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Principalled Leadership

Principalled Leadership
After 15 years running a high school, John Couture now trains others for life in the front office

John Couture photo by Mark Corliss A teacher makes over 1,100 decisions each day – adapting lessons on the fly for different learning styles, dealing with tantrums and fights on the playground or in the classroom, consoling a child with family difficulties at home, responding to questions from parents – not to mention correcting papers, attending meetings, and developing lesson plans and materials. At the end of the day, says John Couture M '80, KSC associate professor of education, teachers' brains are exhausted.

Yet, says Couture, himself a high school teacher for nearly 10 years and a principal for 15, teachers are expected by our society not only to teach but also to act as psychologist, counselor, coach, and, on occasion, parent. Teachers and principals, he said, are expected to have all the answers.

The reality, says Couture, is that on any given school morning, "You never know what's coming in the door – what's happened in a student's, parent's, or colleague's life overnight. It's mostly positive, but sometimes you hear tragic news. Principals and teachers need to have the strength, skills, and fortitude to figure out what they need to do. When you're in that position, you need to remember that you don't know what the answers are because often you don't know what the questions are."

'My teachers enjoyed learning and teaching knowledge. They were positive about their subjects. They were inspiring.'Uncertainty is one of several education themes Couture talks about to the pre-service teachers and aspiring principals he trains at Keene State. He also describes for his students the joys of being an educator. As principal of Fall Mountain High School, Couture would visit classes and watch students engaged in learning. "You get a lot of energy from the students and staff in a school," he explains, "from the good stuff they're doing."

Couture was brought up in Lawrence, Mass., a diverse, blue-collar city. His parents believed in working hard and had strong ties to the Catholic Church. Couture went to a parochial school, which emphasized structure, organization, and discipline.

He liked it.

"I went to school and worked hard," he remembers. "I liked being a student. After school I was involved in athletics. It seemed like a pretty good way to spend the day."

Besides the work ethic he inherited from his parents, Couture puts his love for school and schoolwork down to his teachers. "My teachers enjoyed learning and teaching knowledge. They were positive about their subjects. They were inspiring."

“I took a look at the stands and thought, ‘If they decide to stampede, there's not a thing I can do about it.’”His teachers, he says, demanded nothing less than excellence – he read 35 works of literature as a junior in high school – and Couture was happy to oblige. Ernest Hemingway was his favorite author; his favorite quote, from The Old Man and the Sea, is "Man can be destroyed, but not defeated."

"In those days, students and parents respected the teachers," he says. "Teachers had extremely high academic expectations for their students and good behavior was similarly expected. I think I developed some pretty good study habits."

No slacker, Couture kept up his work schedule during the holidays. An Eagle Scout at 13, Couture was a senior patrol leader with Troop 4 of the Augustine Parish scouts. The troop would travel to Lake Onway in Raymond, N.H., for the winter and summer breaks.

"I was a go-getter," he explains. "I liked to do things outside, on the water, in the mountains, in the sunshine."

It was in leading fellow Scouts in activities in the hills and ponds of New Hampshire that Couture began realizing how his career might unfold.

"It's where I got my first leadership experience. Things shaped out from there."

Forty years have passed since Couture graduated from high school and crossed the border into New York to train as a teacher at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. Now he teaches pre-service teachers, teachers, and principals, passing on, with gentle humor, the wisdom from his experiences in these roles to a new generation of educators.

Students on their first day in ESEC 100 – Introduction to Teaching – are likely to be greeted by Couture, baseball bat in hand, claiming that he's been working in education in New Hampshire for over 30 years and he's never had a discipline problem. When talking with aspiring principals, he might recount the sense of vulnerability he felt when suddenly handed the reins of a pep rally on his third day as vice principal of Fall Mountain Regional High School.

"I started on a Wednesday, and our first home football game was on Saturday. On Friday afternoon, we had our first pep rally: the pep band was playing and the fall teams and the cheerleaders were ready to parade. The principal left, so the rally became mine. As I called the classes to come and sit down so we could start the rally, I took a look at the stands and thought, ‘If they decide to stampede, there's not a thing I can do about it.'"

It was during his seven years teaching and coaching at Newport High School in New Hampshire that Couture first considered becoming a principal. "I saw how other people did the job," he said, "and I thought I could do better."

He came to Keene State in 1978 to serve as intramural director and start his master's degree in education. After completing the degree and serving a year as supervisor of student teachers, he joined Fall Mountain High School as vice principal. Three years later, he became the school's principal, a position he held for the next seven years.

