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Extraordinary Educators

Dr. Susan Toohey

Karen Borchert
August 25, 2023

Susan Toohey created a school like successful startups build companies: by starting with an extraordinary, aligned team.

In the startup world, there is one rule to building a great company: build an extraordinary team.

Companies all over the world have invested millions of dollars and hours in the important work of attracting, engaging, and retaining exceptional teams. There are awards for being a great place to work. There is software to manage employee communications, rewards, incentives, and recognition. And there is an unending library of books and articles around employee engagement. 

Right now, ideas like “school culture” and “employee engagement for teachers” are coming into focus. Positive school culture is more important than ever, given the increasing challenges of attracting and retaining the best talent for our schools. 

So how does someone starting a brand new school accomplish an engaged, aligned team? For Susan Toohey, it started by bringing everyone around one table to create a school together.

In 2014, Nelson Mandela Elementary School opened its doors in Omaha, Nebraska under the leadership of the Lozier Foundation and long-time educator Susan Toohey through a unique partnership. 

The school had some non-negotiables as part of their founding: an emphasis on reading, violin for every student, a year-round calendar, and a high level of family engagement. But on the day that all of the teachers reported for duty the first time, there was a lot that wasn’t yet decided. No master schedule. No discipline program. No school colors or motto or mantra. What there was, though, was a great team and one big table.

When you talk to the founding teachers at Mandela, they’ll tell you:

“Everyone has a seat at the table. Everything we did, we decided to do together.”

Together, they built every practice that is in place today, from recess rules to summer enrichment to restorative practices. When something doesn’t work, they get around the table and come up with a new plan. And eight years later, teachers still know that their voice matters. From one classroom teacher after the next, we heard this:

“In my last job, I didn’t have a say. Here, every day I’m so grateful to walk in the door.”

This kind of collaborative environment doesn’t just happen, it’s led. When you ask Toohey how she knew to put so much emphasis on building a team, she humbly replies, 

“Look, I’d never started a school before. And I’d never taught elementary school. I didn’t try to do it – I just needed every single voice at this table.”

Of course, not every school has the opportunity to start from scratch with a brand new team all hired at the same time. But for leaders seeking high alignment from their teaching teams, there are a few “Tooheyisms” (according to her staff) that the team lives by:

  1. “Start small, then go big.” Toohey’s staff quotes her on this often. Every idea that a teacher brings to the table for the school, she asks for them to try a test, and then get ready to make it big. This allows teams to try small experiments, and then see them grow.
  2. “Make mistakes. Hopefully out of ignorance, not arrogance.” This is a practice that must start with leadership. Toohey models (and says!) this mantra often to her team. It gives everyone permission to make mistakes, but asks them to act with intentionality and humility.
  3. “Don’t tell them what to do, help them know what to do.” When asked about Toohey’s leadership style, her staff will tell you that she is about helping staff find the right decision themselves. It’s nuanced, and the nuance is important, because it creates a collaborative culture of mutual respect.

How do we really know that Toohey’s leadership style worked? Because she’s not the principal anymore. In the past two years, Toohey transitioned leadership to one of her outstanding educators, Genevieve Core, who is now the beloved principal at Nelson Mandela. Susan is still very involved in her role with Lozier Foundation, but she has empowered a leadership team to carry on the work she started. 

“That was always the plan,” she notes. “That’s why we built it this way, so that our school would be as strong as the team, not as strong as one person.” 

In any organization, an engaged and aligned team can change the game - from a team of negativity to a place of trust; from a place of scarcity to one of abundance; from processes and rules to a shared sense of purpose and vision. In the case of Nelson Mandela School, Toohey’s leadership to create that aligned team accomplished something more: a new kind of place for students to learn.

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