Teacher of the year Jenny Walters inspires leadership principles every day in her kindergarten class at Codington Elementary. Thanks to Walters and her like-minded peers state-wide, poor behavior is down, while good grades and attitudes are up.
“In kindergarten, my main goal is modeling, modeling, modeling—all the time,” she admits, “using the language of leadership. Our school is in its fourth year of training teachers to implement Stephen R. Covey’s ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ (1989) in our classrooms. Teachers and parents have to understand and own these principles before they can teach them to our young children.”
A native of Buffalo, New York, with four children of her own, Walters earned a master’s degree in education and trained for an additional year to apply Covey’s seven habits as adapted in his book ‘The Leader in Me’ (2006) for grade-school children.
These habits and examples are (in kindergarten language):
• Be proactive (make a plan).
• Begin (jobs) with the end in mind.
• First things first (first reading, then outdoor play).
• Think win-win (will this help both you and me?).
• Seek first to understand before being understood (be kind).
• Synergize (work together).
• Sharpen the saw (it’s OK to take time just for me).
“Teaching leadership language to the very young,” Walters said, “demands not only friendly interpretations but entertaining ones as well. So I turn to my love for Walt Disney.”
Walters dresses up as Snow White and asks the classroom children to be her seven dwarves. Each dwarf characterizes one of the seven habits. For example, Doc, who is always caring for others, must be reminded to take care of his own needs as well, or “sharpen the saw,” habit number seven.
When Snow White sees that the home of the dwarves needs cleaning, she picks up a broom and begins sweeping while she sings, “Whistle While You Work.” It’s an implementation that “begins with the end in mind,” habit number two.
Next, the animals come in, see Snow White needs assistance, and help her in a cooperative manner—or synergize, habit number six. Through Snow White’s leadership, her new friends can see that “together” is better. More so, they see a job can be accomplished more easily if others are kind enough to help.
“Kindness is at the core of all of our relationships and is essential to discovering the truth within ourselves,” Walters says. “Without kindness and compassion as a mindset, leadership principles cannot be modeled, instilled or demonstrated.”
As much as Walters reminds us of our favorite Disney heroines—putting others first, lifting them up, doing the work that needs to be done—Codington principal Budd Dingwall emulates a Disney king. Each school day, a positive character trait is presented over the PA system. Each month, leadership principles that are working in the various classrooms are discussed. At least twice a year, parents are offered evening classes to help them use leadership language in the home.
Also a Covey fan, Dingwall has high regard for Walters. He encourages her to work with her teacher peers in adapting Covey’s principles to the classroom.
“I can say without hesitation that Mrs. Walters is one of the finest teachers I’ve ever worked with in my 45 years of education,” Dingwall says. “She’s absolutely child-centered, is readily a risk taker, and is always looking for ways to make things better.”
This National Board-Certified teacher shows the learning tools and toys at a language arts learning center. Both tools and toys have varying appeal, but the children know they need to choose which tool will help improve a reading or writing skill before turning to the castle for fantasy play, demonstrating “first things first,” habit number three.
Two of Walter’s students share their written stories about keeping the seven habits. Ford Tate’s tale is about a boy brushing his teeth: “I’m proactive by brushing my teeth before my dad (a dentist) asks me to.” Jack Kernan’s story speaks of his kindness in giving his classmate a card: “I give Charley a Valentine.”
Recently, Walters and her assistant Peggy McSteen won the $500 RBC bank award for their leadership innovations in the classroom. The teachers turned to the guidelines of Jay Bonstingl (Schools of Quality), who has trained the Codington faculty to empower students in choice and decision-making. Walters and McSteen presented their students with a list of classroom needs, and the children helped choose two reading nooks, which also satisfied the requirements of Covey’s seven habits.
In keeping with Covey’s habit of synergy, Bonstingl promotes the practice of true partnership. “A wealth of opportunity will open for those who see others as potential partners, rather than as threats to be eliminated.”
Covey calls this an “abundance mentality: creating more and more value by combining our virtually limitless resources in the service of everyone.”
Our young children are the most precious resources we have. Fortunately, more and more of our public-school children are being taught by loving and hard-working teachers like Jenny Walters, who believes the blessing goes both ways.