Teaching the Teachers
Brian Riedlinger, Pursuing Change
Brian Riedlinger’s tiny office in the School Leadership Center (SLC) contains only the essentials: a desk, a bookcase and many books. Most of those books are about one topic – education.
A beloved silver one entitled “The New Meaning of Educational Change” occupies a top shelf, both in the bookcase and in Riedlinger’s long career as a school leader and teacher of educators. A sentence in it changed his thinking years ago while he was still a principal. Now, after five decades in education and on the cusp of retirement, Riedlinger still quotes that sentence:
“If there’s no turmoil at your school, you are not doing anything.”
That quote, discovered while he was getting a Ph.D. at the University of New Orleans, changed his attitude about conflict.
“It taught me to just let conflict happen – not squelch it,” he said. “Out of conflict good things happen.”
He got a solid taste for conflict and its potential as a game-changer after Hurricane Katrina all but wiped out the New Orleans school system in 2005. Most schools were too damaged to reopen, but a few were salvageable in Algiers.
A group of schools on the West Bank of New Orleans got together to form an association of charter schools so they could reopen quickly. Riedlinger was appointed the Algiers Charter School Association’s first superintendent, a position that he recalls as the most “fun” he has had in education.
“We got to invent some of the rules,” he said. “We got new schools open in 20 days.”
Creative change has been his specialty. Accolades brought by his leadership in two New Orleans schools led to his appointment as CEO of the SLC in 1997. Now, 21 years later, with hundreds of SLC trained school leaders in the pipeline throughout Louisiana, he has decided to retire to what he jokingly calls “sitting on the beach.”
The SLC, which provides on-the-job professional development for principals and other school leaders, was founded by the Baptist Community Ministries in cooperation with Xavier University and UNO. Since its launch, it has trained over 300 principals, assistant principals and other school administrators to lead schools stretching from Shreveport to Venice, at the foot of the Mississippi River. Thirty of its “fellows,” have climbed the ladder to superintendent. Henderson Lewis Jr., superintendent of New Orleans schools, went through the SLC’s Fellow program, and so did Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis, Missouri schools.
The Fellows program trains working principals to develop school leadership plans that they implement over a number of years. It is a program that mimics another favorite Riedlinger quote: “You have to take the stairs. The elevator doesn’t work.”
Riedlinger doesn’t remember where he heard those words, but he immediately recognized their application to improving schools. “It’s just steady work, and that’s what we do with the fellows.”
The SLC also provides alternative certification training for teachers seeking credentials needed to become a principal. It contracts with working administrators of classroom instruction, finance and other important functions to train newbies in summer and weekend seminars. “We can get the very best people,” Riedlinger said. “That’s what’s different.”
In the five decades he has dedicated to that subject, he’s done it all, from teacher to school superintendent to educating school leaders.