Elementary school principal inspires others, leads with passion

Leadership takes on many forms, but inspiring others to do their best is one of the most valuable qualities in an effective leader.

Garry Grotke, principal at James Madison Elementary School in San Leandro Unified School District, is such a leader. Grotke says inspiring others – students, teachers and parents – is one of the best parts of the job.

Garry Grotke is principal of James Madison Elementary School.

Garry Grotke is principal of James Madison Elementary School.

“I love watching children and teachers become inspired as they learn, and I become inspired as well,” he said. “I love seeing children perform, on stage, in the class, on the field and as they move on from elementary school. I love looking at the faces of the families as they see their children shine. I really enjoy supporting and empowering parents to advocate for their children. I love helping inspire teachers to help children discover their passion for learning – and recess!”

Grotke, who has been named Elementary Principal of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators, said he feels lucky to work with such a great staff and community of learners at James Madison. He said the award is really a recognition of the entire school community, and he is proud to be a part of it.

“When principals dream of what schools can be, they are dreaming of our school,” he said. “It is a great honor to see our work become appreciated at the state level. To have staff, families and students come together and make a vision into reality is the most rewarding experience a leader can have. It is a great privilege to have our school and my work honored with the Elementary Principal of the Year Award.”

Grotke said the secret to his success as an elementary leader is vision and creativity. He said his staff operates with integrity and passion, which is clearly reflected in the school culture.

“The teachers have been outstanding and continually are seeking to improve what they can do for children,” he said. “Teachers have fun teaching, and students know it. Laughter is a big part of the sounds you hear in our school. Everyone thinks about what could be and then looks at what they can do.”

I am so lucky to be in a profession where I get to give back every day.
— Garry Grotke

In fact, the entire school community has a shared vision of success for students. School staff, students, parents and the community at large – every player knows success is possible.

“At James Madison, we believe every child wants to be successful. Every family wants success for their children. Every employee, from the principal to the paraprofessional, is here to ensure success. Success is defined individually and is always possible,” Grotke said.

Grotke said when he started at Madison in 2002 he knew he and his staff needed to develop a common understanding of success. He set out to define success so that it could be obtained by everyone. Staff looked at student success through the lens of Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge. ASK for success allows opportunities for all students and parents to see what attributes are helping or hindering students from reaching their potential, and staff then meet and create multiple pathways for students to succeed.

“We know that success begins with a safe school for all families and staff,” he said. “Success is not limited to a test score. The diversity of the human experience contributes to a successful school and society. We are just as interested in how well students do when they move on from our school as we are for their success while they are at Madison.”

Like all education leaders, Grotke has his share of challenges: budget cuts, school construction, missing children, even a fire. But Grotke said they’re just part of the job.

“There are always challenges and people who want to challenge what you do,” Grotke said. “I strive to find ways to harness multiple perspectives to support overcoming a range of challenges.”

Grotke said ensuring equal opportunities for academic success has been one of his biggest challenges at school, and is an issue that hits close to home.

“The greatest challenge in public education is the racial disparity of student success,” he said. “We have looked at the definitions of success and how they may limit the abilities of all children to be equitably successful. Being a champion of public education means being a champion for our most challenged students. As a parent of two beautiful Haitian daughters and three uniquely brilliant sons, I know first-hand the challenges of advocating and navigating the school system to support children with different needs.”

Grotke said he entered education to prove that he could make a difference. He had many ideas of how to make learning fun, how to motivate and empower disenfranchised youth, and how to run a summer school program that paid for itself. And people often told him he couldn’t carry them out.

“I became an administrator to remind people you can,” he said. “I have always dreamed to work in a profession that allows you to make a difference for people every day. I never thought I would be able to impact so many so profoundly.”

Grotke said he has had many educators throughout his life who supported him and encouraged him to succeed. His sixth-grade teacher, Barbara Wells, took the time to nurture him and find the success hidden deeply away.

“She showed me that there was success in everyone, even me, which is sometimes difficult for a young person to believe,” he said. “She never let the system keep from supporting the learner.

“Throughout my life I have had visionary mentors inspiring me as a learner and leader. People took time and invested in me as a person and as an educator. I have learned from these mentors that there are many ways to become successful. I always remember that someone helped me every step of the way, and I am so lucky to be in a profession where I get to give back every day.”

Originally appeared in EdCal, www.acsa.org