Superintendent's Column: Lesson's from Laina

By Michael Dunn, Superintendent

On the first day, and the last, and at every class session in between, she sat in the back corner. A bright smile, she was attentive, interested, observant. Her intention was to do what she had been taught when she was a young child, by the impactful women in her life – her grandmother, mom, and aunts – sit, listen and observe

Yet this graduate student, now a school principal, has incredible wisdom and perspective to share; this remarkable listener has paid so much attention to the people important in her life that others must learn from her. As with her fellow students, and assuredly as with the staff and students she serves, I have been 
fortunate to benefit from her lessons – and from her powerful example.

She grew up a proud member of her Tribe and community, recognizing the significance of heeding the examples of the matriarchs with which her life has been enriched – and perhaps epitomizing Albert Einstein when he noted, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

And today, fortunate for the Spokane Tribe and the community of Wellpinit, she serves as a principal in her home. The home to which she intentionally made her way back.

Upon high school graduation she knew she wanted to go to college a bit further from home than at some of the in-state institutions attended by classmates. With her grandmother vetoing a move to California, and Laina’s desire to study somewhere with the cultural comfort of a Native community nearby, she chose Arizona State University. 

A long way from home, through any challenges or self-doubts she experienced, she continued to benefit from the support and encouragement of her family and particularly from influential women, including Ms. Swiatek, an incredible teacher she loved as a student and whom she now reveres as a colleague. They were women who developed her resilience and patience to listen, work hard, build relationships…and help others

Which is what she does as a leader, a colleague, a proud member of the Spokane Tribe, serving the children of that very Tribe. Ms. Phillips lives her core beliefs as a leader – that serving as a principal is fundamentally about collaboration, teamwork, and building relationships, so that students and teachers and staff are supported to do their best work. 

She strives to facilitate and support a culture of trust to help students in her community find opportunities for connection – with their teachers, their community, the dreams of their futures – such that they are understood and learning can happen in natural, positive and indeed explosive ways.

As a leader, she has experienced that both students and staff, at varying times, have a need to “unload.” And when that happens, she channels lessons from her grandmother, mom and aunties – she sits, listens, takes it in. She knows that if she engages in an overly emotional way, she risks fueling their fire or dousing their passion – neither of which she wants to do.

She possesses the genuine wisdom to know that there is a need for SPACE – the space to make the time to truly hear and build relationships with others, irrespective of whatever a particular issue may be, before responding or doing.

As a young child; through her time matriculating through school and college; as a teacher; and now as a principal, she learned and knows that everyone is going through something – and that we cannot let our system crush them.  She knows that if time is taken and space is provided between what we hear and what we do – if we make time to collaborate, talk, hear – we are on the path to real engagement in culturally responsive ways. 

What a significant lesson…from a woman and leader I admire so deeply - Laina Phillips.