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7 Questions with Joel R. Bicknell
helps you in your leadership.
7 Questions with Joel R. Bicknell
Name: Joel R. Bicknell
Current title: Head of School
Current organisation: St. Andrew's Episcopal School - Amarillo
As a former meteorologist and professional stage director/actor, I have traveled a typically atypical path to independent school administration. My experiences have fed my professional life as a classroom teacher, coach, and administrator spanning PK-12 in four highly regarded independent schools. Throughout the past twenty years, these experiences fine-tuned my educational philosophy and leadership style. As a cradle-Catholic, I am also intentional in living my vocation in Episcopal schools. That vocation has included 6 years as a classroom teacher, 11 years as a Branch Head (Principal), and 3.5 years as a Head of School.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?
Often, what draws parents and teachers to a school is their understandings of what school should be based on the experiences they had in school as a child. The reality that schools must be both in substance and structure different for our children now remains very challenging for many to wrap their heads around. As a leader, maintaining core values and honoring our traditions while moving our school forward is one of the challenges I value most.
2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Certainly, I have routines in the morning and the evening that revolve around my family and a few good cups of coffee. One of the first tasks of the day is to make sure my task list is updated/prioritized and includes both short- and long-term tasks. That's the bit of structure that I could not do without. While I schedule my days plenty, I also aim to go into each day with flexibility to my schedule that allows me to prioritize people over tasks. Every day looks different for me in terms of its structure - that's one of the beautiful elements of being a school leader. Some days I start with a game of chess with a student. Others, I walk the building to connect with my faculty. Others, I assist in the drop-off lane. Throughout the day, my administrative assistant has the freedom to interrupt me at any point to redirect my attention if someone needs me. Our partnership allows me to trust her judgment and go with the flow of the moment. Because I have developed a leadership built on Daniel Pink's Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, I know my team can lead any conversation or process without my presence. That level of trust allows me to move freely from one person to the next so as to be present for them and their needs. Being committed to servant-leadership means not being overly committed to structuring my days the same each day.
3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
It's not about me. It took me a while to get beyond the pragmatic elements of the job and into a purpose-driven mindset as a leader. Now, my core values drive all that I do in serving the individuals in my school. They are self-awareness, ingenuity, heroic ambition, and love. And the most important of these is love. It's not about me.
4. What's one book 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?
Chris Lowney's Heroic Leadership was the spark that transformed my approach to servant leadership. Prior to absorbing this book, my days were only filled with tasks...all my meetings were only task-oriented. I was driven by the desire to accomplish as much as I could. There was ambition, but it was self-absorbed ambition. After reading about the Jesuit's history and leadership structure, I committed myself to embrace the four core values Lowney speaks about in his book. They resonated as being under the surface of my approach. After Heroic Leadership, I became more impactful as a leader as my why supported what I was doing.
5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?
Developing and hiring teacher leaders is the most important task I have as a school leader. Not being shy about elevating the school's Mission and Academic Vision in all of my conversations is critical. Being clear with everyone that we want leaders who are called to be about something more than themselves has allowed us to hire individuals who will elevate the School's Mission and Academic Vision. We want professionals who exercise their Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose with the framework of who we are. Teachers often feel the burden of a school system that is top-down and does not value their input. My teachers know we can only be the best version of ourselves as a school when they embrace their role as a leader. The teachers who do that tend to want to stay in this environment that is buoyed by that level of trust. Those who do not embrace their role as a leader tend to self-select to leave. We have a faculty and staff of leaders.
6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?
Developing a culture of wellbeing in my staff and students is grounded in putting people first. We value and protect the dignity of the individual as an integral member of our community. We embrace the South African concept of Ubuntu - the idea that I can only be who I am in the context of who you are. We take care of each other. Sure, we aim to make decisions that are data-driven...but we value qualitative data over quantitative data...to the point that I would say we are reality-driven in our decision-making. We speak each other's truth even when it is difficult to do so. We are compassionate and direct. We aim to stay out of either-or thinking. We resist labeling individuals or groups of people. In doing so, we honor everyone - children and adults alike - as children of God.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?
There are so many... I will choose one from the first school community I served as a Branch Head.
One of our largest academic events of the school year was a Middle School-wide speech competition. All of our students participated in that event. A young lady in our 8th grade class during my time there was a world-class violin/fiddle player. She had performed in multiple countries and was celebrated in our school often for her unique musical abilities. Well, on the day she performed her speech for the competition, she had a horrifying experience in that she went blank...she forgot large portions of her speech while standing in front of the student/parent body. Yes, I felt horrible for her - I knew how she was feeling as a performer. She easily could be feeling a sense of acute failure. However, I was also so very proud of her...because she persevered. She didn't walk off the stage...she finished her speech the best she could. Afterward, I rushed to her and her family who were consoling her and celebrated her. It's the moment I started talking about "successful failures." She had had one...and that moment was one that she learned something profound about herself. That there is much to be gained in doing something that difficult and that you're not gifted in. That's a lesson so many of us could benefit from experiencing.