The hallmark of an outstanding educational leader is to be fully, and genuinely, invested in the students and staff — as well as the entire community — of the school district in which they serve.
That’s one of the overarching messages conveyed in the new book, “Beyond Theory and Degrees: The Alley Smarts of Educational Leadership,” written by Dr. James Fitzpatrick, retired district administrator of the School District of Fort Atkinson.
Fitzpatrick, 67, served as superintendent from the spring of 1999 until June 2013. He lives with his wife, Therese, in Fort Atkinson and currently serves as assistant professor of educational leadership at National Louis University in Chicago.
In his 117-page book, Fitzpatrick draws upon his more than 40 years’ experience in public education as a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent in rural, urban and suburban schools and districts to help colleagues across the country enhance their leadership potential, as well as inform both aspiring and practicing superintendents.
“It’s a fast read,” Fitzpatrick said, noting that he did most all his writing on a laptop while sipping a latte at Beauty and the Bean in Fort Atkinson. “Sometimes you get in the groove (writing) and some days, it’s a struggle.”
Start to finish, he said, his book took about two years to complete.
Throughout the book, Fitzpatrick addresses the skills necessary for effective school administration, while infusing the narrative with personal stories, humorous anecdotes, inspiring examples of leadership, and summary questions for the reader to ponder at the conclusion of each chapter.
The book generally is intended for professors to use in leadership classes, practicing educators and administrators aspiring to advance in their careers, and even school board members. However, it also holds prurient appeal for the general reader, outside of education, with an interest in school leadership and governance.
In fact, Fitzpatrick writes in a style that’s accessible for a wide audience, taking a straightforward, common-sense and conversational approach, rather than a more scholarly “textbook” tone.
In his praise, Ryan McCarty, Ph.D., assistant professor at National Louis University, says the book “distills what is great about Dr. Fitzpatrick’s teaching, including his legendary sense of humor, and puts it in an accessible package. Now everyone can benefit from his mentorship and practical wisdom!”
“I wanted it to be readable and understandable; it’s common sense, it sounds practical,” Fitzpatrick said of his book. “And I have no illusions of grandeur that I am scholarly at all. I think I’m more of a storyteller in it. It’s from the heart and head of a guy who walked in the moccasins for over 40 years.”
He said readers certainly can cherry-pick chapters in his book that benefit them.
“I always tell my students: ‘Take what you like and leave the rest,’” he quipped.
And reflective of the book’s title, “The Alley Smarts of …,” Fitzpatrick said “There’s a lot to be said for emotional intelligence versus IQ intelligence. You just react (to things) for what they are, or instinctively look at it (a situation) for what it is. And your conscience is the greatest mechanism — you might not do what it says, but it’s never wrong.”
The book’s forward was penned by former Gov. Jim Doyle, with Fitzpatrick delivering the preface and introduction.
At its core, “the book is an attempt to inspire those who may be considering taking the next step in their educational careers,” the introduction states. “Teachers considering moving into administration, principals pondering a move to a superintendency or a central office role, all might benefit from reading this book. Others who have a keen interest in the governance and operations of schools and districts also can come away with some new perspectives as seen through the lens of a career practitioner.”
The book itself consists of three parts: The Essentials of Leadership; Leadership: At the Building Level; and The Superintendency, Board of Education, and Life Balance.
The first part informs how readers can be impactful, exemplary school leaders, despite too many people who have the potential to become great leaders fearing they might not have what it takes to lead.
“This is sad, because never before in our history have we had a greater need for exemplary school leaders,” Fitzpatrick writes.
The second part sheds light on the ever-evolving role of principals in building a culture of leaders while they empower staff to accept and flourish in leadership roles. This portion references Fitzpatrick’s experience from 1975-80 as a social studies teacher at Newman Catholic High School in Mason City, Iowa, where he coached basketball and track, and, in 1979, led his boys’ cross-country team to win the state championship.
It also references his serving two principalships in Iowa after earning his master’s in educational administration from the University of Iowa, as well as his appointment as principal of Beloit Memorial High School in Beloit in the fall of 1986.
The third part, meanwhile, focuses entirely on the superintendency and board of education, and relates Fitzpatrick’s 14 years serving as district administrator in Fort Atkinson after earning his doctorate degree in educational leadership and policy development. It is here the author details the respective roles and relationships of the board of education and the superintendent, placing a strong emphasis on the boundaries each plays in the shared governance roles.
“The board of education, duly elected by the citizens, determines the What (adoption of policy and oversight of the district) and holds the superintendent accountable for student achievement and continuous progress,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is the What!”
