Kjersti Nichols – Kindergarten Principal Interview

Kjersti is the oldest of five children and had a early career in child care from caring for her own siblings, babysitting neighbour kids from the age of 11, leading her own Sunday school group at church and summer programmes for kids at a resort from 14. When she was 16, Kjersti had an opportunity to travel to Japan which was very rare coming from rural upstate New York.

So you had the combination of childcare, leadership and the international component. Was it clear to you that you wanted to go into education?

Not then, I went on to study languages. I did a semester in Germany and Moscow and then I got a scholarship doing a year as Fremdsprach Assistant through the Fullbright programme at a Gymnasium in Magdeburg. I made friends there who kept bringing me back to Germany and eventually led me to settle here.

A stint in a financial and technology Public Relations agency in New York really helped me realize what I did and did not want. I couldn’t work in a business selling a product I didn’t believe in. I realised I needed to go back to a social setting. I worked in afterschool programmes from there, first as an educator and later as a consultant where my work was in driving programmes and in fund raising. This work eventually led to a Masters in Social Service Administration in Organisational Leadership and Community Development on a scholarship at the University of Chicago.

Fresh out of the MA programme, I found a job in 2005 at a tri-lingual primary school in Magdeburg. After taking 14 tests I got my qualifications recognised in Germany and was singled out in the market as a native speaker with the right qualifications. I searched around a while for the right conditions to work as an educator. I had a lot to give, but couldn’t find a place where I felt I could maximize my potential as an educational professional. In 2010 I was offered my first leadership position in Halle at the Eigenbetrieb Kindertagesstädte, and was eager to take it so I could influence the conditions of work, instead of being subject to them.

At LIS your first position was leading Hort, when was that?

I worked five years in Hort from 2013 – 2019. I previously had a lot of experience in start-ups and they have their own life cycle. There is a high turnover in the first 5 years. Leading Hort was my first time coming into a programme that was in its stabilisation phase. I also started here in a new phase of my leadership development. I had already learned that you cannot just come in and say “hey guys, I’m here. Follow me because I know what is best”. It was time for stability for Hort and for me and it was a good fit.

What is most important in offering quality care?

Preparation time is key to offering quality care and education. This means giving educators time off-child to really think about their children, where they are, where they are going and what specifically can be done to guide them there. This kind of time ensures a high quality of care and learning and ultimately leads to retention of colleagues.
A union will fight for more money and health conditions, which are very important, but those aren’t the make or break issues for educational professionals in my experience. What educational professionals work for is to know that what they are putting out is valued and that it lives up to the quality they themselves aspire to. For that they need a prep time contingency. They also need to work only their regular contractual hours. Meaning they should not be working an 8-hour day directly with children and working through the night to prep the activities for the next day on top of that. They also need to rest and play and rejuvenate to come back in and give 100% all over again.

What makes LIS a good place to work?

LIS does not skimp on resources. It invests its resources into the children and into improving the opportunities offered to them. 

With these resources I have been able to carve out prep time for our educators at LIK, same as I was able to do in Hort and enable our staff to feel equipped to do a good job and feel valued for the work they put it.

Beyond that, LIS attracts amazing professionals who are passionate and dedicated. Working in this environment is a privilege for me.

What are your responsibilities now?

My job is to find the potential in people and processes and help them fulfil and build on their potential. I’m quoting here from Dare To Lead by Brene Brown, a book that resonates with me greatly.

What are some of the challenges of leading in an educational org?

Working with children and families in education is more emotional, more raw and more dynamic then working with products separated from customers.

We are dealing with families, a mom or dad who just became parents 12 months ago and this is the most precious thing in their lives that they are handing over to us to care for. Working with children you are at the heart of all matters and you have to be in tune to what people are saying when they are not saying it out loud. Then you have to be courageous to talk to people directly on the emotional level, no matter what that may be, as well as the factual level.

Who is your team?

Everyone at LIK is my team. Every single person working in this building – from mini-job positions to assistant principle is essential.

Team is not just a group of people working together. I didn’t use that word when I started here.

The word team is a mark of a group of people who emotionally and intellectually bond, maximize diversity, and work together willingly, towards a common goal; a goal that they contributed to defining. Anything less is not a team to me.

I couldn’t say team when I got here because I didn’t know the LIK colleagues and they didn’t know me. We had our last professional development a few weeks ago, and we were communicating and being productive, laughing and having serious discussion, and I realized the feeling. I said, “We are a team!” and that meant so much to me at that moment. It was a feeling of mutual support and the sure knowledge that we will all be in this together as long as it takes.

What do all good classrooms have in common?

Caring adult professionals working with the children. Educators and teachers making them feel welcome and secure every day. At LIK, we have adults with a passion and dedication to their work in education. That is something to be proud of.

Of course the educator-child ratio makes a difference. At LIK we are staffed 20% over the state ratio.  This allows for more qualitative and quantitative interactions between adults and children. 

All good classrooms also have environments and provide activities that are intentional. What we do is for a purpose. We have an alignment that is clear from Nursery to EY2 and then we take a clear step up to EY3 in preparing our children for LIS Primary. (From EY3 kids start the Cambridge Curricullum readying them for “big school” in a playful way). Kids develop under the EYFS Early Years Foundation Stage framework and the Sächsische Bildungsplan. Everything we do is linked into these excellent early development and learning philosophies and goals.

What highlights have you had at LIK?

The welcome I received here and the honesty from colleagues. The personal ability of each and every colleague to bring important matters to productive discussion and work towards solutions is very advanced. Finding this out was a highlight for me.

