Michael McKenna is the Founding School Leader of Memphis Delta Preparatory Charter School in Memphis, TN. Mike started his career in education at The Soulsville Charter School, also in Memphis, where he was both a teacher and team leader. After a stint in Philadelphia, where he was a Miles Family Fellow and Assistant Principal with KIPP, he and his family decided to return to Memphis. Initially opening with 260 students in grades K-4 in 2016, Memphis Delta Preparatory aims to serve over 500 students in grades K-5 in the South Memphis community. Mike is also Partner and Fellow at Jounce Partners.
Thriving Schools: Mike, the last time we spoke, you helped us appreciate the many tradeoffs that a school leader has to make. As part of that, it would seem like you have to get really good at delegation. Can you tell us how tasks are delegated at Memphis Delta Preparatory so you can go “all-in” on the coaching front!
Mike: For us, a lot of this comes down to our Director of Operations, who I really should call our Chief Operating Officer. She runs all things operational, like monitoring lunch duties, deciding inclement weather conditions, field trips, ordering buses, budgeting, security, uniforms, etc. All things operational go to her. That means I don’t have to think about them and I don’t. For instance, I might get compliance emails from the state, and I send them right to her. I see so many other school leaders that spend a lot of time on busy paper work. But we’ve set-up our school in such a way where one person does that so that I can focus on instructional excellence. We’re both focused. But she focuses on making sure we can keep the doors open and I’m focused on making sure we’re a really, really great school.
Thriving Schools: How might you suggest making this work in a traditional public school setting?
Mike: I think the problem is as simple as playing to your strengths. For instance, if a principal is in that position because of their instructional excellence, then that’s what they should be doing! And they should find someone else who can focus their time on the operational functions. This might be an AP or an office secretary, but the larger point is that you’re doing fewer things that you’re strong at and delegating the rest. You’re going to run into situations where someone else doesn’t do things the way that you would. But you have to be okay with that because the upside is you’re now able to do the things you're’ great at. I like to say, “I don’t care about a whole lot of things, but I care about a few things a WHOLE lot!”
Thriving Schools: Can you give us another example of how this delegation works at Memphis Delta Preparatory?
Mike: Delegation also means that we don’t worry about always having to make new decisions. Rather, we try to execute on the decisions we’ve already made. So for example, we don’t meet every 2 weeks, or every month, or every quarter to re-evaluate the curriculum we’re using. Instead, we’re going to focus on executing the curriculum we do have in the best way possible. Same thing with our restroom procedure. Let’s not sit here and debate it every few weeks. Rather, let’s work on executing it better. That also gives me the time and the energy to continue doing what I love doing – coaching our staff and teaching!
Thriving Schools: Any other thoughts on this front?
Mike: Again, I just feel like at most schools there seems to be a thousand people who are all doing small bits and pieces of various projects. And I could give you a lot of examples of this. But if we’re promoting strong teachers out of the classroom and into school leadership roles, then we should really be finding ways to utilize their skill sets more effectively. A final example – I’ve been in schools where administrators spend 2 hours planning a pep rally. Now unless this pep rally happens to be the crowning achievement of your school culture, then find a way to delegate it to someone else. Again, you might have to make the tradeoff that it’s not going to be the best pep rally in the world. But the upside if that you’ve now got 2 more hours of time to practice with your instructors and provide the coaching that they need.
Thriving Schools: And what would you say the benefit of all this focus and delegation is for you?
Mike: Let me give you an example. When I have Paul Dean from Jounce Partners come down here to my school, all we do, literally, is practice coaching together. We barely have time to say “hello!” We just jump in right away and get to work on coaching. And that’s the same mindset that I take into coaching and working with my staff. So again, because all the other tasks have been delegated elsewhere, I get to focus my time on development.
Thriving Schools: Shifting gears, we’ve heard you use the term “reckless confidence” to describe your leadership style. Can you define this for us please? And tell us what this looks like?
Mike: Reckless confidence is having complete faith in the decisions you’ve made to the point that you’re going to go ahead and do it. So that means when you walk into a classroom, you’re not second-guessing yourself about what the best coaching move is. Should I do this? Should I coach here now? Instead, you’re just going to jump in and do it. We say the same thing to our teachers – if you’re confident in your tone, in your posture, in the directions you’re giving to students, you’re going to execute better. To use another sports analogy – you never want to play timid. This applies in the classroom and it applies to school leadership. Now a lot of people are going to hear this and say “reckless” is totally NOT something you should be doing in a school setting. But what this also means is that I’m going to be totally okay with making mistakes, and I’m just not worried about it. I’m going to dive head first in whatever I can do to get better because I believe in the approach that we’re taking at our school.
Thriving Schools: I think a lot of educators naturally second-guess themselves because they want the best for their students. What tricks or tools do you suggest for educators to increase confidence?
Mike: Well, the other piece of this is focus. That means you’re going to pick one or two things that you’re incredibly good at, that you can afford to be recklessly confident about. So from a coaching standpoint, that means you have 1 or 2 things that you’re going to be better at than anyone else. For example, you might be able to walk into a classroom, right away, and execute those moves flawlessly. It also comes down to the culture. You have to create a culture in your building and with your team that making mistakes is 100% fine, and is great, and is applauded. So a lot of coaches get into the work with the expectation that everything they model has to be 100% perfect because THEY’RE the coach. But again, you have to get in the habit of saying: this isn’t something I’ve tried before but I’m going to try it today!
Thriving Schools: And what does this look like in interactions between school leaders and teachers?
Mike: As a school leader, you’re always going to be brainstorming ideas with teachers about things they can improve or try differently. Here again, you have to be open to confidently trying different things, committing to actually doing them (and seeing them through), admitting when something isn’t working, and being ready to move on and try something else when necessary.