging the status quo and being a curious and authentic listener. He also listed critical skills today’s students will need to succeed in the workplace in 2020 and beyond: new media literacy, virtual collaboration, cognitive load management, cross-cultural competency, social intelligence and novel and adaptive thinking.

Cathy Lassiter was the keynote speaker Oct. 13 talking about “Everyday Courage for School Leaders: Activating Leadership Courage for School Improvement.” Lassiter was familiar to several of the principals since she has given workshops and follow-up coaching in 10 schools in the archdiocese. She delivered tips on how to be “courageous” in schools.

Daily dose of leadership

Breakout sessions dealt with the core of what administrators face daily: how to use social media properly; using data to drive instruction; instructional technology in schools; how to release “leadership brilliance”; “Seven Circles of School Vitality”; using Catholic identity and evangelization to improve school climate; piloting programs for inclusion of students with exceptional educational needs; developing and sustaining a high-performance leadership team. A panel discussion on partners in leadership also was held.

Tish Sauerhoff, president/principal at St. Michael Special School, found the conference helpful. She discovered a strong team culture at St. Michael’s when she arrived 2 1/2 years ago, but she knows new best practices could help propel schools even more.

“It’s good for me as a leader to hear the importance of feeding that strong culture,” Sauerhoff said. She said her teachers work tirelessly for students to be the best they can be. “I need to make sure that I provide opportunities that strengthen the strong culture we already have.”

In addition to gleaning new leadership techniques, participants attended Masses celebrated by Father Patrick Wattigny, pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish and president of Pope John Paul II High School in Slidell, on Oct. 12 and by Archbishop Gregory Aymond on Oct. 13.

Houston sees the conference as an opportunity for school administrators to relax, grow and share their successes.

“I want each school to walk away and create a new vision of leadership that embraces the changes we need to have,” Houston said. “We have to figure out how to be the best we can be while maintaining our Catholicity and academic excellence in this new landscape.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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