A Principal’s Quest: Aligning My Work With What Learning Should and Could Be

Voices from the Field   24 June 2020
By Ryan Ricenbaw, Nebraska Department of Education


Systemic change is about a collective mindset of purpose agreed upon by all stakeholders, and a commitment to honor that purpose, regardless of the bumps we hit along the way.  

Ryan Ricenbaw
Nebraska Leadership & Learning Network Specialist, Nebraska DOE

Learners Should Feel Valued

There are defining moments in every leader’s career that unexpectedly shape their professional path. And, while it’s always easier in hindsight to notice when they’ve occurred, the key is allowing these moments, through intentional introspection, to guide your journey.

My first “moment,” which came in 2013, rocked me as a school leader. One day after school, I found myself at an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting with a student and his mom—a scenario I had experienced one hundred times before.

There was a mild level of discomfort as we began the meeting—you can always sense parents who have been beaten down by the process. This IEP was for a student who really struggled in reading and needed guidance to identify a path to graduation in May. 

The session carried a familiar “good with the bad” rhythm: teachers shared how much they enjoyed the student in class, how respectful he was, and expressed that he was a hard worker. But (there’s always a “but”), teachers struggled getting him to be more organized with his assignments—turning them in on time or actually doing the assignments in the first place—and they needed him to do a better job communicating. 

Each time a teacher finished talking, the student slumped further down in his chair; this was nothing he hadn’t heard before. Mom—with frustration in her voice—echoed the collective concerns about his diligence. Sitting beside the boy’s mother was an unidentified guest who had remained silent up until this point. What he said next was a turning point in my career as a principal. 


We can’t afford to systemically overlook the uniqueness and talents that all our students can offer. And, we can’t afford to assume that leadership is an exclusive skill only a few students can express.

Ryan Ricenbaw
Nebraska Leadership & Learning Network Specialist, Nebraska DOE

The gentleman, a local farmer who hired the student a few years back, looked at all of us and said, “I’m here to make sure you are aware of what I see in this young man every day. He is trustworthy, an extremely hard worker, and dependable. I would turn my farm over to him tomorrow if I could.” The student sat straight up in his chair and smiled proudly at his boss. 

There was suddenly a different energy in the room and in the student. I couldn’t help but ask myself how many days he walked into school counting the minutes until he could go to work. How many IEP meetings had he sat through where all he heard was how much he struggled to read and write. No matter how much teachers said they loved him and expressed how badly they wanted to see him succeed in school, the purpose of these meetings was clear: “We’re going to point out your flaws in math, science, and English and leave you feeling devalued.” 

This moment made me reconsider the role schools played (or didn’t) in helping students find their strengths. When that student left school each day, he went to a job where he felt accomplished, had purpose, and could be himself. His IEP meetings were the exact opposite.

Learners Should See Themselves As Leaders

The next “moment” came a year later during a student council meeting. During the session, council members were discussing an upcoming initiative driven by the student council to create a mentoring program for incoming freshmen. Prior to the meeting, I was approached by a few non-student council students who had heard about the mentoring program and were interested in learning more. So, I invited them to attend the next lunch meeting.

Over the course of the mentoring discussion, one of the students I invited, a senior, eventually stood up and asked if she could speak. With tears in her eyes and a nervous quiver in her voice, she began expressing her frustration with the lack of leadership opportunities available to her, despite all she had to offer and her long-time desire to contribute. She was never elected into the student council by her peers, she didn’t quite have the grades to be eligible for NHS, and she wasn’t popular. This was her reality but not necessarily her choice. 

This student didn’t sit in frustrated silence and wait to complain to friends or adults unfamiliar with the matter. Rather, she took her issue directly to the source and communicated her concerns in an eloquent and respectful manner. She spoke not only for herself but for many others who might not have had the courage or were unsure what to say. I was incredibly proud of her. 

But then, I connected all the dots to her reality, seeing that it was also the reality of many other students. 

Why was I allowing opportunities like this to be limited to the student council, National Honor Society, or other exclusive clubs? When these students were given opportunities to serve, whether it be in the community or other schools in our district, they always did a wonderful job supporting a cause and representing themselves and our school. But, were they really the only ones capable of contributing like that? I had not given these unwritten prerequisites for participating nearly enough thought. Possibly it was out of convenience or maybe habit. No matter, it was a big miss on my part. 

Too often, adults only look to students who are “vetted” to speak and represent the school in the community—the student council was one of those sources. We were vetting who would be rewarded with valuable opportunities to learn, grow, and build new skills, rather than making those opportunities available to everyone. 

