The following is a Q & A exchange between Mona Smith and me.
Mona Smith is the 2013 Oklahoma Assistant Principal of the Year. When I first met her, I was struck by her insight into school improvement and her relentless commitment to at-risk students. As an “A” school, Glenpool High School has seen dramatic improvement in their test scores. Leading alongside Principal Jerry Olansen and their great teachers and staff, Mona has played a large part in influencing these improvements.
This spring she will represent Oklahoma at the NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year awards ceremony in Washington D.C. I am very excited she agreed to share her insights on school leadership.
My goal in posting interviews with successful leaders in education is to inspire us to reflect on how our own choices, goals, and actions can affect our lives, our leadership, and our teams. I must also give credit to John Lee Dumas of Entrepreneur on Fire whose great podcast interview questions I have modified for the Q & A’s I have with my guests.
Mona Smith is completing her seventh year as an Assistant Principal at Glenpool High School. She is currently responsible for Curriculum, Instruction, Testing, Remediation, and Scheduling and has also served as the Discipline Administrator. You can contact her via her school’s website.
WDP: Thank you so much for interviewing. Can you start by sharing one of your favorite success quote?
Mona: I have had a quote by Jim Rohn posted in my office for many years. I strive to be cognizant of and work within the components of this quote in all relationships, professionally and personally. “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”–Jim Rohn
WDP: How have you used the idea in your favorite quote to affect the way you lead at your school?
Mona: I believe that my style of leadership is exemplified by this quote from Mr. Rohn. I hold strong ideas, thoughts, and opinions and will voice them with conviction and emphasis when appropriate. However, I will always to listen to the opinions and expressions of others who disagree with me. The dialogue that ensues from a convergence of strong ideas encased in mutual respect often leads to a renewed collaborative focus and a more positive work environment. Empowering others to take risks with ideas allows forward movement within your organization and discourages an atmosphere of ordinary.
WDP: What’s the best leadership advice you have ever received?
Mona: Some years ago I went through a time where I believed that public education was becoming too demanding with fewer rewards being compounded by the loss of respect by many in our society. I believed that the negative media attention was unwarranted and inordinately unjust. I questioned why my chosen profession had become such an arduous path to travel. I had been reading a book on leadership by Jim Rohn when I came across words that spoke directly to me. Those words stated, “Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.” At that moment I realized that I had to take personal responsibility for myself and the impact that I had in my professional growth. From that moment on, I determined that I would become a positive voice that could be heard above the naysayers. That meant I had to focus on my professional development and work deliberately to become a more informed advocate and leader for public education.
WDP: What do you think was holding you back from the high levels of success you are now seeing at your school?
Mona: There have been times when I have become professionally complacent. Life was predictable, my career was enjoyable, and I still believed that I was making a difference. However, it is during those times of complacency with no challenges to face, that I realized I was running in place while achieving little. I determined that for me personally, running in place was not acceptable. Those times of ‘coasting’ are the times that have held me back. Without facing great challenges and sometimes great personal changes, there cannot be great rewards. When I step out of my comfort zone and actively look for challenges and the ensuing changes that inevitably follow, I have learned there will over time, be a positive impact.
WDP: What are some of the ideas that are currently working for you and your team at school?
Mona: At Glenpool High School, we value the significance of building relationships with our students, parents, and community. We have determined to focus on the positive aspects of each day and the relationships which are invaluable in contributing to positive outcomes both academically and behaviorally. Our goal is to focus on what we must do to affect positive change. We understand the importance of communication and listening to those within our school community and offer many opportunities for staff, students, and parents to share their voices. We are and will continue to be advocates for public education in our community and are intentional in both attitude and focus. Perception is a reality and our voices in support of our students and schools are quintessential to counter balance the negative who do not hesitate to assail public education and students of today.
WDP: I have heard great things about the low number of drop-outs you have at your high school. Can you share what steps your school has taken to achieve that goal?
Mona: We work to identify the students at greatest risk when they come to our high school. Those students receive a concerted focus of attention. Throughout their high school career we spend time mentoring and advising, while developing positive relationships. It is a practice that has led to a significant decrease in the number of students wanting to drop out of school. The decline has been steady for the past six years, with zero dropouts last school year. We communicate with parents and provide many opportunities to access extra academic support. We provide this support at no charge to the parent. Our Counseling Center also provides multiple group counseling sessions to assist the students identified as at-risk for dropping out.
WDP: Do you have a resource that you just love that you would recommend to other school leaders?
Mona: As a secondary administrator wanting to understand secondary students and young adults of today, Generation iY by Dr. Tim Elmore is a must read. What Dr. Elmore does in a starkly vivid manner is remind us that this is the first generation that doesn’t need leaders to get information or answer their questions. The study of Dr. Elmore’s book has changed the manner and focus of many of our practices…Another resource that I recommend and use on a daily basis is the training from A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. I believe this training and implementation within our high school has made a positive impact in our community. Having the ability to understand the importance of relationship building and communication with all of our students and parents is essential to our success as educators and leaders.
WDP: If you could recommend a book for other school leaders, what would it be?
Mona: Schools Cannot Do It Alone by Jamie Vollmer has been a catalyst that has propelled us as a district to advocate for our schools. In his book, Mr. Vollmer finds that in the vast majority of public schools, student achievement has been raised. Unfortunately though, the gap between what the students of our post-industrial society know compared to what they need to know is increasing. We have had the opportunity to speak to various business groups in our community and this book has become a must read for business leaders who want to understand the upcoming work force and the challenges and opportunities they bring.
WDP: A huge thanks to Mona Smith for taking the time to share her insights and recommendations! If you want more great insights, check out the Extended Interview with Mona Smith, where she gives great specifics on the “how-to’s” she has used to increase test scores and reduce drop-out rates at her school. To contact Mona directly, you can find her at Glenpool High School’s website.
Questions for all of us:
What are some great steps your school is taking to see improvements in students’ mastery of subject matter? How are you tackling the ever-present risk of students wanting to give up or even drop out? What are some resources you use to help your most at-risk students?
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