Arts Leaders as School Leaders: A Convo with Nina Unitas, Principal

I am so excited to finally be able to share this post that evolved from a conversation I had with a former art teacher who became an elementary school principal. Hope you enjoy!

I recently read the September/October 2015 issue of Principal Magazine’s supplement called Champion Creatively Alive Children. This is a supplement sponsored by Crayola. I really like reading it when it comes out once a year because it has a lot of articles about the arts in schools but is presented from a leadership perspective.

Leading school and district arts initiatives and how the arts can exist in schools from a systematic standpoint is very interesting to me. I have read a lot of articles and books about how an arts culture can have a positive impact on all stakeholders in a school. The focus of a lot of the work I did  for my specialist degree in Educational Leadership was on how arts integration can impact a school system, particularly how it can work to raise student success at the district and whole school level.

So, as I was reading this particular issue, I was excited to see two photos of teachers that I know. In fact, these two teachers work at the school where I used to work in Tupelo, MS. Thomas Street Elementary achieved the status of Model School for the Whole Schools Initiative while I was working there as a first grade teacher. This means that the school is a model for what arts integration should look like when an entire school uses that as the main approach to teaching students. Perhaps, this was what drew me into the article titled, Creating a Movement: Two principals share their journey toward art-integration.

The article discusses the views of two principals on the power of art to transform teaching and learning. The two principals happened to be Chad Chism (former principal at Thomas Street Elementary) and Nina Unitas (principal at Wylandville Elementary School near Pittsburgh). As I was reading, I was intrigued by the fact that Unitas was once an art teacher.

Having just received my Educational Leadership degree, I am open to the idea of entering into administration, particularly the principalship. I’ve heard many negative comments, however, about art teachers not being professional enough to do the job. In fact, the first principal-friend that I told when I began my specialist degree said she couldn’t imagine what in the world an art teacher would know about curriculum.

Of course, I disagree with this attitude. My masters degree is in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. I have written curriculum for my school district and taught graduate-level curriculum courses. Thus, I was so happy to see that Unitas was once an art teacher and was making a positive impact as a principal. The final section of this article posed the question of “What advice do you have for art teachers who aspire to become principals?” to Unitas.

After reading and reflecting on her words, I decided to reach out to Unitas to ask her for more information and to clarify some things. I really wanted to hear more of her thoughts on leadership, particularly as a principal with a background in arts education. I looked her up and emailed. She responded, and we set up a time for a phone call.

Here are my key understandings from this conversation:

Arts Thinking and Leadership
People who are arts-minded are more likely to take calculated risks. Being able to take criticism and be reflective is key to good leadership. Artists, art teachers, arts-minded individuals are natural reflectors and natural collaborators. Arts-minded individuals are innovative and constantly on the lookout for a better way of doing things.

Art teachers understand what good teaching looks like because they have a deep understanding of critical thinking.

Interview Tips for Arts Educators Seeking Leadership Roles
Think about what you need from your principal as a teacher. Talk about that at the interviews. Don’t worry about getting emotional in an interview. It shows you care. You want to be as authentic as possible. Find out who is going to be in the interview so you will know what you are walking into.

Impacting the Arts as a School Leader
School leaders are able to impact the arts much more than you’d think. Being an instructional leader, or leader of instructors, involves leading the teachers in understanding creativity and using the arts in their classrooms. Because of your teaching experience, you are in a position to leverage those 21st century skills for teachers. Arts-minded individuals know how to document. Documentation is very important when you are trying to make learning transparent.

Refocus Your People
If a school loses its arts culture, you have to refocus your people Ask your staff, “What do we want the children to be like as adults?” This helps in creating cultures of thinking. This is a powerful activity that can be written on post it notes and added to a poster! The staff will decide to recommit to holding conversations and reflecting on these things. This is also powerful when done with parents. This idea came from Ron Ritchart, senior researcher at Harvard Project Zero. My faculty did a book study on his  Creating Cultures of Thinking - The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools.

Why Might an Art Teacher Want to Become an Administrator?
For art teachers who seek leadership positions, it is about wanting to parallel experiences in the arts classroom and to do that on a bigger level. It is about wanting to have that impact on the kids and community. It is about wanting to build a culture where students are served by dedicated adults. An arts-minded individual is keenly able to focus on what is in their control and is driven to make positive change.

On Teacher Turnover
It is so important to build a positive school climate that is arts-driven. This fosters relationships. The job is about relationships and you can’t develop relationships with turnover. You can’t serve your community well with significant teacher turnover year to year.


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