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Stuart Caldwell: Relational Leadership in Education

November 04, 2019 - 4 minute read

When Stuart Caldwell, the new principal at Woodworth-Monroe TK-8 in Inglewood, noticed graffiti-covered tables in a classroom, he decided not to wait for work crews which were already backed up with school improvement projects.

Instead, he invited parents to join him as he brought his own woodworking equipment and sanded and varnished 24 tables. So the Mariner Make-over crew was born, named after the school’s mascot, a Mariner. The impact was immediate as one teacher told him in tears, “The whole vibe of the room is different.”

Why would a principal invest time to sand graffiti-ed tables?

“Because parents need that level of care that comes from the heart,” Caldwell says. “It’s in line with Concordia’s values: I want my teachers, parents and staff to be happy to have their children at the school. They have to see that I’m rolling up my sleeves with them.”

Caldwell, who serves as an adjunct professor for Concordia University Irvine's MAED and Ed.D. programs, has spent 25 years working in Title 1 schools in California, which have high poverty rates and lower academic performance. This summer he took the helm at a school in the Inglewood Unified School District which for eight years has been in state receivership for fiscal and instructional mismanagement.

"Stuart Caldwell has a creative understanding of the role of a principal, a genuine student-focused pedagogy and an encompassing belief in community involvement,” says Thomas Cooper, director of Concordia University Irvine’s Professional Resource Center. “Creating community participation is foremost on his mind.”

Caldwell was aiming for politics when he fell into education. His father was a Harvard-trained professor who served with the CIA in England and taught at the National War College in Washington, D.C.

“Given my family background, I was thinking law school and policy,” Stuart says.

He first took three years off after high school to frame houses and devote himself to technical rock climbing in Colorado — before a narrow escape led him to drop the sport. In college, he was driven to excel, and a job with a Congressman in Washington, D.C., seemed to set his path. While working on the reauthorization of Head Start bill and other educational matters, Caldwell realized he wanted to be in the trenches of education instead of in the halls of power. He returned to California and “dived in full-force” to teaching.

“I loved it from the very beginning,” he says.

His first teaching gig was at a juvenile hall where every student in his first class had committed murder. Then came teaching posts in a local middle school, then a high school. In 2000, Caldwell entered school administration, and has turned down openings in wealthier, suburban schools to stay in underperforming schools.

At Woodworth-Monroe, Caldwell’s table-repair effort energized parents.

“They wanted to know, what’s next?” Caldwell says, so they got together to spend four hours scrubbing bathrooms. Next up is removing old cabinets from a classroom.

Caldwell’s strategy is to spend his workdays anywhere but in his office.

“If you tie yourself to your desk, the school will march forward without you and quickly get out of control or find that you’re not necessary,” he says. “I can’t change the learning trajectory and move the school forward from my desk, so during the school day, with very little exception, I’m almost never in my office. I’ll take my laptop with me and send emails in the classroom. I’m in hallways, at lunch. Kids and staff notice, and you’re able to affect a lot more.”

Since 2006, Caldwell has taught a variety of courses in Concordia University Irvine’s master’s program and EdD program, including on law and policy analysis. A recent highlight for him is the master’s practicum class which he calls “action-based research, helping teachers identify something they want to change in their school, researching what others have done, implementing the strategy and evaluating the success. I have a lot of fun doing that class.”

“Concordia’s values very much line up with my own,” Caldwell says. “It’s a faith-based organization that is helping to have a positive impact on schools and children’s lives. Concordia is a small, powerful community of practitioners. Everyone on the faculty, permanent or adjunct, has been or is a practitioner, so we know what’s behind the work. It’s not theoretical. That’s a good thing to be part of.”

Education, Caldwell believes, is fundamentally relational. He schedules meetings in each school with every employee and a number of parents and students to hear their views of the school’s strengths and areas of need.

“You start to gather a feel for what people want to celebrate and the things that need to be shored up,” he says. “It accelerates the personal relationships you need as a principal. What we do is inherently built on relationships. The more I get to know our people and they get to know my heart, the more we’re able to accomplish together.”

Along the way, Caldwell has earned two master’s degrees in the field of education, and a law degree. He swims most mornings at 4:30 a.m., and surfs on weekends with a couple of principal colleagues.

I get to be a teacher of teachers and affect the learning trajectory and outcomes for kids and adults

“And teaching classes at Concordia is my way to stay current in academia and give some of our upcoming leaders a little bit of insight from my own experience that hopefully will remove hurdles they will face.”

Like graffiti-covered tables.

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