Imagine you’re preparing to jump out of an airplane, and your instructor informs you your parachute may not work. Can you imagine yourself standing in the doorway of an aircraft waiting for your turn to jump? Do you risk it all and jump? Or do you assess the situation and determine what adjustments are necessary?

As educators, we troubleshoot daily and have to make quick and strategic decisions that impact a child’s education. We are also working to empower teachers and students. We fill their parachutes to prepare them for their life journeys. We want our students to feel confident when they are standing at a crossroad. We want our students to jump and pursue their dreams. Our hope as educators is that we have poured into them and packed their parachute with the skills that are needed. 

Despite all of this work, it is easy to forget that personalized professional development is necessary if you are going to be able to continue to pack your own parachute so you can help others.

During the global pandemic, I was invited to join the Education Leaders Experience (ELE). A colleague, delighted with her experience, recommended the program. I was immediately impressed with the level of enthusiasm and engagement that the presenters conveyed through our virtual platform. Little did I know how much the ELE experience would end up packing my parachute.

Initially, I became a little alarmed when I learned that I had to complete a micro-credential by the end of the cohort. After all, my colleague never mentioned homework! I didn’t know what a micro-credential was or how it would benefit me. Nevertheless, I forged ahead, and after looking at my choices, I took the approach to work smarter and not harder. I selected Managing Change because I had experience leading two different schools through two unique changes. The essential method for this micro-credential was to create an Innovation Creation Map, which helps teacher leaders successfully plan and communicate a difference in a program. As I prepared for this “one more thing to do,” I did not yet realize that this activity was a chance to pack my parachute so I could continue to pour into others.

To prepare for this micro-credential, I spent time reflecting on the changes I had to manage that led me to my current position. The first change was my leap into the field of education. Educators are not new to the challenges that we are facing today. Even in 1999, South Carolina was dealing with a shortage of classroom teachers. I became aware of this shortage because I had just decided to attend Columbia College to determine how to add to my bachelor’s degree in English. I wanted to figure out how I would be able to become a teacher. During my meeting at Columbia College, I discovered that the most direct pathway to the classroom would be to go to the SC State Department of Education and meet with an education associate in the Critical Needs office. That meeting was life-changing — the first tool placed in my parachute pack. During this meeting, I learned that I met the requirements to begin my career as an English teacher. 

I had the opportunity to work with a mentor who helped pack my parachute by providing me with experiences outside the classroom and sparked my interest in school administration. During those years, I also poured into my students and packed their parachutes as I prepared them for their chosen post-secondary pathway. I taught and formed lifelong relationships with students. 

Another change that I had to manage was becoming an interim middle school principal. Under my leadership, we adopted the phrase “Whatever it takes, our kids are worth it!” When I arrived on campus, the school was rated unsatisfactory, and staff retention had become a continuous revolving door. During this time, I had to lean on my ability to build strong, trusting relationships with students, teachers, and the community. We improved our school report card from a growth rating of at-risk to average. The percentage of teachers returning was 83.1 percent, a significant improvement in teacher retention during my tenure. While we made improvements at Newberry Middle School, I continued to fill the parachutes of my students and teachers. During this time, I had the opportunity to mentor new teachers. I strategically hired teachers with alternative certifications. Doing so came with some challenges but was worth the effort to continue packing the parachutes of alternatively certified teachers by providing support, professional development, and opportunities for leadership positions. 

And while I was busy packing the parachutes of my students and teachers, other  leaders were willing to pack my parachute. As my mentors poured into me, my leadership skills were sharpened, and I felt ready to take on a new challenge.

Then during the spring of 2011, the principalship at Newberry High School became vacant, and I wanted to throw my name in the hat. I was eager to return to the building where my career began and fill the parachutes of high school teachers and students. After being named principal, I had to jump right in and lead the School Improvement Grant efforts known as the “transformation of NHS” since the school had earned a three million dollar grant centered around creating a Freshman Academy. 

My time at Newberry High School was filled with wins such as improving the graduation rate from 73.5 percent in 2011 to 83.6 percent in 2014. There were consistent improvements with the SC End-of-Course exams as well. Managing this change challenged me to learn along with my new staff during a timeline that required results in three years.

After reflecting on my own professional journey, I realized I was more than prepared to complete the micro-credential on Managing Change. In addition to completing the micro-credential, I continued to have my parachute packed through my experiences with ELE. The networking opportunities were powerful, and I learned about opportunities in the Midlands that could benefit my district. My experience with ELE also allowed me to learn more about my leadership style. Often in education, we forget to do a pulse check on ourselves as leaders, and this professional development opportunity gave me the chance to do so.

Managing change is not an easy task, and setbacks are inevitable. There were many days I felt as if I were being pushed out of the airplane without a parachute!

But those setbacks forced me to rethink, reevaluate, and try again. Those setbacks reminded me that it is imperative that while you pour into your students, teachers, and principals, you have to continue to pour into yourself too. ELE was a personalized professional lifeline for me. 

By the end of the ELE experience, I had gained a better understanding of micro-credentials. I learned that micro-credentials offer a strategic process to help build leadership capacity through opportunities for reflection and growth. This process can provide helpful tools on your leadership journey. 

Ultimately, participating in ELE provided me with different perspectives on how education and the community are connected. I learned about opportunities that will benefit my students, other leaders in the district, and me.

My parachute is packed, and if I had to jump today, I would be ready.

The Education Leaders Experience (ELE) program was created by Colonial Life and is administered in partnership with the Center for Educational Partnerships at the University of South Carolina.

This story is published as part of a recent storytelling retreat hosted by CarolinaCrED housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. The Center for Teaching Quality(CTQ), a CarolinaCrED partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @CarolinaCrED and @teachingquality.