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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
WASA's Mike Nelson poses with son Hans Nelson in front of the "Dream Wall" at the 2022 AWSP/WASA Summer Conference in Spokane.
Leadership Lessons from a Father & Son
Using your own humanity to build powerful connections at school
Mike Nelson
Assistant Executive Director, Professional Learning, WASA
Hans Nelson
Principal, Cedarcrest Middle School, Bethel SD
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture
Father “'There is no more noble profession than that of an educator,” is something my mom instilled in my brothers and me each night at the dinner table. Somehow she threaded that phrase into every dinner time conversation: It’s most likely the reason my brothers and I all became educators, working with the youth in our communities. Even though she died nearly 35 years ago, her legacy lives on into the next generation as two of her six grandchildren became educators. During my 37-year career, I have been gifted with educational positions from teacher to principal to superintendent and during that time have worked with amazing educators. It’s the kindergarten student reading to me or high school students sharing insights for better ways we can improve that are examples of moments I cherish about these years. For the past two years, I have shifted my work to adult learning. I now lead professional learning for superintendents and district level administrators for the Washington Association of School Administrators. My wife and I have two children. Our oldest child, Hans, became a music educator just over a decade ago. From age five, it would be common for Hans to stand by my side when I was a school principal facilitating our back to school retreats from our home. Staff members loved to see this small green-eyed boy studying and learning the art of leading. For me, Hans made me immediately human in front of the people I was leading. I continue to use this “humanness” as a “walk alongside” leadership strategy in my current position.
This year Hans will begin the school year with a new title: Principal of Cedarcrest Middle School in the Bethel School District in Washington state. He now has a small blue-eyed boy of his own that will undoubtedly help him to lead staff members at Cedarcrest Middle School. I distinctly remember walking up the sidewalk to Camelot Elementary in Federal Way after receiving notification that I would be the next principal. It was a bit daunting to think of being the person responsible for student and staff learning and also for the management and day-to-day operations of the building. In the steps leading up to the front door, I remember exhaling as I thought of the students, staff, parents and community of the school before I was chosen. At that moment I knew they would be my leadership secret weapon of sorts. I would pledge to honor their past, listen to their stories and build a type of connection where we both would say we had a relationship. I can see Hans using this same foundation to catapult the good work already occurring at Cedarcrest forward.
Even though we began our leadership journey three decades apart, we discovered a common leadership thread: to see a person’s humanity.
Son I started my career in education about a decade ago as an orchestra teacher. Administration had always been in the back of my mind because of Dad, but during my time in the classroom I fell in love with teaching students how to be more human through music. Each piece of music was more than just learning the notes and rhythms on the page, it was about creating a moment that allowed our audiences to experience their own humanity. We did this by sharing our stories, exploring our emotions and ultimately creating a community of musicians that celebrated the components that made us most human. As I transitioned into leadership roles, Dad’s lessons on leading with the human element first blended well with my musical experiences in humanity. Transitioning into my new role, one of the first set of instructions I gave my admin team was to introduce yourself, but above all make sure staff see your humanness. Dad regularly brought home stories from work. I found it fascinating to hear him process his next steps as he weighed one strategy over another. I think it was these stories that ultimately pulled me towards leadership. Listen and learn from the leadership experience of others. I also had the experience of being a student in the district Dad was leading. It was normal for me to hear teachers providing commentary on Dad’s leadership. I believe these two sets of experiences solidified the need for people to see their leaders as human.
Father and Son Even though we began our leadership journey three decades apart, we discovered a common leadership thread: to see a person’s humanity. This can happen in many ways, including: Creating moments to hear from your stakeholders. Sharing your personal stories to make yourself human to your staff. Setting the tone for vulnerability, the more vulnerable you are, the more vulnerable your staff will be.
  • Intentionally creating moments with as many staff as possible in the first few days.
  • Keeping sight of the larger vision – and not allowing the technical work to get in the way.
  • Finding strategic moments throughout the year to ensure staff see your humanness.
Whether you are launching a new initiative, navigating conflict, leading professional learning or teams, seeing a person’s humanness is at the core of our leadership practice that has spanned two generations of a father and son.