Coaching for Community

Topics: Principal Leadership

Virginia Silveira “Ginny” Gills has served nine years as principal of Cumberland (Virginia) Elementary School, a rural, high-poverty school where she makes the most of limited resources by building a sense of community and belonging for children, families, and staff.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Gills learned early on how education can help lift people up. “Fidel Castro took every single thing my parents had,” she says. “But he couldn’t take what was in their brains. Education freed them from Communism, and then it freed them from poverty.”

The school, staff, parents, and community are committed to providing a safe and supportive school environment where students can collaborate, question, and make connections between academics and the real world using a variety of learning modalities.
Principal magazine recently asked Gills about her school’s community and shared leadership. Here’s what she said.

What are some of the ways you build community at Cumberland Elementary?

I do a lot of things. I do positive phone calls; we do shout-outs to the kids. The teachers or bus drivers write them, and I’m the one who gets to announce them. The kids love it, and I share them on social media to get their parents involved.

We do home visits to create a memorable moment for the child, [with] music and confetti and a treat and sometimes a costume. It’s a three-minute visit, but nobody really realized before how big a difference it makes. We’ve gone to every corner of the county.

What is the best book you’ve read in the last year for personal PD?

I’m big on culture, so Jimmy Casas’ Culturize is one. Lead Like a Pirate [by Beth Houf and Shelley Burgess]. The Power of Branding: Telling Your School’s Story by Joe Sanfelippo. Their school’s mascot was The Crickets, and I thought if he can brand crickets and get people excited, I can make Dukes happen. I reread a lot of books—I borrow ideas and make them mine.

What is the best “leadership moment” you’ve had since becoming a principal?

There have been lots. Usually, it’s when our staff or students are highlighted for something; that means that I’ve positioned people in the right place. Last year, we had a Milken educator; there’s only one in the whole state of Virginia. I’m known as the “green-lighting” principal. If it’s good for kids and it’s something we can afford, I say yes.

What are a few goals you have for your school that drive how you approach the job?

For me, it’s making sure that that our school is welcoming and everyone feels included and safe. Teamwork is important to me: Our motto—Dukes—is an acronym, so we’re Determined, we’re Unified, we’re Kind, and we’re Engaged. We work together and celebrate each other every day.

What hidden talents do you have that aid in your leadership role?

I don’t know if you’d call it a talent, but I’m pretty good at making a good batting lineup. I can see where people’s strengths are and capitalize on them. I’m just the coach; it’s not really about me. It really is about the team—the team makes the magic happen.

You send personal notes to students at the beginning of the year. What do they say?

If you’re new to our school, it’s “Welcome, you’re going to love it here!” When they get to second grade, I might say, “Hey, you’re going to be on the Big Kid Hall.” If they’ve been with us for years, I can make it more personal—I notice something they did, know that they played Little League, or know that they took a trip.