The McKay School chats with Linde Safsten Wong about the shift in leadership responsibilities that occurs as an educator moves from the classroom to administration. Wong is a 1990 McKay School graduate in elementary education and a 1999 graduate in educational leadership. Although no longer a principal, Wong is currently doing some of her most important teaching as the mother of her three-year-old son, Jacob. She remains involved at her alma mater as a member of the McKay School’s Alumni Board.
Wong’s journey to administration began when she became an intern teacher at Franklin Elementary in Provo. After her internship, Wong taught fifth grade for two years at Franklin. When a facilitator position opened up at the school, Wong’s interest was piqued. As an educator who had been an intern just three years earlier, she felt that she would be able to connect with the preservice teachers she would mentor.
Wong was drawn to facilitating the student teachers' work at Franklin, but she was concerned about leaving the classroom. Although facilitators often work closely with administration, the position is usually temporary—filled by an educator who is released from his or her teaching responsibilities for two years. In taking the position, Wong was reassured that she would still have the option of returning to the classroom.
As a facilitator Wong worked closely with Franklin’s principal, Marlin Palmer. She had the opportunity to observe how Principal Palmer handled the challenges that administrators frequently face. Although administrators are sometimes considered to be educators who lead teachers instead of leading students, Wong realized by watching Palmer that although administrators are “working with the people who work with the kids, you’re still tied to the kids—leading them, but in a different way.” Administration isn’t removed from “what is really happening” at a school. Rather, functioning as a principal helps you to understand the inner workings of the school, and “the scope of your leadership expands.”
Wong’s original intention was not to become an administrator. But as architect Frank Lloyd Wright observed, “In much of our preparation, we do not know what we are preparing for.” By observing her school’s principal and serving as a facilitator, Wong was unconsciously preparing for administration. “I learned about being a principal before I even got there,” she said. “A lot of my 'aha' moments happened as a facilitator.”
Wong returned to the McKay School to complete the Leadership Preparation Program. She was the principal of Maeser Elementary until it closed and then had the opportunity to open Spring Creek Elementary in Provo and serve as the school’s first principal. Wong believes the following are some of the most important things she learned about leadership:
- To listen with compassion. Remember, “your teachers work really, really hard.” Administrators need to value the expertise of their team.
- To do what’s best for the school and the kids. Although good administrators take the concerns and questions of their teachers into account, they must juggle the needs of several groups. Ultimately administrators seek to provide an excellent education for the children they lead.
- To get parents involved in the conversation. Parents are an invaluable resource for administrators.
Wong advises individuals who are thinking about a career in administration to consider being a facilitator. Although the extent to which facilitating can prepare you for administration depends on the school, administrative involvement as a facilitator can give you an idea of how to take on the challenges of administration.
Wong also stresses the importance of finding a mentor. “For me and for my learning style,” Wong says, “having someone walking along beside me made a huge difference.” Administration is complex and involves “balancing needs of teachers, kids, and parents,” and getting those groups to work together to “make it happen.” Wong says that being mentored by an experienced administrator “made that first year of going into another school much easier.”
Finally, Wong counsels that “administration is right for you if you love working with lots of different people and personalities.” Administration is challenging, and administrators often find that they give 150 percent. But Wongs says that “if you love figuring out the puzzle of how to benefit kids in the end and make sure that they get a great education,” then consider administration.