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Dr. Kathleen Puckett: On the Road to Building Leadership Skills - 10 Positive Steps
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The Partners in Learning (PIL) Hot Topics blogs designated the topic of Leadership as the theme for the month of October. Good leadership is essential to success! All throughout the PIL Hot Topic blogs, you will see a common thread or discussion of leadership. It is so important that there is even a Leadership Hot Topics blog.

Cindy and I would like to introduce you to Dr. Kathleen Puckett. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Kathleen on national presentations and see her leadership in action in her role as President of the Council for Exceptional Children, an international professional organization.

Here's her bio: Kathleen S. Puckett, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Special Education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where she is president-elect of the Polytechnic Campus University Senate. Her areas of interest include instructional and assistive technology, inclusive practices for students with disabilities, and international special education services. She is a facilitator for the World Academy for the Future of Women, an international service organization dedicated to the development of women’s leadership skills in China and in developing nations.

Dr. Puckett began her career as a teacher in the foothills of Appalachia in 1970. In the intervening years, she has been a teacher, administrator, teacher-educator, advocate, researcher, and a leader in the field of special education. She received her Ph.D. in Education from the University of Tennessee, and served as the president of the Council for Exceptional Children in 2009.

She has co-authored three textbooks, Differentiating Instruction: A Practical Approach, Preparing to Use Technology: A Practical Guide to Curriculum Integration, (with Blanche O’Bannon), and Supporting Content Area Literacy with Technology (with William G. Brozo). She is the principal investigator for several grants that recruit and support new teachers.

“Kathy” is a mother to Valerie, a physical therapist, and Jeff, a geologist, and is the wife of Thomas, a social worker. Together, they share a love of the beautiful outdoors and the wonderful recreational opportunities available in the western United States.

We invited Kathy to take a few minutes and talk about how leadership happens. Sit back and enjoy her blog!

Steps to leadership

On the Road to Building Leadership Skills: 10 Positive Steps

When Tara Jeffs called me and asked me to write a blog on leadership, I was initially taken aback. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, how does one become a leader? How does one get to do the things you have done?” was her reply. Wow. What a pause for reflection. I don’t really feel like a leader. But I have done many leadership activities. How did that happen? I guess 43 years in the profession helps—that, and the personality idiosyncrasies that come with being a first born child in a large family. But Dr. Jeff’s question speaks to a broader issue; asking how leadership for accessibility can be nurtured and developed, and the importance of leadership when advancing the concepts of inclusive education. If I were to do it over again, or to advise teachers on developing leadership skills, I would offer the following points.

1) It's up to you.

My own professional development and growth as an educator was, and continues to be, up to me. No one said to me, “you must do this.” Determining what I need to know in order to be successful is my own responsibility and is under my control—my attitude, my willingness to take advanced coursework, and to spend time and money participating and helping to lead professional organizations. It also helps to associate with those who can serve as positive role models and influences throughout your career.

2) Understand the power you have to make lives better.

You have the power to make students’ lives better. You hold several keys to a successful life for your students through your interest, your enthusiasm, and your caring. Try not to let burned-out colleagues, system rules, or bureaucratic mandates discourage a positive nature and your important work. Your students need you. They need for you to continue learning, to continue to work at figuring out how to make instruction accessible to each one of them. Learning what to do next is indeed a lifelong endeavor.

3) Become involved with professional organizations.

I credit involvement with professional organizations as a highly positive influence on my own ability to develop leadership skills. I have been most active in organizations that embrace my field of special education, such as the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and its Technology and Media Division (TAM), as well as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Special Education Technology Special Interest Group (SETsig). As a special educator, I have often consulted the literature and services of organizations devoted to other content areas, such as the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Council for the Social Studies, National Science Teachers Association, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The national organizations/unions and their local affiliates, such as the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers, are invaluable for their advocacy as well as for leadership development. There are so many worthwhile organizations that there are multiple opportunities to get connected locally, nationally, and internationally.

Balancing personal professional development, teaching, and personal responsibilities is not easy, but the results are worth it. Seek out local chapters of any of these organizations that interest you. Check out local meeting schedules, and try to attend a national or regional level conference. Then, get involved. Join a committee, or work on a task force or help develop a meeting agenda. Become visible to the local officers and committee members through your presence and your interest. Often, organizational offices are difficult to fill. Your presence, interest and involvement will naturally position you for consideration for a number of leadership opportunities. You also may consider sharing your ideas with your colleagues by giving a presentation at the next conference. Check out presentation submission guidelines, and apply! No one will just come to you and ask you to do this. Get proactive. Share your talent and expertise.

4) Who are you following?