We can’t afford to systemically overlook the uniqueness and talents that all our students can offer. And, we can’t afford to assume that leadership is an exclusive skill only a few students can express. It is an expectation of the school to create the space for our students to find themselves, find their voice, and learn as they go.  

This exclusionary process contributes to why so many students feel stuck. From that moment on, I’m proud to say we made huge strides in creating an environment where all students were given access to leadership opportunities. You could see it and feel it in our school, and even though it could not be quantified by a test score, there was a greater sense of belonging and pride amongst our student body. I wouldn’t have traded that for anything.

We Should Align Our Vision with Action

Having collected the moments above and others similar to them throughout my time as Principal at a school just outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, I was ready to take these lessons further than I had ever taken them before. In 2016, during my ninth year as Principal, I experienced a “moment” fraught with personal failure in bringing a new vision for learning to life.

I began communicating my vision for the future of my High School in tandem with our district mission. My vision for the school focused on rekindling and aligning our purpose as educators with action. Professional purpose was where we started. In order to have the impact we all desired on our students, we needed to support them in ways that honored their individuality and helped guide them to the futures they desired through their own unique experiences. There wasn’t a single teacher who disagreed with this vision.

I purposely built an organic process that involved many teachers. I didn’t have all the answers, and I didn’t believe in a “top-down” mentality. I was willing to ask the hard questions and help identify our flaws, but I felt strongly about my staff owning the process. It had to be theirs. It was a mindset shift we all needed to embrace personally and collectively. 

I gave teachers permission to challenge the status quo and do things differently if it fit within the defined framework around student strengths, talents, interests, and experiences. And, although we began moving forward very slowly, I was confident we were all in this together and excited by what we might create. 


We need systemic change—not new structures piled on top of the current foundation.

Ryan Ricenbaw
Nebraska Leadership & Learning Network Specialist, Nebraska DOE

One year into the journey, we remained steadfast in our beliefs, but as we looked back, we didn’t have much evidence of progress. There were pockets of great things happening, but at this point, I was not comfortable making any official mandates or systemic changes. I wanted all staff to be set up for success, not failure, but I began to worry about consistency and stability. I struggled to find the answers.

By 2018, enthusiasm was waning. We began exploring transition processes for major shifts in areas like instructional practice, grading policies and practice, academic awards, student mentoring, and discipline practices. But, the divide was becoming evident.

Teachers who had made changes and experienced the fruits of their labor were frustrated by how slowly we were moving, while others who were still struggling with the paradigm shift came to school each day in fear—knowing change was going to happen whether or not they were ready for it. 

I was stuck, and frustration mounted. I questioned my own leadership and began questioning the process: Where did I fail in my communication? When and where was purpose lost? Was I naive for thinking this could happen organically? Was I too patient? Could these changes really happen in public school, or is the old system just too big to change?

We Should Transform Education

This years-long “moment” brought me to a pivotal crossroads in my career, one that ultimately led me to leave public education for a non-profit opportunity. I didn’t leave out of frustration, but more out of the lack of opportunity to lead significant change—change that I was passionate about and felt needed to happen. Even though I wasn’t able to see that vision through and that I see it as a failure in leadership, I look back with fondness on the experience and wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

Each “moment” before and during that three-year stretch helped me realize why changing education in this country is so difficult. The foundation on which our education system was built is unstable and outdated. It no longer fits what our students need. 

We need systemic change—not new structures piled on top of the current foundation. Innovative ideas and new approaches to education are plentiful. But, unless we take a systemic and sustainable approach to change, those innovations will continue to be limited, and education will continue to fall short in a time where the achievement gap continues to widen.

It is bigger than helping my student who was successful on the farm be seen as successful in school. It is bigger than helping my student who was blocked from opportunities suddenly have unimpeded access to exploring all of her interests. It is bigger than realizing a principal’s vision of a transformational shift in an entire school’s culture. It’s bigger than students, teachers, leaders, and communities. It is about a collective mindset of purpose agreed upon by all stakeholders, and a commitment to honor that purpose, regardless of the bumps we hit along the way.  

When schools are trying to implement changes, whether it be rethinking grades, project-based learning, or competency-based standards, the changes will only be successful and sustainable if a new foundation has been set that aligns with the broader vision of those efforts.

Change in schools doesn’t start by assessing what we are (or are not) able to do. It is about making every change necessary to ensure what we are doing aligns with what we believe education should and could be. It is about reflection. It is about using our past experiences as leaders and all of those “that doesn’t feel right” moments and making sure those moments never happen again.

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