He asks aspiring principals two questions at the start of the year: What is effective leadership, and what do effective leaders do?When Couture talks about being a principal, he describes being a leader. Effective school leadership, he says, creates a system that emphasizes teamwork among all school personnel. "We may have different roles," he explains, " but teamwork is critical. We all have to work together to make things better, to make a difference in students' lives."

"Think about it," Couture says of running a school. "You have 600 children in a building. Every 50 minutes a bell rings and there's frenetic activity. You have a lot of different needs and expectations existing in a small area. It would be enough if it were just academics, but it's also logistics, facilities, and people management."

And, says Couture, you can't think of all the things that may go wrong. "You need to think about the things that are going well," he says. "But when something happens, like a child apparently disappearing but in reality just forgetting to get off the bus, then it vacuums up all your time."

Always the overachiever – he refereed high school football games for 20 years and ran 13 marathons, including Boston – Couture embarked on his doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst during his principalship.

In 1990, Couture decided it was time for a change. After toying with the idea of becoming a district superintendent, he joined Wheelock School in Keene as principal, a position he held until 1995. Although the elementary school "took a huge chance hiring a high school principal with middle school teaching experience," Couture says the transition was pleasurable.

"High schools are more concerned about teaching content," he explains. "At Wheelock, our curriculum and teaching practices were more centered on the child's interests and abilities. The change for me was wonderful." Couture was able to spend time in the classroom not just as an observer, but also reading literature to children.

When he left Wheelock in 1995 to join Keene State's education faculty, Couture swiftly became involved with the College's educational leadership programs. During his 15 years in the front office he saw it all – today he teaches most of it. Currently, Couture instructs master's-level courses in organizational leadership, school reform, staff selection, supervision and professional development, and curriculum development. He organizes the principal internship for master's students and is co-director of the one-year intensive Principals' Residency Network.

At KST press time, the College named John Couture interim dean of Professional and Graduate Studies, with the departure of Dean David Hill.He asks aspiring principals two questions at the start of the year: What is effective leadership, and what do effective leaders do? He requires his students to read widely on leadership and leaders, from the Antarctic experiences of the English explorer Ernest Shackleton to more conventional books on schools as organizations. This study of successful leadership practices, he says, "helps students develop a vision of schools and gives them the tools to implement that vision."

Students and learning always come first, says Couture, in a college or in a school. "The ultimate goal of educators, that I teach to my classes, is to make schools effective learning communities." To spread his experience around Keene State's learning community, Couture advises nearly 60 students and has worked with prospective first-year education students during Orientation. To share his love for the outdoors, he also works as a ski instructor during the winter.

In a recent self-evaluation, Couture wrote, "My philosophical frame of reference is that each of us has a social and moral obligation to ‘leave the campsite in better condition than we found it.' All of us have a responsibility to improve the human condition for all people."

Dave Orsman is the media relations coordinator for Keene State College.

Do You Really Want to Do This Job?

Going back to school with the Principals' Residency Network

Tom McGuire photo by Mark Corliss When it comes to training educational leaders, Keene State itself is a leader. Right now, more than 80 Keene State-trained principals or assistant principals are working in schools nationwide. More than 40 serve in New Hampshire. So widely known is Keene State's reputation for innovative leadership programs that Jim Callan, an educator from the National University of Ireland, recently visited to learn more about the Principals' Residency Network program hosted by Keene State.

This July, six aspiring school principals will go back to school, in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The participants are part of the Principals' Residency Network (PRN), a 12-month internship designed to provide practical experience and certification for prospective principals. The PRN was developed by the Big Picture Company of Providence, R.I., which, in 2001, selected Keene State to be the first college in the country to host the program.

"If you ask principals what the hardest part of their career has been," says Tom McGuire, co-director, with John Couture, of the PRN at Keene State, "they say their first year. In this program, aspiring principals spend their first year on the job working with an experienced principal, who will help them navigate through the issues and problems new principals face."

The aspiring principals are paired with established, distinguished principals and work with their mentors for a year. According to McGuire, aspiring principals learn about the demands of principalship, including human resources, law, finance, and organizational management, attending all meetings and conferences and handling school issues that arise on a day-to-day basis.

Since the program's inception, more than 20 aspiring principals have graduated from the program and gone on to educational leadership roles in schools throughout the region. The rigor and demands of the program left Jim Callan, the Irish educator, impressed.

"The work and role of school leader in this programme, as it emerges in the programme intent, is rooted in a form of missionary undertaking," wrote Callan in a letter to McGuire. "The sense that leadership is not simply a job but a way of life, with purpose and dedication, and not just to the school but to the local community gives this programme a certain distinctiveness, so necessary for schools and their role in the emerging complex society which surrounds them."

Dave Orsman