The superintendent and his or her entire educational team, he said, then are responsible for the How.
“Once the board determines the What, which includes approval of the strategic plan, the next step is for the superintendent and the educational team to figure out the How, through the development of desired outcomes, annual goals and action plans,” Fitzpatrick indicated. “Shared governance succeeds when the board of education and the superintendent ‘stay in their own yards.’”
Board members, he noted, do not engage in micromanaging, and superintendents do not decide policy.
During his tenure, Fitzpatrick led the School District of Fort Atkinson in establishing and revising strategic planning, the opening of Luther Elementary School, four-year-old kindergarten, and other curriculum and fiscal initiatives, as well as helping the district pass several operational referendums during difficult political and economic periods.
Asked what the impetus to write the book was, Fitzpatrick replied: “I love leadership and I love to read about great leaders, whether they be leaders in public life, the military, great coaches, whoever they are.
“I think of people like (John F.) Kennedy and (Winston) Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King (Jr.),” he said. “And then you think of people who just inspire others like (poet) Maya Angelo and other people who just have a gift with words. And I’m not eloquent at all,” he added, humbly.
But the biggest reason he wanted to tackle the book, he said, was that he is passionate about leadership in schools.
“And I was fortunate to have great mentors,” Fitzpatrick said. “And so, in a way, this book is kind of my attempt to give back. Because of them, I enjoyed the most rewarding professional life a guy could ever want. I loved my work.”
In fact, he said, apart from a couple days in Fort Atkinson that were tough, he “couldn’t wait to get to work — I couldn’t wait to throw a black-and-red sweater on and get to a Blackhawk game.”
And the same held true with attending an FFA banquet, forensics meet, cross-country invite, or a play or musical event, he added.
“I just loved everything about the K-12 experience,” Fitzpatrick enthused.
Asked if his level of passion and enthusiasm for education is a prerequisite for anyone eyeing an administrative post, he responded that the greatest leaders are those whom people can “easily see and discern that they’re invested.”
“They’re invested not only in the school, but in the community,” Fitzpatrick said, sharing an informal policy he had while superintendent that prospective administrators should be required to live within the community they serve.
“Furthermore, I wanted them (administrators) to do something else; I don’t care if it was Boy Scouts or church, Little League coach (or) any of the service clubs — I wanted them involved!” he added. “I wanted them buying their gas here, I wanted them buying their cars here, I wanted them buying their groceries here. I wanted people to see them with a hat outside the school.”
The book’s introduction, the author noted, talks about school culture, and the increasing need for effective leaders.
“I’m really worried about leadership in (America’s) schools because there’s fewer candidates sometimes going into it (school and district leadership) — we need good people for our schools to flourish,” Fitzpatrick stated.
And the retired superintendent said a great school leader is a product of the school culture.
“There’s an old saying that culture eats process for breakfast every day,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that the way someone in authority treats people cannot be overstated. “I always tried to stress that the little things mean a lot.”
And in a school district culture, he said, he doesn’t think people expect administrators always to be right.
“But they sure as heck expect you to be honest and transparent,” Fitzpatrick emphasized. “They can handle bad news, and it doesn’t take a room full of teachers to see a phony pretty quick. I think the biggest thing a leader has to do to develop a good culture is to be a good listener.”
People want to know that they are valued, he said, noting that his listening skills improved as he matured in his role as district administrator.
“I always felt that it was important to always affirm people,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s all part of culture-building.”
Teachers and administrators, he said, are in the “same walk of life” as others in the community and might be going through a “rough patch” with personal struggles at home with their children, aging parents, or a separation or divorce from a spouse or significant other. And a kind word or deed might mean a lot, he added.
“So, just a little note that ‘I’m thinking about you’ — not prying or getting into their stuff, but just to let you know (I care),” Fitzpatrick said is an appropriate gesture. “I used to like, at least in Fort (Atkinson), once a week, go by the classrooms — I called it ‘Scoopin’ the loop’ — and walk by a classroom and say ‘Hi’ to the teachers and kids.”
The saddest thing, he said, is when a teacher says, “You know, I hardly know my superintendent.”
“And if teachers are saying that, God knows the kids were,” Fitzpatrick said. “So, what I used to like about getting into the schools was I gained a lot of informal information (from teachers). And kids would say, ‘Are you coming to the brat fry tonight?’ or ‘You coming to the pancake breakfast at the Legion?’ or ‘You gonna come to the cross-country meet in Verona tomorrow?’
“Those are the kind of things that just put a hop in my step that, OK, I’m connected,” he added. “And Fort was just the right size (district) where you could do that.”