What new thing is exciting you about teaching, or piquing your interest? Are there other educators who share this interest, and how do you connect with them? What are you reading? Whose work are you reading? How do you keep up with the latest research—through journals, access to research reports through university libraries, or through blogs or tweets? The transition to common core standards will change many perspectives on learning activities, assessments, access to curriculum processes. Who are the leaders in this area today, and what can they help you to understand?

5) Share.

To quote Maya Angelou, “If you get, give. If you learn, teach.” Share your work, your students’ work, and your knowledge base with others. Technology is making this so much easier—Wiki’s, blogs, Google Docs for collaboration—all are vehicles for communication. Extend the concept of sharing what you know in order to obtain what your students need. For example, in some school districts, those in charge of the technology infrastructure have made it difficult to obtain freely available accessibility tools, such as screen readers or online magnification, or may have blocked access to control panels and accessibility options for students in lab settings due to security concerns. Your knowledge of the usefulness of websites, software programs, and other issues, and your willingness to respectfully share this knowledge while advocating for your students can go a long way toward improving accessibility for all. Dave Edyburn likes to remind teachers of the “paradox of consideration,” a concept that states that one cannot recommend accessible technology solutions if they don’t know what may be available or even possible. Share your knowledge with others and use what others have done before you to lead the way. One of my favorite sites is Wissick’s Web Toolboxes where all manner of technology to help teachers to select the appropriate tools for all learners are logically organized. I share knowledge of her website freely, and thank her for the work that went into this useful tool.

6) Facilitating inclusion builds leadership skills.

In my own informal and anecdotal observations through the years, I have noticed that many educational leaders began their careers in areas where they had the opportunity to advocate for or assist students with special needs. When you think about this, it makes sense. Working for inclusive practice involves collaborating with a variety of individuals, from classroom teachers, to service providers, parents, administrators, and the student. It involves arranging, scheduling, seeking, communicating, following through, analyzing, and adjusting plans—all of which are skills inherent in leaders. So whether you are a classroom teacher, a special educator, a service provider, a parent, or a student with special needs, the learning barriers presented can be considered a form of a gift to others. In finding the way to keep the learner and learning as the most important, and giving time and expertise in figuring out those complexities, affords opportunities for the development of leadership and advocacy in all of us.

7) Facilitating technology integration builds leadership skills.

Technology integration reduces barriers and makes access to the curriculum possible for students with special needs. We know this. Many of us have lived this. But often this mantra is posed as the only reason for developing technology skills. And those reasons are valid; technology is a door opener for many students. But it is also a door opener for teachers, service providers, and administrators. It gives us the opportunity to learn new things, consult wonderfully knowledgeable individuals, develop advocacy, and demonstrate leadership successes. As with the previous point, in giving, you get.

8) You cannot do it alone.

Leadership does not occur in a vacuum. You are dependent on others to develop your leadership skills just as they are dependent on you to develop their own. Professional learning communities, professional learning networks, communities of practice, and informal work with colleagues is necessary to move the complex agenda of schooling forward. Teacher evaluation systems, accountability systems, inclusive practices, and common core integration are just a few of the unprecedented challenges facing teachers and schools today. Work together in whatever manner you can to assist each other in addressing solutions brought on by these issues.

9) When people ask you to do something because they know that you can, believe them.

Maya Angelou’s quote, “When people show you who they are, believe them,” is amended for this final point. Others often see the talent in us that we fail to recognize. When asked to present your ideas to a group, or to organize a schedule, or to chair a committee, consider it an opportunity for leadership. Believe them. They see something in you that you may not have yet seen yourself. Of course, Angelou’s original quote is also a cautionary tale to beware those who would use your good will in a disrespectful manner. If disappointed by someone who has taken advantage, move on. Quickly. Conversely, ask others to assist you. Many people would step up to the plate and do a fine job if they were merely asked. Many potential leadership opportunities have been missed because the leader was racking his or her brain (Who can I get to do this? Why isn’t anyone interested?) and failed to do one simple thing. Ask.

10) Demonstrate good will, good cheer, and gratitude.

No one likes to be around people who enjoy their complaints, or who zap the energy out of the room through their negativity. Even though the times are tough and the rules seem to being made by folks who wouldn’t know what a kid looked like if one were placed in front of them, it is not productive to be an obstructionist. Develop your own leadership skills and commit yourself towards steering the interpretation of rules and procedures in a positive, student oriented direction. This is hard. Believe me, I know and I don’t always follow this myself (as in Hrmphh! How do you expect us to do that when we have to—fill in the blank?) So emote if you have to. But always come back to a positive solution when possible. Lead the charge to make it work for the good of the students.

I am grateful to Dr. Cindy Feist and Dr. Tara Jeffs for this marvelous opportunity to share my musings and in some small way continue my own growth in leadership. And I thank you, the reader, for the time you gave to me while reading this. I will be checking in on the blog site this week to keep the conversation going and to answer any questions.

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