#254 – Lead From Where You Are, with Dr. Joe Sanfelippo

Unpacking Education January 17, 2024 44 min

In this episode, Dr. Joe Sanfelippo joins us to talk about leadership, and we focus on the content of his book, Lead From Where You Are: Building Intention, Connection, and Direction in Our Schools. Our conversation ranges from the importance of empowering everyone in an organization to become a leader to strategies and conditions necessary to develop leaders in our school communities.

Dr. Sanfelippo says, “If we can figure out ways to lead from the position that we’re in, we can find ways to impact, not only those we serve in leading that position but those around us as well. And I think that when we develop capacity to lead, then nobody leads alone.”

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

We need people to lead, and the greatest leaders find ways to get the most out of those around them. They help them lead and realize their impact from where they are.

Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, from his book, Lead From Where You Are:
Building Intention, Connection, and Direction in Our Schools

Recognize, Acknowledge, and Extend

Having served as a classroom teacher, principal, and superintendent, Dr. Sanfelippo knows that at times, “bad stuff’s gonna happen.” However, we have the power to create conditions that promote both positive leadership and an overall positive mindset and climate to help us push through those hard times with a sense of joy and hope. He challenges us to ask the question, “What are we doing to put ourselves in a situation where we can see some of the joy in the work that we do?”

As a key strategy, Dr. Sanfelippo leans on the three-part leadership process of recognizing, acknowledging, and extending the greatness that is around us. He says that it’s important to “recognize the greatness of your colleagues, acknowledge the greatness of your colleagues, and extend the greatness of your colleagues—and ‘of your colleagues’ is important—because it’s really hard to take care of kids when we’re not taking care of the adults taking care of the kids.” The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Dr. Joe Sanfelippo has served as an elementary teacher, counselor, coach, and administrator. He also spent the last 12 years as Superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin. In 2019, Education Dive named him their National Superintendent of the Year.
  • Collective Leadership: Dr. Sanfelippo says that if we provide people with “an opportunity to really help people grow and develop, not only their own talents but how that talent then impacts the purpose of the organization, then everyone walks to school feeling better about the work that they do. And that’s really the most exciting part.”
  • Changing the Narrative: It’s important to tell our stories and explain the good work we do. “The way that we talk about the work that we personally do has an impact on the way that people see us,” says Dr. Sanfelippo. “I think there’s too many people that walk around saying, ‘Well, I’m just a teacher. I can’t do this,’ or ‘I’m just a paraprofessional. I can’t do this,’ or ‘I’m just a custodian. I can’t do this,’ or whatever. It’s always followed by something that they can’t do.” He points out, “Nobody’s changing the way they talk about us until we change the way that we talk about us. . . . When you say that you’re just a teacher, then the person that you’re talking to, you give them license to talk about you that way because that’s how you’re doing it. . . . I think sometimes the biggest thing that we need to change is the way that we talk about us.”
  • Share Others’ Greatness: Dr. Sanfelippo explains the importance of praising others’ work. He says, “If we start with making sure that the people next door know how great they are, then all of a sudden, you put yourself in a position where not only do you become more cognizant of what’s going on around you, but you get to become the person who connects the great stories to the people of the world.”
  • Be Intentional: “If we’re more intentional about this work, we give ourselves a better chance,” says Dr. Sanfelippo. “It’s not always about the new stuff . . . a lot of times, it’s about recognizing that the work you’re already doing has tremendous value, and it doesn’t need to be new. It just needs to be literally acknowledged.”
  • Your “Why” Brings Purpose: “We live and work in an industry where you don’t get the immediate gratification for the work that you do,” says Dr. Sanfelippo. In that light, we need to be intentional about seeing the impact of what we do. He explains, “If we can be constantly reminded of why we do what we do, then when we get into the ‘what’ portion of the book, or the ‘what’ portion of the job, it makes it easier because it brings us back with purpose.”
  • Passion Projects: Dr. Sanfelippo’s school district empowered teachers by having them initiate personal passion projects. Teachers worked on a project of their choice for the year and then presented their findings publicly in the spring. In fact, one year, they live streamed the event and had 21,000 people tune in. He says, “It allowed them to show off, and at that point, they let their kids show off, too. . . . When our teachers get to talk about what their kids did because they own the whole process, you can see them light up.”
  • Recognize, Acknowledge, and Extend: Moments of awe happen around us every day, and often, we’re too busy to notice them. Dr. Sanfelippo encourages us to intentionally recognize, acknowledge, and extend those moments. He says, “What are you doing to put yourself in the right mindset to recognize the greatness that happens around you, acknowledge the greatness that happens around you, and then extend the greatness that happens around you to somebody who didn’t see it? So then all of a sudden, if you’re the one who recognizes it, acknowledges it, extends it, now you become the leader that gets not only the chance to see these great things, but you become the connector for all those great stories. So if you’re the connector for these moments of awe, you don’t even need to be there for them. You just need to make sure that they get extended beyond the time that they take place, and that makes you the connector of all these stories.”
  • Start and End With Joy: “If you can start and end your day with joy, it puts yourself in a position where you’re present and engaged for the people that you’re with,” says Dr. Sanfelippo. On the other hand, “If you don’t start and end your day, that’s when you cycle, and when you cycle, that’s when you get burned out, and when you get burned out, that’s when you start to wonder why it’s even worth it.”
  • Making Connections: Dr. Sanfelippo shares, “Every interaction matters because every interaction could be the one that they talk about for the rest of their lives, and so the problem is, you just don’t know which one it is.” He adds that people often misjudge us because they don’t know what we do. We need to tell our stories because “when people don’t know what you do, they make up what you do.”
  • Empower Others: The best way to develop leadership skills in others is to let them lead. Dr. Sanfelippo says, “When you talk about letting people lead, you gotta let ’em, and it’s not going to look the way you had intended [it] to, but it’s going to be better because you created more capacity to lead. And the more that we do that, not only do we create more leaders, but then they create more leaders.”
  • A Positive Cycle: Dr. Sanfelippo explains, “If you’re the one that consistently extends stories to people who don’t get a chance to see the great work, you’re going to invite more great stories coming your way, so recognize it, acknowledge it, and extend it.”
  • A Final Thought: For his parting “One Thing,” Dr. Sanfelippo encourages us to “look up, chase some smiles, figure out a way to feel happy about the work that you do, and have a wonderful week.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How do you define leadership?
  • How can you lead from where you are?
  • What is the narrative that you want others to tell about you and what you do?
  • How can you recognize, acknowledge, and extend the greatness you see around you?
  • What can you do to intentionally remember why you do what you do?
  • How can you start and end your day with joy?
  • How can you empower others?
  • What is one action step that you take?

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