Why I Lead

By Jessica Cabeen
October, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 2

Jessica Cabeen has served as principal of Woodson Kindergarten Center in Austin, Minnesota, for the past five years—a tenure that matches the age of many of her students, she notes. That’s given her the time and experience “to reflect on the skills I have developed that have made me ‘Kindergarten Principal Ready,’” she says.

To commemorate National Principals Month, Cabeen shares lessons from her experiences, the need for communication and engagement, and her tactics for separating work and family life:

Communication: The principal must be able to communicate and express ideas in a variety of ways. Communication is critical to lealders—every moment of the day someone will ask your help with something. Understanding your school’s vision and how you are working to achieve this vision will support you in how you communicate that vision. At Woodson Kindergarten Center, we are “All In.” This means everyone participates. For instance, we discuss how data impacts all our students during our professional learning communities. We make sure all our teachers—including special education, bilingual education, and other specialists—can participate when we plan events and professional development. Our words and actions support our vision that we want all of our community to have access to high-quality learning and achieve at high levels.


Professional learning: The principal has a clear understanding of learning targets. Understanding the developmental milestones across domains and the continuum of those learning targets is critical to build high expectations and lead all students to achieve. A pre-K-3 principal must know more than what makes a good reader; I had to learn the required pre-academic skills to prepare students for the rigor of kindergarten. After gaining that knowledge, I watched master kindergarten teachers to see theory in practice to fully understand what learning looks like in a developmentally appropriate setting. We assembled an assessment team that reviewed our kindergarten screener and universal screeners to modify, remove or suggest new assessments that not only fit our vision of “All In” but did so in a manner that was appropriate for 4, 5, and 6 year olds. We also have staff who attend state and national conferences and share their new skills and ideas.

Parent/community engagement: The principal is able to demonstrate an ability to interact with parents and community members. I became the principal of my school the same year my youngest son entered kindergarten. That unique opportunity caused me to look at the day through the principal/parent lens. I continue to develop and refine my listening skills when working with families and our community. Finding ways where we can bridge barriers and help families understand what occurs during the school day gives an opportunity for authentic partnerships and increased engagement.


Work/life balance: The principal is able to balance the professional expectations with other activities outside of the job. My family knows that I love my job—and they put up with that 24/7. We have a hard time getting in and out of the local grocery store without a whisper (“That’s Mrs. Cabeen”) or a hug. While my family knows that interacting with my current and former students and staff in the community is important to me, I know to make time to conscientiously switch from principal to wife/mom/friend.

Learning to balance opportunities for professional learning and growth with establishing “white space” in my calendar for reflection is a daily challenge. Ensuring that when I walk out of school I block off time to turn it off to be with family is something that I have my whole family holding me accountable for. This job can be all encompassing—so take time to break away and honor space for yourself and your family.

So, on the “Kindergarten Principal Readiness” checklist I am certainly not quite proficient in all categories. However, my mantra of Listen-Learn-Lead continues to help me every day and reminds why I love to be the Lead Learner of my school.

Jessica Cabeen is principal of Woodson Kindergarten Center in Austin, Minnesota.

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