Leading with Courage, Conviction & Community - Carrie Duff

In December 2016, school leaders from across the Big Picture Learning network gathered to discuss what it means to lead with Courage, Conviction, and Community. We've collected these narratives and are releasing them as part of our Big Picture Learning Leadership Stories podcast. Catch the whole series here, and listen to our latest episode -- featuring Carrie Duff - below. 

I grew up in a working class family in New Hampshire and while our life was comfortable, it was not by any means glamorous. In school and life pretty much everyone we knew looked the same, we came from a similar background, and we did the same things. We went to school, we played on a rec team. We took dance lessons. And if you were lucky, your family got to vacation in Florida. Life was full of a lot of alikeness. So, the first time I had a chance to try on something kind of Unalike was when foreign language classes started in the eighth grade. I got to choose a language, either French or Spanish. And the only thing I knew about either one of them was that my sister had taken French. So obviously; I only had one option: take the other one. Spanish

So I can say that trying to learn Spanish was the first thing that pushed me toward a life that isn’t filled with of alikeness. But let’s fast forward eight years to my arrival in Spain and I was going to study abroad for a year.  Because I hadn’t really known any Spanish speakers up til then -- I had learned some language -- but I still couldn’t really communicate in any meaningful way. And at that point, I knew that if I really wanted to genuinely participate in this experience - in this society - I was going to have to figure out this language thing.  

So I started finding some other strategies to understand what was going on around me. I found myself trying to interpret with my other senses. I was looking at setting to gather clues. I was noticing people’s body language. I was trying to decipher for someone’s intention from their tone of voice, and I was asking for clarification a lot; or for things to be explained in other ways -- a lot. And little by little I came to understand what was going on around me in a much deeper way. But the flip side of that coin was conveying to people that I truly understood. Unfortunately, my expressive language skills were still kinda’ basic. So I had to get used to being able to let someone know that I understood with just a simple, Entiendo - “I understand”.

And now that I’m on the north side of 25 years in education, I’m kinda coming to feel that entiendo has become the touchpoint of my leadership. When I say entiendo now, it means that I will listen my other senses. I will look for contextual clues. I will decipher and I will ask to have things explained - a lot. And I will listen with compassion.

In my work as a Principal of a Big Picture Learning school – listening with compassion is really just the first step.  For many families in our area that means that for the very first time they can come to school and have a conversation with an administrator without the need for their own child to be there and interpret. But “entiendo” means a whole lot more than that.

What it really means is that I will understand that taking care of yourself and your family are your most important priorities. I will understand that you need to keep your daycare voucher …  and that the pile of paperwork to make that happen is totally overwhelming. I will understand that your father lost his apartment and there’s no room for you to stay at your aunt’s house. So you are couch surfing right now and you’re never sure if you’ll have clean laundry or a warm meal. I will understand that your anxiety is sometimes crippling. And that just getting to school is the hardest and most exhausting task you could ever imagine. I will understand that you lost your dad to a drug overdose. And even though you just got out of a foster situation, you saw your mother using again yesterday. Entiendo.

I will understand that you don’t trust. That you don’t have reason to trust adults. Or even to trust in yourself. And especially not in a school system that has failed you time and again. Entiendo.

I will meet you there. And we will work on creating stability and opportunity, with and for you. One hour, one day, one week or one trimester at a time. You will go out in the world and learn alongside adults about things that really matter to you. You will learn to be a thinker, a learner and a problem solver. And this will be our school.


Carrie Duff is the Principal of Leominster Center for Excellence, the first Big Picture Learning school in Massachusetts.