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Principal Aimee Rainey Reflects on "The True Measure of Leadership"
July 16, 2014 | Comments
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I first met Aimee Rainey when she was assistant principal and then principal at Calcedeaver Elementary, a wonderful and often-recognized rural school in northwestern Mobile County.

A few years ago, Aimee and her family moved from "Lower Alabama (aka LA)" to North Alabama and the city of Florence, situated on the beautiful Tennessee River, to assume the principalship of another award-winning school, Florence Middle.

In both schools, Aimee has worked passionately and diligently to hone her leadership skills – and to develop and distribute leadership among her teachers and staff. This article, written for NASSP's Principal Leadership magazine (Jan 2014), offers some of her insights and lessons learned and is shared here with her permission.
– Cathy Gassenheimer
______________________

The True Measure of Leadership

By Aimee Rainey
 
 


Coming from a family of educators, I was firmly against pursuing a career in education. I have always had a heart for service, however, and others have commented on my leadership skills from a very early age, so I obtained a degree in speech and hearing sciences with the desire to work in a rehabilitation setting. But like most eager, young graduates, I took the first available job after graduation and became a public school speech pathologist.

I am sure my grandparents, aunts, and uncles who had lifelong careers as educators were quietly waiting and watching me fall in love with education, the field of work I so adamantly felt was not for me. It took no more than two weeks for me to realize that I was born to be an educator.

I spent five years serving 2-to-21-year-old students who had multiple disabilities and unique personalities. I worked in different schools under school leaders who practiced dissimilar leadership styles. During this time, I served on a school accreditation team and a grant-writing committee and periodically fulfilled the duties of the special education coordinator. Those opportunities taught me important lessons about special education law, budgets and documentation for federal programs, families in crisis, and time management. Those challenging and demanding lessons were preparing me to become a leader.

I became an administrator in Mobile County (AL) Public Schools and served the community and students of Calcedeaver Elementary for six years. During that time, we built an award-winning program and were named a National Blue Ribbon School and 1 of the 10 top rural schools in Alabama. We received numerous other state and local awards, and I was named the Alabama Rural All-Star Principal. My teachers and I were featured in state publications; we hosted more than one hundred school visits from various dignitaries, such as the state superintendent, the governor, a senator, national news media, and representatives from schools across the nation.

A true leader is not driven by external motivational factors, although they produce stress and sometimes excitement. A true leader is driven by the light and heat from within.

During those six years, I learned other important lessons, such as how to respect, value, embrace, and love another culture. I learned that being on the stage and under the spotlight is a lonely place where you feel not only the external heat but also the internal heat. A true leader is not driven by external motivational factors, although they produce stress and sometimes excitement. A true leader is driven by the light and heat from within.

We at Calcedeaver set out on the journey to success not to be recognized or have our name printed in news articles, but so that our students could reach their full potential. We knew that took courage, trust, teamwork, dedication, determination, perseverance, and continual learning. When we combined all those things, the results were remarkable.

When the demands of publicity began to crowd into the school’s daily routine, I would remember the words from one of my wise superintendents, “Don’t worry about what’s on the front page of the paper—it will be on the bottom of a bird cage tomorrow.” I know when he used this quote he intended to encourage administrators who were facing tremendous challenges and difficulties. Although we were not facing difficulties, his words were a reminder that whether you are receiving praise or criticism, it doesn’t last. What does last is what I do as an administrator for children, teachers, and the community. Those daily acts of service—many of which are done without anyone even knowing—are the true measure of my leadership.

Leading in a different school

When I became the principal of Florence (AL) Middle School, my reputation preceded me. That was an awkward position. True, I had received success as measured by awards and honors, but I had learned that true awards are my students’ and staff members’ smiles and happy faces.

My superintendent expected me to lead the school to be number one in the state and among the top in the nation, and the community had high expectations as well. Some of the teachers and other district administrators, however, met me with skepticism. Being hired as a leader in a small city where I was not a native was challenging. Skepticism, resistance, and even resentment were new challenges to face and they provided opportunities for lessons that I needed to learn.

Several years before my arrival, Florence had been designated as a MetLife Foundation–NASSP Breakthrough School. Years had passed, however, and many employees had left and been replaced. The school system received a new superintendent, assistant superintendent, and several central office administrators. Florence itself had a new principal (me), assistant principal, counselor, teachers, nurse, secretary, and bookkeeper.

The huge shift in employees made my job as the new principal very challenging. My superintendent wanted me to turn the ship around, but I was not living life on a ship. I felt like I was navigating a small, inflatable raft over white water. Only a few people trusted my guidance, and we were all wearing protective gear. Others were outside the boat, and some of them were creating obstacles and preventing a smooth ride.

Now three years later, I am the captain of a strong ship that is sailing deep waters. The majority of my staff members are on board and confident and comfortable in the jobs they perform. I have the confidence in them to share the wheel while I stand on the bow, look to the horizon, and develop a vision for the best route for our school. None of us wears protective gear; there is no need because we trust and appreciate one another. We have created a high-performing, fun-loving culture in which teachers and students enjoy participating in engaging lessons and a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

Administrators and teachers model their love of learning and use a collaborative, diagnostic approach to meet the needs of students. As a byproduct, Florence has received awards and recognition.
Last year our school was redesignated as a MetLife Foundation– NASSP Breakthrough School. I was invited to present at Ignite ’14, the NASSP conference, and at the fall conference of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS). Teachers at Florence have been selected as local and state presenters. We have had numerous school visits from state department personnel, other schools, and universities. I have learned through my career that awards are nice and they provide validation for your efforts when times are difficult and you are unsure of the next steps, but they only come when you keep your eyes focused on the true goal: success for every student.

Leadership is not gained through awards or job titles; it is acquired through daily sacrifice, honesty, humility, genuineness, courage, dedication, and service to others. Before others can follow a leader without reservation, they must be confident in his or her dedication to them, ability to navigate difficult challenges assertively and discreetly, ability to be fair and consistent with everyone, and strength of character and courage. Confidence is not built through a onetime act. It is built over time through daily acts of leadership.

The school family at Florence is honored to be redesignated as a MetLife Foundation–NASSP Breakthrough School and are grateful for the validation of our work. As we continue to work together for the community we serve, it is our desire to continue to provide a challenging, rewarding, and memorable school experience for every student, every day.

Aimee Rainey earned an M.A. from The University of Southern Mississippi before returning to her home state of Alabama where she completed a M.Ed. in Educational Leadership from The University of South Alabama and then an Ed.S from Lincoln Memorial University. She began her career in education as a Speech Pathologist, then taught science to middle school students where she gained "practical knowledge of classroom management and an understanding of the typical adolescent."
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