In the past 6 months, I have been most proud about how working conditions have become clear and in favour of the colleagues. I took what LIK had for resources, was able to show where additional supports were key, and together with the Commercial Director invested in systemic innovation. This has allowed, for example, regular meeting times, a salary raise and preparation time. It also allows for compensation time. If I need a staff member to stay an hour later to cover for a colleague, or work at one of our many family events, they are now compensated for that. This is giving the professionals the value and appreciation they deserve.

Highlights are also the many successful connections with family members. From Room Parent meetings and Coffee Times to Parent Evenings and big events, these events bring us all together and the spirit of connection is often overwhelmingly joyful. We just celebrated St Martin’s lantern festival with smiling children and colleagues here at LIK. Inspiring that contact between all members of the community is so important.

Could you define your leadership style?

As I mentioned before, I’m here to find and build on the potential in people and processes. But emotionally it goes deeper than that and beyond the traditional study of leadership styles. Leadership for me is walking in here every day and being comfortable with not knowing the outcome of the day. This means being extremely vulnerable. (I refer to Berne Brown Dare to Lead.) This is hard for me because I like things to be set and clear and I like to control every bit of the process. Stepping back from that over the last years has been a tough journey, but it has made me able to lead from a place of not only intellect and knowledge, but also from the heart through forging real connections with others.

This means for me now, that I have to be open and have a soft front (openness and adaptability) and a strong backbone (healthy values and professional ethics). This means that I listen, hear and then determine with my team what we want as an end goal, and what the process of getting there will look like. This style of leadership makes processes take longer. I have to spend a lot of time talking with people face-to-face to really hear what they are saying. Email is my nemesis. This long process is another challenge for me as patience has never been my strength. What helps is the speed with which I personally can process all the information I take in, and the knowledge that process is sometimes more important than product. This helps balance things.

As a leader, I also define my style as trusting. I place my focus on the adult people around me. I want to give these adults the absolute best of me so they can give the absolute best of themselves to the children. This means working from a place of trust, and this takes courage. It is far easier to tell colleagues what is best for children and control them as they carry it out through compliance measures. It is much harder, yet much more enriching and productive to fuse together what the actual professionals working with the children know is best for children. This can only be done if you trust them, and I give this trust as a leader. If trust is broken, I dig down and start rebuilding it.

As a leader, it is important for me to let the adults at LIK know I am here for them, and will help them no matter what because what they do is the ultimate job. Whether it’s a parent looking to how best settle in their child or a colleague looking into how best to support a child. There is a philosophy of leadership which says 80% of problems solve themselves if left alone. I have never seen that succeed. If people are bringing it to me it is important to them and needs to be addressed.

The final part of my leadership style is continuous reflection, setting intentions to be the best I can be and giving myself permissions to be enough each and every day. As a leader, I am fighting perfectionism, embracing the messy processes and am ultimately a learner (i.e. not a guru or expert); learning from failures for the good of the team and the children, learning alongside them, and letting the learning process define my evolving personal leadership style.

What are some of the hardest decisions to make?

The ones where I know there is no way to make everyone happy. At the core, I am a people pleaser and have a helper syndrome. I balance this with the strength and courage to take the hard decisions when I know they serve the community, even if it above some individual interests.  No matter how much I want to please, it is much more important to be clear and take the decision. Then I turn quickly my focus on solution-finding to make the processes incorporate and include as many people as possible. This is especially difficult when it takes a personal effect on another individual, such as staffing decisions.

What would ideal LIK look like?

To be honest, it is ideal now. I would like everyone to know how wonderful it is here. I am living the dream right now. J

Why should parents send their kids here?

Because we are amazing! As a team we are deeply invested in child’s themes and growth and development. LIK looks after the colleagues and gives them supports to be the best they can be. This shows in our work, where they give the best care and education to our children. Then we add to this a higher educator-child ratio, extra resources such as educators dedicated to sport and music, a beautiful campus and a unique international development and learning programme. It is that simple.

What’s it like to be a women leader?

It is not always easy, but it is important to me to talk about being a leader and a women.

I have always been a strong person with thoughts and ideas, emotional and passionate, and I have always liked to share and contribute. I find this is part of what makes me a successful leader.

This leads, however, to negatively laden descriptions such as “dominant” or “ambitious”. A man can be a manager or leader, but a woman in that roll has to be careful not to be “bossy”. I have been told during my career, for example, that men react to me negatively, so I should tone myself down. I hear criticisms about myself and is a struggle, knowing, that these aren’t comments I would be hearing if I were a man. Other times it is a struggle threshing out what part of a criticism is me and what is the system.

No matter how open LIS is, we are all still in a system where people play by rules that they don’t know they are playing by. It is called privilege. The acceptance men have walking into a room is not the kind women have. At LIS I find it a bit easier, because I have colleagues who work with me every day and they do not box me in. If they hear the stereotypes about me, they set people straight. I am also not afraid to ask my male counterparts to support me and let them know my perspective on certain situations where there might be a gender-based dynamic going on. I think addressing this opens everyone’s minds and hearts.

Who inspires you?

A leader has to have supports. I need my team, my circle at LIK and very importantly the support from the resource end. In this area, I am very inspired by our Commercial Director, Thomas Pessara. He is a lone member of the commercial world who understands intuitively what I am aiming for and has his finger on the resources. Without him and the commitment he has shown to LIK as a project, the level of effectiveness we have achieved in the last few months would not be possible. Thomas sees the connection between resources and the quality of education. But this goes beyond gratitude. Thomas brings together rational and analytical thinking with the great ability to feel empathy, and connect with people on an emotional level. This is what I am going for a leader, so working with a resource person who also follows the same line of leadership as myself is an amazing experience.

Read our other Leadership Intereviews:

LIS Board Interview

Thomas Pessara – Commercial Director Interview

Kjersti Nichols – Primary Principal Interview

Tim Belfield – Primary Principal Interview

Neil Allen – Secondary Principal Interview

David Smith – Head of School Interview

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