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Shared Life Experiences Motivate this School Leader to Coach and Inspire Her Staff

Jessica Meldrum  |  May 20, 2020
This is our fifth installment in the “What is a DSQ?” blog series.
 
Building her career from years of practice gained in the field, climbing the ladder from paraprofessional to director of school quality, Staci Bennett has learned many valuable lessons along the way. In her more than 20 years of experience in education, this school leader works to share her pathway to success, showing her students that big dreams are possible.
 
Though every day is different, especially now while her schools are learning remotely, one thing remains consistent: her visits to the schools. Whether in person, during traditional learning, or virtually during remote learning, Bennett pays regular visits to her schools to spend time collaborating with principals and deans, focusing on areas for improvement.
 
“It starts with me looking at data. Every school has its own story and data is the best narrator,” said Bennett. With the data in hand, she turns to the principals and deans to create a coaching cycle for the teachers to make improvements in the classroom. “By providing these coaching cycles, a teacher’s entire practice changes. You can see how well the data trends, following a coaching cycle,” she said.
 
Though her workday may look a bit different during the coronavirus pandemic, Bennett shared that in some ways, it has allowed her to expand her skills. “Working remotely has made the schools more accessible to me,” said Bennett. “I am able to be involved in more conversations, provide more feedback and coaching, and ‘touch’ my schools more often in this virtual environment.”
 

Lovingly referred to by students as “big boss,” scholars from Bennett’s schools eagerly look forward to her visits. Reflecting on a memory at Orion Academy, Bennett shared that in many ways, her students become her babies. “Though their behaviors are sometimes challenging, they are fighting to learn. I made a point to visit that class and visit those kids every time I was in that building. They would look for me and go crazy. They looked forward to those visits. It warmed my heart.”
 
Building on experiences like that, Bennett is driven to continue her work to inspire kids to pursue their education and achieve their dreams.
 
“I literally worked my way up. To start as a paraprofessional and end up where I am now, it was tough. I come from the same environment that my kids come from,” shared Bennett. “I had a great home environment, with two amazing parents.  Their support, though unending, was still limited because my dad had an eighth-grade education and my mom never finished high school. So I am personally familiar with some of the challenges our kids are facing because I lived it. I am a product of it.”
 
These experiences motivated her, later in life, to explore brain development and the impacts it has on children from different backgrounds. One of the concepts she explored is known as executive function, a term that refers to the part of the brain that helps guide decisions about one’s behavior and reactions to different situations.
 
This research directs how she provides leadership. The executive function research indicates that students are most successful in a structured environment, both at home and in the classroom. In some cases, that structure may be lacking. “For instance, they [students] don’t have bedtimes or breakfast times, or they may not have anyone at home to help with learning. Especially now, with e-learning or remote learning. In most cases, they are on their own,” said Bennett.
 
While she shared that she would never make assumptions or point blame, this is a reality that many of her schools face. To encourage her leaders who educate students in this situation, Bennett turns to the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader, who says in part:
 
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”
 
Bennett shares this idea with all her school leaders who are then encouraged to teach the practice to their teachers. “Our kids are our lettuce,” she said. “We don’t blame the lettuce. If the lettuce doesn’t grow, we give it more water or more sunshine.” She asks her leaders what they can do differently in their building so the students can prosper in the classroom. “In navigating these challenges, I put pressure on the principal who can message it out to the teachers.”
 
Her leadership approach has marked success, the data speaking for itself. Take Alliance Academy of Cincinnati for example, which recently earned an A for growth on the state report card, or North Dayton School of Discovery which outperformed the local district on the state test and earned an A for growth on the state report card. Bennett’s efforts are not going unnoticed, after serving in her role for three years, she continues pushing for positive results.
 
“Ms. Bennett is a rare breed of leader who is able to hold high expectations while providing support and genuine care. She pushes her people out of their comfort zone to get better but ensures they feel safe,” said Michael Stack, senior director of school quality at National Heritage Academies (NHA). “She is deeply knowledgeable about curriculum and maintains a ‘no excuse’ attitude for students and adults.”
 
NHA looks forward to Bennett’s continued efforts and the creative endeavors she pursues to help her schools and students succeed. She shared one wish she has for her students, and that is to believe in themselves. “I know it may sound clichĂ©, but for our kids, it is so critical that they believe in themselves,” she said. “Life holds possibility for them.”
 
Stay tuned on June 17 for the next installment of our DSQ blog series when we introduce you to Lori Hill, an NHA leader who is passionate about working with families that are struggling outside of the school building.