Being a horticulturist at heart and a horticultural teacher for 20 years, often my personal leadership philosophy has centered around that of a garden. Plants and nature have always inspired me, and I am moved by the quotation attributed to Lady Bird Johnson, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” Formerly as a classroom teacher, my small garden was the classroom. Now as the principal for Simi Valley High School, the garden has manifested itself into an entire school community. I have grown from the planter of a single field, to the caretaker of a beautiful arboretum with many new and fascinating crops, flowers, and other bountiful flora. However, as the caretaker of an arboretum, my leadership philosophy is being molded and changed. I see that I am more than just the gardener of my garden. I have an expanding vision and dreams of the future. I am setting out on the journey to make our arboretum the Eden of all botanical gardens. I believe as Coelho stated in The Alchemist “follow your dreams . . . life wants you to achieve your destiny . . . never stop dreaming, follow your omens.”
As the caretaker, my leadership must provide those around me with the vision, the incentive, the initiative, and drive to nurture the flowers around them. In purposing this vision, the caretaker must be able to speak, model, organize, support, enforce, commend, and protect the vision’s core values. It is also my belief that to help nurture my vision, I must provide direction and meaning; generate and sustain trust; display a bias toward action, risk taking, and curiosity; and be a purveyor of hope. I believe that today’s sowing of seeds will produce a bountiful harvest despite drought (lack of funds), floods (state testing requirements), pest infestations (outside influences/pressures), and nutrient deficiencies (state and federal mandates). Although often our crop doesn’t mature until well past high school, the support and nurturing we give our young saplings while they are in my school will strengthen their limbs for future harvests. A leader, or as in my case the school’s principal, like a gardener, must constantly keep his garden watered, fertilized, trimmed, and tended so that there may be continued growth and productivity.
It’s my belief that principals succeed through the efforts of their staff and school community. Like a gardener, principals find that it is important to build bridges and lay out the stepping-stones throughout the garden. Neila Connors wrote that, “The best teacher is the one who NEVER forgets what it is like to be a student. The best administrator is the one who NEVER forgets what it is like to be a teacher.” The principal must be able to recognize the climate, the ambiance of his garden. A positive climate, or ambiance, sets the tone for success. The best leaders work and till to establish the garden’s success. In this garden (school), the nutrients (elements) needed to produce a harvest of success include the following:
A safe school site allowing for the garden to flourish.
Individuals who are willing to change and grow.
Individuals who are open-minded with positive attitudes.
Clear two-way open communication avenues.
The ability to practice human relation skills.
Individuals who willingly participate and strive to grow and strengthen themselves.
A community willing to support and encourage the potential harvest.
The first element needed to encourage and produce the flourishing garden is a safe school site. All who enter the school wish to do so without fear of harm or injury. As a group, parents agree that the number one factor of importance is a safe environment for their students. In a time of world safety concern, schools must be places where neither students nor adults feel afraid. A safe school is not only clean and healthy, but it also provides a setting of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social safety. Schools need to provide an environment where everyone feels as though he or she belongs. The emphasis needs to convey positive relationships.
The next element to grow or improve is that one must change. Change, like growth in a garden, is a process not an event. Openness to change enriches personal and professional lives. To promote effective change, a leader must recognize that. people must change, and, for people to change, their perceptions and realities must change. The school leader must encourage innovation, creativity, and collaboration to add to the growing garden’s environs.
Individuals with a positive attitude lay out the foundation for the garden. Seeds are not planted in anticipation that they won’t germinate; rather like the seeds, our positive attitudes guide our beliefs that the tiny acorns (our students) will mature into majestic oaks (our future leaders). Open communication is ongoing and involves everyone. My role as principal necessitates that I use all types of communication tools such as listening and speaking, along with writing, reading, thinking, and ongoing feedback. A positive school environment encourages dialogue between staff, students, district, parents, and the school community.
Positive and caring human relationships are the heart and soul of what makes the school garden extraordinary. Building an environment of respect—treating people as they could be rather than treating them as they are—results in people becoming what they can be. For the ambiance of the school to truly meet the needs of all, the role of the spectator needs to be eliminated; active participation by all the stakeholders needs to occur. Spectators, like weeds, rob the garden of precious nutrients and take up needed space.
Finally, a positive school ambiance needs to share with the public its celebrations, successes, promising practices, and achievements. Our community members need to feel welcomed and supported by our staff. They need to feel no hesitation in visiting the school. Everyone at the arboretum contributes to the ambiance and climate of the garden.
The principal must get his hands dirty with the troops and work in a hands-on, collaborative way, with his/her staff members. The principal should initiate and model active, problem-solving leading to learners.
At our arboretum, I would like to think weeds are few and hard to find. Weeds, by definition, are defined as any plant out of place. Even the prettiest rose could be considered an unsightly weed if it is growing among a field of tomatoes. However, if transplanted to a rose garden, this rose could be a prized possession. Like the out-of-place rose, a student or a teacher, out of place, could be considered a weed. However, given a chance to bloom in the right surroundings, the student or teacher can also become a prized possession. A weed, properly replanted and tended, can flourish. It is my first job as the leader of my arboretum garden to recognize the difference between a weed and a flower. Next it is my job to sort and replant the weeds so they can become prizes. Finally, it is my job to provide the right environment for all aspects of my arboretum so it may flourish.
I believe it is up to me to create the environment for ownership. I need to help each person want and need to be a responsible member of the arboretum. I must keep in mind the personal development capabilities of the staff.
It is my choice to make each day great and to enjoy the bounty of our arboretum. My garden has become more than my work, it has also become both my playground and my passion. As I tend for our arboretum, I am reminded of an old Chinese proverb, “He who plants a garden, plants happiness.” The Zen Master claims, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.
To tend the garden also means to coach, with respect; one can’t harvest what one does not sow. My role as a principal is to guide and to show how our school community can harvest the fruit of our toil. At our arboretum we plant our desires, gently nurture our seedlings, and know that we will one day be rewarded with an abundant harvest.