Fitzpatrick, affectionately referred to as “Fitz,” has won over countless individuals throughout the years with his warm and outgoing personality. However, he said, having a gregarious nature is not necessarily a requirement to be an effective teacher and administrator.
“It isn’t just being warm and gregarious, but it’s being genuine,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think it goes a long way. I think people want to know, ‘Hey, he knows about me. He knows about my family. He knows what my situation is.’ I think that helps a lot. I credit that to my mom and dad, who said it never hurts to be kind to anybody.”
In fact, the author also credits his parents as being superb role models during his formative years, growing up in the Chicago area, one of eight children in an Irish Catholic family.
“There’s different ways you define rich, and we were so rich in just the love and care they gave all of us, so I owe a lot to them, my parents,” Fitzpatrick commented. “And my siblings, too.”
To get to the top, he said, people must start from where they are at. He said he tries to teach that administrators should “never forget from whence you came.”
“You started as a teacher and you may be assigned authority, but when it comes to power and influence, you earn that — you earn that!” Fitzpatrick emphasized. “People — if they think you really care, and they see that you work hard and that you really have the best interests of your students, your staff and faculty, and your families at heart — they’ll work with you.
“And always work from a sense of humility,” he advised. “Be honest. Once you lose integrity, you can never get it back. And always, always strive to learn and be better. And never be afraid to say you’re sorry.
“A lot of people get into leadership positions and they think it’s a real weakness to admit culpability. Now it’s a sign of strength.”
As am assistant professor, he teaches his students, too, to understand that in a whole educational team, everybody contributes.
“Never treat uncertified staff like they’re not as good as faculty, and, at the same time, hold them to the highest expectations as well,” Fitzpatrick said. “When you walk into an office, there’d better be a cheerful gatekeeper there — there better be someone who, on the phone and in person, receives people nicely and ingratiates them. That’s what you want, and you’re not going to get it unless you model it and demand it as an expectation.”
The educator shared what he calls the “Fitz axiom,” which states: “If a person’s motives and methods are right, you support them 100 percent; if their motives are right and their methods are wrong, you still support them, but you work with them (to improve).
“But if your motives are wrong and your methods are wrong, you go back, clean it up and get it done right,” he emphasized. “And if you refuse to, then you’re going to be in hot water. That’s something I always felt strongly about.”
In his book, Fitzpatrick shared what he calls the POCDICE theory, the seven key processes of leadership that every aspiring and seasoned leaders must become proficient at, while never becoming complacent in improving in their roles. These, he said, are: Planning, organization, communication, decisionmaking, influence/advocacy, coordination, and evaluation.
“And I don’t mean teacher evaluation — I mean every decision you make: Do you evaluate it, do you revisit it, do you have to tweak it, and do you have to abandon it? Did it work or didn’t it?” Fitzpatrick underscored. “And I tell them (students), if you can’t do POCDICE, you can’t lead. You’ve got to get good at these things — that’s what I stress. Those are the essentials.”
As a former athletic coach, and someone who often greets people he meets with an affectionate and disarming “Hey, coach … How ya doin?” Fitzpatrick said lessons taught on the playing field can transfer to a classroom of prospective leaders, and vice-versa.
“I thought leadership in schools and coaching in sports had so many similarities — it was like a parallel kind of an alignment,” Fitzpatrick said. “You’re always trying to help people get better. And that’s what I always thought in Fort (Atkinson), and Beloit before that. We’re constantly improving, we’re constantly trying to get better. And we never get complacent!”
Another attribute of a successful leader is surrounding oneself with great people, he said, acknowledging that Fort Atkinson boasts many outstanding teachers.
“And I never lost sight of the fact that the most important thing that happens on any given day is that interaction between the teacher and the kid,” Fitzpatrick said. “From there, we all support everything else.”
He extended his praise of teachers to the district’s principals, administrators and central office staff, as well. During his entire tenure in Fort Atkinson, with the exception of then-Purdy Elementary School Principal Rick Brietzke, he said, if he didn’t hire the person, he did appoint them to their leadership positions.
“I felt like it was kind of neat to build that (administrative) team and, in turn, I wanted them to build great teams,” Fitzpatrick explained. “I never interfered with who they hired because I was always going to hold them accountable for making sure that the decision they made in hiring somebody was well-placed.
“You delegate the duties, get out of the way and let them (principals) do their job,” he added. “And maybe they’ll do it a little different than you would’ve done, but let them do it. More often than not, they might do it better!”
The most important evaluation a principal ever completes, he said, is at the point of hire.
