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George Petersen, Liberty Elementary School Fresno, CA

George PetersenEvery morning, Liberty Elementary students start their day with an enthusiastic “Good morning Skyeeehawks!” from Principal George Petersen on K-SKY News. From the tireless hours over the summer of reading research, to his creative approaches in motivating his staff, to his vulnerability in teaching lessons alongside his teachers, Principal Petersen is the consummate educator.

A “caring demeanor” and “confident leadership” is an accurate way of articulating how Principal Petersen leads alongside his community. When he became principal of Liberty twelve years ago, one of his first priorities was to establish a caring, relational leadership style. He implemented a Personalized Professional Development (PPD) model. PPD is a shared leadership model, which values all staff members equally. Every individual contributes to the growth of the team. PPD relies on a trusting relationship between staff and school leadership. This trust is reestablished every year, the week before school starts, when he meets one-on-one with each teacher. During the meeting, they discuss professional and personal goals.

Principal Petersen often shares his personal story of being a withdrawn, unmotivated student until a teacher took the time to find an outlet outside of the classroom that encouraged him to feel connected at school. Students tell stories of the impact this has made on them. For example, Principal Petersen encouraged one struggling sixth grader, who hated school, to participate in track. He then proceeded to visit this child at practice and personally coached him on his shot-put performance. Another student shared how meaningful it was for them when Principal Petersen came into the classroom to celebrate good character. Principal Petersen is quick to high-five a student or come into the classroom and give a big “Wowza Wooza!” in their honor in front of their classmates.

Principal Petersen is a consummate learner, using researched-based innovative processes of breaking down how students learn. Throughout the year, Principal Petersen takes a teacher or a small group of teachers through three observation models: Lesson Inquiry, Co-teaching, and Peer Observation. Principal Petersen designs lessons with teachers and teaches the lessons in their classrooms. To prepare for these conversations, he studies the research on best practices, so the lessons are aligned with the research. If a staff member needs assistance for improvement, he can offer what the literature promotes. He also examines school data thoroughly, determining the effectiveness of school programs and achievement levels of students. His experience in teaching every grade level, except kindergarten and first grade, adds to his collaboration skills. These three observation models create a great deal of dialogue. Much of this dialogue motivates staff to request sub-release days to explore and develop new ideas. They submit their own agendas, goals, and targets for the day, essentially designing their own professional development.

Principal Petersen is described as an innovative leader with an entrepreneurial spirt. Research and data drive his decision making. If a staff member shares their desire to try an approach that is outside the norm, Principal Petersen encourages it: “So long as it is supported by research, and it’s good for kids.” His approach resulted in the school becoming one of the first in the district to use Flexible Seating to facilitate student collaboration. The move toward student-centered learning inspired the school’s “Collaboratory,” located in the hub of the school, which serves as a model of individualized instruction, research, and student collaboration. Principal Petersen supported teachers as they experimented with this idea, which in turn, freed up students to take risks and pursue opportunities specific to their interests. It has never been a one-size-fits-all approach to learning or instruction at Liberty.

A great leader is not always about what success he has individually, but the ripple effect on others. There is really a simple cycle in Principal Petersen’s style of leadership: be a great leader for an enthusiastic staff, which results in successful students, creating happy parents, and a thriving community that is easier to lead.