7 Questions with Ryan Berens
Name: Dr. Ryan Berens
Current title: High School Principal
Current organisation: Cypress Christian School
Ryan started out as a high school history teacher and moved into the world of instructional technology. He also spent time in the public schools sector as an Instructional Technology Specialist at Kennesaw State University, Coordinator of Instruction for Georgia Virtual School, Education Program Specialist for the Georgia Department of Education and Director of Instructional Technology for Clarke County Schools. He then moved into private schools spending time as a Director of Technology, Middle School Assistant Head and now as High School Principal.
Ryan earned his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Georgia and produced research about the effect of 1:1 technology integration on the role of independent school leaders.
1. What have you found most challenging as a Christian school leader?
One of the most challenging parts of leading a Christian school is getting the school out of the "because that is the way we do it" frame of mind. Christian schools usually have a great student body and great parental support, and the thought is often why change something that works. As with anything it is important as Christian school leaders, we continue to push our teachers to create engaging and informative learning environments. Just because our kids leave school with a great background and education, doesn't mean we get to sit back and not continue to improve.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I feel pretty lucky that I have had some good guidance in this department. My current head of school is a huge proponent of work/life balance and pushes us to make sure to spend time with our families. I usually wake up and the first thing I do is spend time in prayer and the word. I then get my oldest up and make lunches before heading off to school. I try to at least look at all of my new emails to make sure there are no fires and then this year I spend about 45 minutes taking temperatures of student drivers and welcoming them to school. This has been a huge benefit for me this year as it helped me get to know the juniors and seniors at my new school a lot faster than I probably would have. It has been a true joy to get to have a short conversation with these kids each morning and is a fantastic reminder of why we do what we do. Most of my students have an athletic period first thing and that gives me time to respond to emails and check in on teachers. Meetings usually start at 9:30 and tend to be on and off until around lunch. I then try to walk around and pop in classrooms. I try to respond to any parent contacts in the afternoons and then try to hit at least 1 or 2 games a week. I then head home and spend time with my family, eat dinner and get the kids ready for bed. Go to bed myself and get ready to do it all over again.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
I have been really lucky in my career to watch good leaders and to absorb what they do. I think one of the biggest things we can do as Christian leaders is to prepare future Christian leaders. My current Head of School has set aside time to foster this type of mentorship with me. His agenda is more towards kingdom building than it is in just building leadership in his own school. I would say my biggest lesson has been the need for me to be intentional about my own mentorship of future leaders that are in my building. It is so helpful for me to sit down and have time to ask questions about leadership and situations that he has been in. I am working to pass along that same gift of time with those that are interested in building their own leadership.
4. What's one book apart from the Bible that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
My answer to this question is that there are two books that really altered my thought process as an educator and leader. The first is Mindset by Carol Dweck. It really puts into perspective the way we think about learning and thus changed the way I speak. I believe that all the people in your building; teachers, students, staff, should all work towards a growth mindset. It keeps a school working towards improvement rather than permitting complacency.
The second book is GRIT by Angela Duckworth and the ideas in this book go hand in hand with a growth mindset. It is imperative to show grit in working towards growth. Duckworth's explanation of the role of grit in success is worth reading.
5. How do you find and keep great Christian teachers?
My short answer to this question is build a community they never want to leave. As leaders it is important to get the right people in the building and keep them there. My role as principal is to serve them and provide what they need to be excellent teachers. Most great teachers thrive on the success of and interaction with students. They didn't get into Christian education for the paycheck. Providing them with the tools and time they need to be at their best has in my experience proven to be the best way to keep them on board.
6. What's most important as a Christian school leader for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
Community building. People that are happy when they come to work/school feel a greater sense of work life balance. I try to have an open door to hear from those that have an issue and a lot of times just being heard serves as the salve. We try to enjoy time together as a staff when we can and that also helps create friendships. When teachers are happy they are better at pouring into and sensing the needs of students. One of our main goals is for students to feel a sense of relationship with their teachers. We try to do as much as we can where students and teachers are participating in an activity together. Creating a sense of team rather than a sense of us (students) and them (teachers) goes a long way in helping students to see we care about who they are. When they realize that we love them, students are much more open and feel a greater sense of wellbeing.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a Christian school leader so far?
I actually just talked about this story in a chapel that I did on God preparing us. I talked about preparing each day, but the main focus was on explaining how God is preparing students now for things that may happen in their future. In my HS years I experienced a traumatic event that left me with a lot of questions and whys. First and foremost, why did my family and I have to go through that. In my first year as a Christian school leader we had a family that experienced something scarily similar to what I had. I was able to help this student in ways that I would have never been prepared for. It was one of those moments that I will never forget as it was a huge aha moment that my obedience of God's call into Christian education put me into the path of this young man. It also increased my desire to provide an opportunity for a biblically based education for all those that want it.