“It isn’t enough to hire great people; you must continuously help them grow,” Fitzpatrick emphasized. “Too often after recruitment, interviewing and selecting people, we fail to provide a proper induction in helping the new teacher assimilate into the school culture.
“A principal who is accessible, visible and a good listener supports the teachers and staff,” he added. “And I always want to keep good teachers around.”
In his book, Fitzpatrick says that current practice is challenged as it relates to teacher evaluation practices of today.
“These principals, I think, are running out of gas,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’re expected to do some of these evaluations at a torrid pace. And my feeling is an outstanding veteran teacher who’s probably been at it for at least 10 years — you don’t need to evaluate them any more than maybe once every three years.
“But, your principals’ time would be better (spent) working with those teachers that are one, two and three years because invariably they have trouble with class management, discipline, maybe lesson delivery and pacing,” he added. “My feeling is you take those really great teachers and para-mentor them with the young ones (teachers).”
Furthermore, the author said, most of the time when asked if a principal’s evaluation made them a better teacher, veteran teachers tend to respond: “Well, the affirmation made me feel good.”
“Then, you press and say, ‘But did it make you better?’” Fitzpatrick added. “And I think most 95 percent of them say, ‘No — he (principal) doesn’t actually know how to teach French, he doesn’t exactly know how to teach Spanish, he doesn’t exactly know how to work with English Literature.’ That’s where I would do things differently, but, believe me, that’s going against the tide.”
Under his helm, the retired Fort Atkinson superintendent said, he wanted to distribute leadership to “give everybody a chance to shine.” And sometimes, he said, a team leader might fall a bit short, but they could be “coached up.”
“And I don’t remember ever asking anybody to accept a charge where they weren’t flattered and honored that I had the confidence in them,” Fitzpatrick remarked. “And that’s how you grow a culture of leaders, and that’s a big part of the culture-building.”
Moreover, he said, a leader always should want people to grow and flourish under them.
“My general feeling is, when I hired assistants (principals), I felt like their learning curve was two to four years,” Fitzpatrick said. “And then I wanted them to have a fire in their belly where eventually they wanted their own show — they’d spin off.”
It’s not always smooth sailing for a superintendent, as sometimes he or she must make tough decisions regarding hiring, reassigning or terminating school staff that might not be well-received.
“Once in a while you’ve got to make some decisions that aren’t popular, but just got to know they’re in the best interest of our kids and does it align with our mission,” Fitzpatrick stated. “And you’ve got to be brutally confrontive sometimes in expecting more.”
The book closes with a chapter focusing on and making suggestions for achieving a healthy work-life balance if the job becomes all consuming, something the former district administrator acknowledges he was “horrible with” at one point.
“I’d say my last couple of years (as superintendent), I finally got to the point where I’d actually put into my phone: ‘Date with Therese,’” Fitzpatrick admitted. “I’d try to get home for dinner, then get to a game or a parent-teacher conference or get to a music event. But you gotta watch it.
“You think, well, I’ll go in (to the office) Saturday morning at 8:30, nobody’s there,” he added. “I’ll spend a half-hour returning some emails. Before you know it, it’s 11 a.m. and I still need 15 minutes.
“I did try to rule Sundays out, but I’ll be damned if come Sunday night I wasn’t making that bold list with about 50 to 100 things (that needed accomplishing),” Fitzpatrick said. “I’d get anxious for those things to get checked off the list!”
Looking back, the longtime educator said he feels immensely grateful to have achieved what he has in his career, coming from a solidly working-class background.
“I am just so blessed,” Fitzpatrick commented, in retrospect. “I’ve always had people along the way that gave me confidence, believed in me. And in my acknowledgements, I acknowledge my wife — she’s a saint! She’s my rock.”
In the end, he said, he believes he has learned some things along the way to help and inspire others that they should not be afraid to take on a leadership role.
“It’s sort of a humble boldness in that I’m not afraid to jump off the high dive and share with others what I learned,” Fitzpatrick, who has no plans at this point ever to retire, said. “Because my mentors did that for me, and I just want to pay it forward. I’ve been really lucky!”
He said if his book motivates an educator, questioning if they have the pedigree to lead, to take their career to the next level, that would make it altogether worthwhile.
“The future of our schools depends on caring and invested leaders stepping up to accept these roles,” Fitzpatrick concluded. “You can do it!”
Published by Rowman & Littlefield and The American Association of School Administrators, Fitzpatrick’s book is available on Amazon at the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Theory-Degrees-Educational-Leadership/dp/1475851081.
Since its release Aug. 1, approximately 400 copies have been preordered.