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Principal Rodney Ivey

Principal Rodney Ivey

The Teacher Enabler, Star School Leader Recipient

We spoke to Principal Rodney Ivey about how to make sure every teacher feels supported. This is the first spotlight in a series of twelve, in which we feature the winning recipients of Kiddom’s annual Star School Leader Award. Look for the others over the coming months by signing up for our newsletter, or check out our School Leadership page, which we will update with each new spotlight.

 

The Makings of a Star School Leader

Growing up as the son of a teacher, Mr. Ivey has always been in the realm of education. From 1977 to just two years ago, his father taught at the elementary school where Rodney himself attended. This gave Rodney an early view of the ins and outs of the career, seeing his father’s passion and excitement especially built around educating students in the environmental sciences. Though his father taught all subjects as a fifth grade teacher, he created a nature trail and organized fun field trips, even inviting other schools in on the festivities.

Getting such a great behind-the-scenes view as the teacher’s kid, it’s no surprise that Principal Ivey would develop a passion of his own for education. Although he did lean toward the medical field in college, even starting with premed in Health Sciences in his early years at University of North Florida, half-way through he made a switch towards education — and hasn’t looked back since. 

He started out teaching Earth and Space Sciences (Honors) for Junior High and Eighth Grade, teaching about five classes of around 20 kids. About four years later he moved into physical education, where his class sizes grew to 40 kids, five times a day. Shortly after that, he was an athletic director where he headed programs of 5-600 students, including the intramural program that was developed at the time.

He soon found himself moving into the administration level, moving to become vice principal at a neighboring school in Clay County before obtaining his current principalship at Swimming Pen Creek Elementary School, where it has been, in his own words, “A-mazing. I’ve loved it… I love watching the progression of kids, from four years old, all the way up until they graduate and move on as sixth graders to the next school. It’s been a lot of fun.”

His frequent walks through our classrooms are welcomed, as he joins in our lessons alongside students; we love it when he photographs engaging lessons and shares them out with the staff. Under his leadership, our campus is a very happy inclusive place, with a supportive family-like atmosphere that encompasses parents, kids, teachers, and staff.

— Janet Shaw, Teacher at Swimming Pen Creek Elementary

What does Mr. Ivey enjoy the most about being Principal?

Unfortunately, he admits, it’s been a bit of a catch-22. When he started as a teacher, he had 20 kids at any given time that he could work with one-on-one. But as he progressed through his career, he was promoted to head larger and larger populations and began to miss the smaller group setting. To that, he says:

I guess the bad thing is I don’t build as many of those personal, I try to build as many as I can, relationships with kids that you get as a teacher in the classroom. But you do have a larger and greater impact — in this case, you know, over 500 students — which has been certainly a blessing, and one that I take very seriously.

Let’s talk about servant leadership.

He does what needs to be done, even vacuuming my classroom when the custodians were busy on another project. His kind, accepting demeanor inspires students and teachers alike to be kind and considerate.

— Janet Shaw, Teacher at Swimming Pen Creek Elementary

After we mentioned the above quote to Mr. Rodney, he gave a big grin. To this quality, he attributes his time working at Wilkinson Junior High School. Under Dr. David McDonald, Mr. Ivey learned his most valuable lesson of leadership: servant leadership. “You know certainly we have the instructional leadership; that’s incredibly important,” he explains. “Then there’s operational leadership; but both of those have to come underneath a larger umbrella: Servant Leadership.” 

I fully believe that my job as an administrator is to make teachers’ jobs easier because they have the hardest jobs. You know, they’re dealing with all of these personalities, with all of these backgrounds these kids are coming from each and every day. Those family connections and building those relationships with parents (are important) and so my job as administrator is to knock down every possible barrier that might get into this teacher’s ways of being the most effective for kids. And that means whatever that means, if it means helping them get their classroom ready.

— Principal Rodney Ivey

Recently, Mr. Ivey’s school opened a new program. They had some some neighboring schools opening up offering Student Choice, so they wanted to offer Choice at his school as well. But to do so, he had to get innovative. After meeting with district leadership, a School Choice program was created within Swimming Pen Creek Elementary. The school still has a traditional pathway for students, but have now also opened a Montessori program this year in four classrooms. They plan to open it to two more next year, then to a total of eight as they build it all the way out. About a third of the student population at Swimming Pen Creek can choose to make that choice. And they also bring in about 25 percent of that population in from other schools.

During this time, they were getting materials up into the minute before school started, and as more classroom materials coming in, there were many chores to tackle — unpacking boxes, organizing, and getting the new classrooms ready. Mr. Ivey saw this as an important moment to take the extra stress off of teachers, as they were focusing on getting ready for the kids. “I’ll take whatever role — you know, I’m not too far removed from being in that position. And I remember the stress and and how hard it is. I’ll do whatever I can to help a teacher get ready.”

 

Mr. Ivey finds ways to boost students and staff, from a shout out bulletin board to eating lunch with children. He squeezes every penny out of a tight budget to gets his teachers what they need, even planning and manning fundraisers to accomplish his goals. While most of us stay late planning and preparing, many times, his car is the last in the parking lot.

— Janet Shaw, Teacher at Swimming Pen Creek Elementary

What makes Mr. Ivey the most proud of Swimming Pen Creek?

