UVEI’s relevance to the work of school leaders today

Since the start of this school year, I’ve been hungry for stories about the experience of the two UVEI graduates who are now Co-Principals at the school where I used to be Principal.  Here and there, I’d heard bits of news from them, and others, over the course of the busy fall semester.  

I’d heard about one of their August inservice activities, when administration and faculty conducted a reflective walking tour of the largest town they serve. I’d heard about members of the student services team continuing their home visits to connect with youth who’d become disengaged during the pandemic.  

I’d heard about a class that brought together students from the high school and the adjacent CTE center to study racial justice and injustice. I’d also heard about the heart-breaking theft of the Black Lives Matter flag and the extensive restorative justice efforts undertaken to address the harm and find healing. 

I’d read about the exciting reboot of robotics and coding classes, STEM offerings developed with support from another UVEI graduate, Ken Cadow, the school’s Director of Applied Learning.

And I’d heard a few other stories, too – but I wanted a longer conversation with the two Co-Principals about their first year formally in the role. We found a chance to talk earlier this month.

PIP Graduates

Caty Sutton and Lisa Floyd graduated from the UVEI Principal Intern program in 2017 and 2019 respectively.  They did their internship at the school where we all worked, Randolph Union (RU), in Randolph, Vermont.  RU is a 7-12 middle/high school that serves three towns in the heart of Central Vermont.  

Students and teachers at RU are respected for their work in project-based learning, senior project, restorative justice, community and workforce connections, curriculum that centers racial justice, the performing arts – and more! 

RU is less well-known for its more internal, less public-facing efforts at democratic school governance and distributed leadership.  But leadership like this is something Caty and Lisa embrace, and it is a crucial component of their practice.  Slowing down to collaborate with colleagues is not something the pandemic has caused them to toss aside; indeed it is something they rely on especially now, during an era when many schools are straining at the seams to hold their learning communities together. 

Lisa, Caty and I finally connected to talk in January of this year.  I asked them to talk about the connections between their UVEI leadership development experience and their work as school leaders today.  I was struck by the very democratic nature of the leadership they describe and how it connected to their UVEI experience.  

“Learning on Behalf of Others”

The peer-to-peer elements of how people learn at UVEI is something Caty sees as having a strong connection to her work today. “It was modeled in our UVEI sessions,” she notes, and she goes on to explain:

Facilitation, the use of protocols, the opportunity to practice different roles – not just as facilitator – but really thinking about being an active participant in the learning on behalf of someone else.  This was really powerful for me, especially in thinking about what it inspired in me, and continues to, which is to be a school leader who is really interested in the learning of my colleagues and peers and how or we continue to facilitate that here.  

In reflecting further on professional learning – at UVEI and in her practice – Caty remarks:

At UVEI there was a lot of emphasis on what we could learn from each other, which I really value – and continue to value so much.  It’s something that’s always on my mind. I think that if I hadn’t experienced that, I would’ve continued to do what I see a lot of others do, which is to rely on the outside expertise of others, rather than look to our own strengths first.

UVEI places an emphasis on looking at day-to-day practice in connecting to a larger frame of reference, both a contemporary research lens and a lens that centers a moral vision.  Caty makes connections to this, too:

I would say that another thing that stays with me about my work at UVEI is that even if we get logistical and into the micro-managerial aspects of governing of a school, I still think a lot about big picture philosophy and vision. 

I don’t lose sight of that in the midst of the mire that can be day-to-day functioning.  It’s important to not get lost in it so much that you don’t continue to see those bigger threads that should continue to exist.

“Remind People of What They Know”

Lisa’s thinking about leading professional learning echoes the democratic themes Caty surfaced: learning from and with each other; collaboratively solving the problems the community posits as important; centering the needs of teachers and students and seeking the resources required to address them.  The connections to UVEI are clear, as Lisa notes:

I really appreciate how we worked really reflectively and collaboratively with the peers in our UVEI cohort and I think that’s something that I really brought away from the program. 

And during this really incredibly hard year, I think Caty and I keep returning to this idea that we work with incredibly strong professionals, and right now things are really hard, but together we’ve done hard things before – and we can continue to collaborate, draw on each other‘s strengths, ask each other for feedback, take care of each other, and use professional development opportunities as a place to remind people of what they know how to do. Because that feels so validating and so good in a year when change feels like the only constant.

Lisa goes on to elaborate on her framing of professional development as an opportunity to remind people of their knowledge and skills.  Whether it’s a whole faculty meeting, grade teams, departments or other collaborative groups, professional development is “where we ask people what they need, think about our resources in the building, and then leverage those to help support the initiative in the big picture direction in which we are moving.”  Lisa finds thinking back to the work at UVEI to be sustaining and affirming:  

When I think about what I experienced and read at UVEI, it helps me feel more secure in what we are doing and how I can frame it in a way that is positive, and supportive, rather than just another thing that faculty and staff have to do during this really hard time.

A School That’s in Good Hands

UVEI’s reach in the region is wide, and goes back decades. In addition to Caty and Lisa, UVEI has been part of the career development of many other folks who have been at RU in recent years, from teacher interns and the veteran teachers who have mentored them, to the RU teachers themselves who got their certification at UVEI, to the three members of the school’s admin team who are alumni of the UVEI principal program.   

I, too, felt like I was a part of UVEI when I was principal at RU because I had the opportunity to be a mentor as well.  For me, the transition from school principal to UVEI faculty has allowed a great deal of continuity of vision and practice.  Talking with Caty and Lisa helped me better understand why this is so. When I left RU last June, I wrote that the school “is in good hands.”  As I follow the work of Caty, Lisa and the other UVEI graduates who help make the school as strong as it is, I feel even more confident about this.


Elijah Hawkes, MSEd, is the Director of School Leadership Programs and a faculty member in the Teacher, School Leadership, and Masters of Education Programs. You can read more about Elijah on our website or email him at ehawkes@uvei.org

To contact Caty or Lisa, feel free to reach out to them at csutton@orangesouthwest.org  and lfloyd@orangesouthwest.org