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Cultivating Leadership: A Personal Reflection
By Susan McGreevy-Nichols
Posted on 2/5/2019 11:07 AM

Welcome to the first entry in a new blog series, Get to Know the NDEO Staff! This series will feature a member of NDEO staff each month, providing insight into life “behind the scenes” at NDEO. In this first post, Susan McGreevy-Nichols, NDEO’s Executive Director and CEO, discusses how her diverse work experience - from grocery store cashier and bookkeeper, to middle school dance teacher and director of the largest K-12 dance program in Rhode Island - helped her to develop the leadership skills required to direct the leading dance education organization in the United States.

Cultivating Leadership: A Reflection on My Path to Becoming Executive Director and CEO of The National Dance Education Organization

By Susan McGreevy-Nichols, Executive Director/CEO

Susan with NDEO President Rick Sutherland and 2018 NDEO Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Lynnette Young Overby

In 2016, NDEO established the Priorities for Dance Education as a way to focus our ability to advance the field of dance education over the next 10 years. “Cultivating Leadership” is one of three priorities that were determined as a result of an in-depth strategic planning process. Because of NDEO’s focus on leadership and the role I play in the organization, I have been asked by many people, “What made you the leader you are today?” I thought I would use this question to tell you a bit more about what contributed to me becoming the NDEO Executive Director and CEO

When one thinks of leadership they may think of a board member, officer, committee chair, etc. I have served in many of these types of leadership positions at the state, regional, and national level for organizations such as RIAHPERD, RIAAE, RI-DA, EDA, CDEA, CAAE, NDA, NDEO, and more. Yes, these roles supported my leadership development and provided essential networking opportunities. However, there are some less obvious qualities and experiences that have supported my leadership development over the years, and those are the ones I’d like to share.  

I had very little formal preparation for the Executive Director position, but I credit a collection of experiences throughout my work life that have made me the leader I am today. When preparing to write this post, I considered two questions: “What circumstances have I encountered throughout my work life that presented opportunities to learn valuable skills and strategies?” and “What inclinations, instincts and abilities do I naturally possess that predict how I might approach a potential leadership opportunity?” In terms of natural qualities, I believe that am a flexible and creative thinker, persistent, social, and optimistic, I learn by doing and I try to defy the status quo. These qualities were not always apparent, many became more obvious as I have grown older and have encountered more experiences that required me to lead.

Let me take you down the pathway of my journey towards the leader I am today, sharing the combination of experiences that presented the opportunities to learn the leadership skills and strategies needed to lead NDEO.

My first major leadership experience was working for a large supermarket chain in Rhode Island from age sixteen to twenty-six. I started as a cashier and eventually become trained as an office worker, who provided customer service, handled complaints, cashed checks, ran the front end, made the deposits, and ultimately became a head bookkeeper. I have always claimed that this job prepared me as much for teaching as did my four years studying at the University of Rhode Island. I learned to think on my feet, manage customer expectations, meet demanding responsibilities, respond to medical emergencies, and multi-task thru some very stressful circumstances. I worked this job through high school, college, and my first 4 years of teaching. It provided 10 years of character building and foreshadowed what was to come.

I employed these skills, and developed many more, during the 28 years I spent at Roger Williams Middle School (RWMS) an inner city middle school in Providence, RI. At RWMS, 99% of the student population qualified for free or reduced lunch and 95% of the students were from minority populations. I was hired to teach Physical Education. That first year was so difficult, there were days when it took me an entire class period just to take attendance. My saving grace was starting an afterschool dance class with 12 students. The class was incredibly popular with the students. It eventually grew into a full-time dance program in the arts, offered during the school day, with three full time certified dance educators and 2 part-time non-certified dance educators. Over two-thirds of the student population - 700 students - were enrolled in the dance program, many having dance classes 5 days a week. How the program developed is story for another time, but I want to share some examples of the opportunities that shaped who I have become as a leader.

A lot of my success had to do with being at the right place at the right time. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was not the same kind of accountability that teachers face today, at least not in my district. I was basically left to my own devices. In my case, this was a good thing, as I was easily bored by routine and needed a creative outlet. So, I invented lessons, teaching materials and eventually curriculum. These resources provided the basis for the 5 books published with my co-authors Helen Scheff and Marty Sprague. To be a good leader, you need to be a creative thinker and figure out how to make things work in your own way.

Relationship building is another extremely important leadership skill. I was usually at the school until at least 6:00 every night. Most days, the only other person there at that time was the principal. I always stopped by his office before I went home to say good night. Many times I ended up helping him with administrative tasks, including budgeting and scheduling, and I became someone with whom he could share ideas and brainstorm. I continued this type of relationship with most of the principals who passed through our doors. The many administrators I worked with taught me how to schedule, budget, and react to many kinds of difficult situations. Being a school administrator is a tough job! It is important to remember that they sometimes need you as much as you need them. Building a good relationship with your administrator will pay off in the end.

I have many examples of how a good administrator/teacher relationship served the dance program at RWMS well, and I’ll share just a few:

  • Our school had overages, which meant that class enrollment exceeded the teacher contract for maximum students per class. This potentially could have resulted in huge sanctions from the teachers’ union. We needed more teachers, and we needed to schedule an additional elective to provide another teacher prep period. I suggested to our principal that we should hire a PE teacher to replace me, so that I could teach dance as an arts elective. Because of the popularity and success of the afterschool program, the principal jumped at the idea. Just like that, my after-school dance class became an in-school program.

