TLP: Dr. Sherry Miller, Empowerment Unlimited

TLP: Dr. Sherry Miller, Empowerment Unlimited
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When was the last time you told your school what you like about it the most?  Or have written a piece of poetry or a love letter to describe your feelings for your school?  Whether we realize it or not our schools as a whole are more then just a setting or a stage that we work in.  More then just doors, widows, and walls our schools and the communities that envelop them take on a life of their own.  This is why life in a school can be so messy and chaotic, and why creating healthy and flexible change seems to elude many of us.

However, effective change isn’t elusive for all schools, and there are many great and effective change leaders who have helped schools find their right path.  Dr. Sherry Miller is one of these people.  With a diverse background of experiences working and leading schools in the US and overseas, Sherry currently works with schools and other organizations to create positive change through Empowerment Unlimited, a consulting company she helped found that uses Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as it’s main tool for change.  It was with Sherry’s guidance and the use of AI that helped Jakarta International School come together during its Dream Summit in early 2011 to redevelop it’s vision for the school.  With 150 representatives from the school including students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, community members as well as “Valentine Cards” to the school written by many other stakeholders who couldn’t attend, the Dream Summit has set a new, bold, and dynamic course for JIS which among other things is to be the best for the world.

(If not specifically quoted, Dr. Miller’s responses to these questions have been paraphrased)

Before creating Empowerment Unlimited you worked in schools in the US and overseas in many different positions within the school, what motivated you to step into leadership?

“I really wanted to change schools.  I was working with kids that didn’t fit in the traditional school setting so that really created in me a direct desire to do something about changing schools.  [What I’ve found is] as much as you can change kid’s lives in the classroom I think if you want to change a school culture you really have to be the boss.”

How did Empowerment Unlimited come together?

I started it with Jeff Fifield and Maribel Suarez while working at Colegio Maya in Guatemala about 5 years ago  “We had read a lot about AI, and really liked it and tried it at Maya in different ways.”  It’s become a mentor circle for the 3 of us and has expanded from there.  “[I don’t really describe it as a business] There’s not really a business model, we’re not really looking for business…but if we can be of service to a school or a board using AI to think of a more positive and productive future then that’s what we enjoy doing.”

How does Empowerment Unlimited use AI to help schools and other organizations?

Appreciative Inquiry comes out of positive psychology and is “based on hope and what we can do well, instead of what we can’t do [as a school].”  AI isn’t used to help a school discover its strengths and weaknesses; it designed to help a school discover what it does great and dream about what it should and could be.  Fixing weaknesses isn’t the right mindset, instead schools rebuild with AI.

What is it about AI that you believe is so powerful?

“I think the thing that captures me the most about AI is that…it looks at possibilities rather than problems.  What I love about it is…the one-on-one dialogue [that is a part of the first stage.].  Everybody in the school gets a chance one-on-one to talk to somebody about why they’re proud of school what they love most about the school, and if they could do anything in the world to make it a better school what would they do?”  In this first stage, which is known as the discovery stage, you really discover what’s great about the school.  It’s in the subsequent stages, which include dream, design and deliver where real change can happen, and what I love about it is “its simplicity and that always through the process [people] are talking to one another…and you’re really looking for what a school does best.”

What successes did you see in this process at JIS?

“What I loved at [JIS] was where the school looked at their values and because of the AI summit seven new values were added…[which included] fun and balance.  [I think] for a school to include those two values to their list of respect, integrity, [perseverance], and all those things…is fabulous.”

“[I think the beauty of] Appreciative Inquiry [is it] can invite people to lighten up and be very purposeful, and I think we all hunger for that because we can all be a little too serious and it invites people to a be a part of a little joy…I remember the photographer at JIS that day telling me ‘Sherry I have never seen people here in Jakarta doing things like this…it’s amazing’.”

So obviously it takes more than a weekend workshop to keep the momentum going, so what did JIS do after the dream summit?

“You do a lot of things…[First,] if you’re really going to do it, you have to educate people…One of things we did even before the summit was we talked a lot about it [at JIS] and they invited people who thought might want to participate.  They invited equal percentage of participants to the mass they represent on the campus [including] kids, teachers, admin, parents certified staff, alumni, etc.”  Then we invited everybody to write Valentines to the school, writing what they loved about JIS.  This gave everybody the opportunity to at least participate in someway.

Of course the Dream Summit is just the beginning, but now that they’ve outlined what they want their future to look like they could begin the design and deliver process.  (JIS has taken the work created during the Dream Summit and developed it into a 2-year Destiny Plan, that can be found here).

How does AI line up with your leadership philosophy?

“[I think like AI] I’m always looking for possibilities not problems…My leadership style is pretty empowering…I hope I’ve developed the skill to listen well and not just with my ears.  I understand that everyone should have a chance to discover their voice and then a place to let that voice be heard.  I don’t care if you’re the janitor or a kindergarten student…or the secondary principal.  I really believe in creating communities where there are opportunities and systems…for people to have a voice.”

In your unique experiences with schools what advice do you have for emerging school leaders?

“Love what you do and take time to think about and seek out the kind of vibrant…possibilities that the world is offering, and the kinds of learning opportunities that kids [are] asking for.”

“Be present, show up.”

“Look for the best…and look for ways to make a difference.”

Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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