“I’m very proud of our teachers’ and students’ growth over the last three years,” says Mr. Ivey. He adds that when he first came into the position he had very big shoes to fill, with a “great, great principal who was here before, who took a different position in another county.”

There was a bit of turnover during the transition, between new hires and retirements. Naturally, this created a mix of inexperienced new educators and accomplished teachers who had been around since the school opened 15 years ago — but there was also a mix of children coming from very different households. It was clear to Mr. Ivey that the population could present some challenges.

To top that, when he arrived the school was a “C” school — “I don’t think that’s a really good representation, but that’s how Florida labels it,” Mr. Ivey shares. But despite all odds, Swimming Pen has been able to move the label to a high “B”, with highly achievable targets on an “A” this year.

“I’m excited to see the growth, whether it be the interpersonal relationships that the teachers have built with each other, or the introduction of significantly more parent involvement than we had when I got here,” says Mr. Ivey.

Before Mr. Ivey became principal, Swimming Pen Creek didn’t have a PFA — nor did they have the quarterly events that are playing a huge role in getting parents involved on campus. “I’m very, very proud to see that movement and that change and growth, not only happening in the classrooms, but around the whole campus over the last three years,” he says.

Mr. Ivey’s positive leadership and vision for doing what is in the best interests of our children sets the tone for all of our faculty and staff to be positive, enthusiastic, and productive . He sees the best in people, therefore young and old rise to his expectations. Rather than micromanage, he works collaboratively with his staff to plan programs and events. He collects data for us, looking for trends and meeting with us on teams to focus on ways to help individual students. 

— Janet Shaw, Teacher at Swimming Pen Creek Elementary

What does Mr. Ivey believe technology’s role should be in the classroom?

The question has come up in a study Mr. Ivey did recently with the Montessori program. “You know, when Dr. Montessori was developing, I figure there wasn’t much technology. So we had to kind of build a schema for what that would look like — what would she have done?” he shares, with a laugh. 

Principal Ivey thinks it’s vitally important to use every tool that’s available to make the educational experience more meaningful, “and certainly more poignant to what the student needs in order to be successful, as they leave elementary school and go into junior high and high school, and out into the world.”

You know we’re preparing kids right now — it’s kind of crazy to think about — for jobs that aren’t even invented yet. They’re going to be asked to do things, to enter careers that haven’t even been thought of yet. And so the innovation and the creativity that our teachers need to build into these students to help them be successful… It can’t be the same way it’s been in the past. They need to understand how to use technology, they need to know how to interact with it.

— Principal Rodney Ivey

Principal Ivey acknowledges the fact that technology has shifted the importance of skills we’re learning in today’s schools, such as the memorization of certain acts and places. “I still think there’s an important role to play that isn’t the end-all, be-all in education like it was, even when I went through school. You know, memorize the states and their capitals or you need to know all of these Russian czars …now you can look that up at the touch of a button,” he says. “How much further can we take a student’s education using the internet and technology?”

Mr. Ivey believes many doors are opened by technology. “It allows kids to get so much deeper into their learning to understand the whys and hows and how to prevents. And how to shape and mold, not only their future but the future of their communities.” He adds that technology also opens a lot of doors for those who can’t travel:

You know, we’re a lower socio-economic community. We certainly fundraise as much as we can, to go on trips. We have families whose kids have never seen the beach, and we live right here in Florida. Who have never seen snow, never seen the mountains. Even though it’s not the same as being there, they can experience a lot of this thanks to technology. So there are just so many ways to utilize technology and to make a full experience for a kid as they’re going through their education.

His advice for other administrators who seek to develop a similar school culture and system:

Mr. Ivey’s advice comes in three parts. Part one is around innovation. “I would say don’t be afraid to go out there and innovate, you know pilot different things, pilot different programs.”

Part two of Principal Ivey’s advice is simple: listen to your teachers. “They’re on the front lines. Your teachers are in the classroom with these kids. You know, we don’t see everything, we can’t know everything, we can’t hear everything. Your teachers know well what things your kids need. And so listen to your teachers, provide as many opportunities as you can, and then learn it along side of them.”

The third bit of his advice is about where great change starts. He believes a movement can’t simply come simply from the top-down, but has to come from the bottom-up, too.

It can’t be something that you do to a school. You’ve got to be a part of it. There has to be buy-in, and that buy-in comes from you sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your teachers, learning the process, going through the implementation, sitting with the kids while they go through the implementation, hearing what the challenges are that they’re facing, what the challenges are that the teachers are facing, helping to bring people together to troubleshoot this problem solving. If you do that, you know you’re going to get so much more creativity, so much more dynamic change, because it’ll just grow on itself. Because everybody is going to get more and more passionate when they feel they have a voice, when they feel they’re being listened to and that their input is driving some of the decision making.

— Principal Rodney Ivey

 

Recap: What Makes a Star School Leader?

Great school leaders empower their teachers. What teachers do is one of the most difficult, and often thankless jobs. And while we all agree that teachers are the true heroes of every school system, it takes a special kind of leader to enable their teachers with the right support to focus on the important things. Like teaching.

The Star School Leader rubric stands on three pillars, hanging from one common theme:

  1.  Empowering others by setting a positive attitude, culture, and environment.
  2.  Empowering others with the right use of technology as a means and not an end. 
  3.  Empowering others through supportive coaching and access to professional development. 

To read about the rest of the Star School Leaders, visit our recipient announcement page.

 

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