  • A second example occurred years later, and on a much bigger scale. Like many middle schools at that time, RWMS was structured around academic “teams,” with 2 teams for each grade and approximately 120 students per team. By then the demand from students wanting to be part of the dance program was huge, and we had another overage problem on our hands. As a solution to this problem, I suggested that we reschedule the entire school around electives. We added another “dance team,” a grade 7/8 mix, and hired more staff, including another full-time dance teacher. This brought the total to 3 full-time dance faculty. That weekend the principal and I rescheduled the entire school around the 3 dance teams. This would never have happened if I had not developed a strong working relationship with this principal. He knew that I only wanted the best for the school and students. This example demonstrates how important it is work to negotiate the win-win situation that benefits all.

Another key element in leadership is to be knowledgeable about, and prepared to meet, opportunities that may arise. As the biggest school district in the state, Providence School District received a lot of federal funds, and because RWMS was one of the poorest schools in the district we qualified for a lot of that funding. It is important to note here that federal funds come with a lot of rules. I made a point of learning how to access the various funding available and how it could be used. I worked with our district’s federal fund director to supplement (not supplant) our dance funding from the district. These federal funds were used to pay for teachers for our after-school programing, buy supplies, equipment, and costumes, and much more.

Because of the success of dance at RWMS, the district coordinator wanted all of our elementary schools to get involved with the Chance to Dance program, a state-wide established arts program that gives Rhode Island children in grades three through six a unique hands-on experience with the dance. Chance to Dance is a program of Dance Alliance of Rhode Island, a 501c3 organization. Federal funding paid for a class at each of the district’s elementary schools. The district coordinator tasked me to to oversee this program, with the understanding that I would: 1.) Oversee the entire budget, 2.) Coordinate all the programming, and 3.) Be sure the final reports were submitted on time. It was a lot of work, but worth it. I learned a lot from the district federal programs director, and became a pretty good supervisor and administrator. It took a lot of work to manage and spend the kind of money we had. For example, I always made sure I had purchase orders ready to go should there ever be left over federal funds in the district budget, as all funds had to be spent or returned to the feds. Being prepared was important! As a result of this experience, I gained management skills that are applicable to my work at NDEO.

My position at NDEO also requires strong advocacy skills, which I honed while at RWMS. Being an advocate for my dance program and for the discipline of dance was one of the reasons why so much came our way. I not only learned how to spread the word about our program, I became good at it! The RWMS dance program became one of the biggest presenters of dance in the Rhode Island, with three touring companies that performed at schools and events. This high visibility was good for our program, great advocacy for dance education, and helped to put me in line for  leadership opportunities at the state, regional and eventually national level.

Finally, an important aspect of being a good leader is to know your strengths and weaknesses. I knew, even back then, that I don’t have all the answers, and I needed others to help me with the dance program. One person can never do it alone. Good leadership requires that you surround yourself with excellent people who share your values. At RWMS, I hired smart people who knew more than I did, but were as passionate about dance education as I was. These individuals, specifically Helene Scheff and Marty Sprague, became my mentors, and together, we became the dream team!

Finding mentors is essential to one’s leadership development. Mentors are typically thought of as older and wiser, a Sage. But I realize I had many mentors: my principals, the director of federal funds, my incredible RWMS teaching staff (who became my dear friends), our many guest artists, and even my students. It was important for me to observe and listen to all. Today I still rely heavily on mentors like NDEO founder and past Executive Director/CEO Jane Bonbright, as well as current and former NDEO staff members. These many mentors have bolstered me in many ways and I will forever be grateful to these individuals.

My professional growth at RWMS lasted an incredible 28 years! The day after I retired I had a new job with the Galef Institute, a nonprofit that specialized in arts integration through its comprehensive school reform model. I was on to my next leadership adventure, on the other side of the country in Southern California.  Little did I know at that time that these collective experiences would lead me to becoming the director of the nation’s leading dance education organization!

Susan McGreevy-Nichols recently moved back east to become NDEO Executive Director after living in Santa Monica, CA for the past 10 years. While in CA, Susan worked as an independent National Arts Education Consultant. Her consulting work included coaching districts in Los Angeles County as part of the Arts for All initiative and in Northern California in Alameda County as a part of that county’s initiative Revitalizing Classrooms Through Arts Learning: Strategic Plan. Susan also was a part time lecturer at Loyola Marymount University and California State University Dominguez Hills. As a teacher at Roger Williams Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island from 1974-2002, Susan found and developed that institution’s nationally renowned middle school dance program. The program treated dance as a core subject and emphasized the creating, performing and responding processes as they link to the arts and other disciplines. She is the developer of a cutting edge reading comprehension strategy that uses text as inspiration for original choreography created by children. This literacy-based methodology combines the creative process with reading instruction. In 1995, Susan was honored as the National Dance Teacher of the Year. Susan McGreevy-Nichols is the co-author of five books: Building Dances (1995), Building More Dances (2001), Experiencing Dance (2004), Dance about Anything (2006) and Exploring Dance Forms and Styles (2010).

Note: Susan recommends reading Leaders are made not born: Behavioral Theories believe that people can become leaders through the process of teaching, learning and observation for more insight into the development of leadership skills.

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