Coffee County Schools interviewed one of its own for the director of schools position on Wednesday, June 19.
Dr. Keith Cornelius, the county’s director of attendance and former assistant principal of Coffee County Central High School, promised to lead as a transformational coach if he was selected for the position.
“I would consider myself 75 percent coaching and 25 percent transformational,” Cornelius said. “What I mean by the transformational is the ability to lead change. People are afraid of change. But when you are in the leadership role, if you embrace it and explain it – I believe in giving a lot of detail and a lot of explanation behind why we have to do something, that’s just part of my analytical brain, you might say – but, people want to know.”
He provided a recent example of his leadership style: as attendance director, he is in charge of data management. The state required a new student data system be used. To manage this, Cornelius put together a committee that consisted of administration who commonly accessed the system. Together, they vetted the state approved programs and chose the best system for them.
This process allowed him to show administration and faculty that their voices matter and he values their opinion.
“Not only are they listened to, when we solicit information from them, we act upon it,” he said.
His leadership style translates over to challenging situations with supervisors and employees as well. He explained one employee he used to supervise at the high school had trouble following direction he set out.
“Internally, I responded like, what’s missing? What am I not communicating? I always go to that first – what did I do?” Cornelius said.
He later added if he has a challenging situation, he always looks at his communication first and asks if he’s given adequate directions, coached them and if there was a possible miscommunication that began with him.
Culture and programming
Cornelius believes student success hinges on the culture created by staff, faculty and administration.
“Building level teachers set that culture and nurture it,” he said. “You have to look at how your teachers, how even to your custodians, office workers, how they’re going to interact with students because that’s going to set the tone.
“With culture comes relationships, you have to develop those positive relationships with students to get them to learn,” Cornelius continued.
“I know it’s a fact, that each individual school here in the county has gone and developed a sort of microcosm, if you would, they respond to their community and their uniqueness within the community and where they’re located. I think they’ve done a very good job with that already. Part of my vision, I would want to continue that and continue to encourage them to develop those community relationships,” he concluded.
To assist in creating such a culture, Cornelius would encourage teachers to be creative with their lesson plans so they don’t feel stifled by state mandates. He believes if teachers are free to teach how they want to, as long as they’re hitting all the required materials, and know they are valued and their voices matter, that will offer intangible reasons for them to stay in the school system and love what they do.
When it comes to programming, he wants to emphasis postsecondary options as early as possible.
As for athletics, clubs, skills-based groups and after school programming, he is very supportive.
“I know this from my high school experience. Those programs will keep kids in school. They keep students engaged. They teach some of that hidden curriculum that you’re never get in the classroom – learning to come together and function as a team,” he said.
“Those are life lessons you can learn at elementary athletics, middle school athletics and high school athletics,” Cornelius added. “It’s where children have a sense of belonging.”
Why choose him?
The school board has one employee – the director of schools. Cornelius believes he should be that employee not only because Coffee County is his home, but because he has the support to perform well.
Cornelius explained that he was approached by teachers and community members who wanted him to apply. At first, he was unconvinced.
“I don’t consider myself adequate enough,” he said. “But then I got to thinking, if people believe in you and people come to you and approach you and encourage you, then there must be something to that.”
After taking time to think it over, he came to the conclusion that it was the right time in his life and in his career to try.
“I felt like this is the one time I can put my brand and my stamp on something and success. Just the sheer thought of having the chance of impacting what a district can do and what a district can achieve and with the people behind you, that’s phenomenal,” Cornelius said.
The appeal of the job to him was simply the people he works with. He vowed, if he was offered the job, to “back them up to the nth degree.”
Experience-wise, Cornelius has taught at every level from elementary to high school. As a math teacher, he witnessed firsthand the pressure to meet ever-changing state mandates and would be able to use that experience to help Coffee County teachers transition as well, he explained.
He has administration experience as assistant principal and central office experience as attendance director.
“My doctorate is very specialized. It is focused on school improvement,” he said. Only he and board member Dr. Shannon Duncan hold that specialty on school improvement, assessment and learning, he said.
“Because I have that RN experience too, I can look at coordinated school health issues, I can look at that lens, I can help them. There are things I can do medically that would be a help to the system too,” he said.
“I’ve helped people at their most difficult time of their life,” Cornelius added. “When they’re sick or when they’re angry with how a loved one, in their eyes, has been treated. I’ve dealt with situations with employees too.”
At the core of it, he will be happy if he is offered the director’s position or if he gets to stay as attendance director. But if he is offered the director position, he vowed to be in it for the long haul.
“I want to be director of schools. I’m 55 years old. I’m at the point in my career where this would be the pinnacle. This would be the crowning achievement of my career. Not many people get this chance. This would be it. I’m in it for a long run as long as you would have me and as long as the good Lord gives me breath in my body,” he said.