Meet Dr. Donald Thornton, Jr., two-time graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Graduate School, where he studied educational leadership. He is currently the principal of Lafayette High School, which is the largest school in Lafayette Parish.
UL Lafayette was so good you attended twice, at both the master’s and doctoral levels. Why was the university a good fit for you as a student?
UL Lafayette was the obvious choice! The Lafayette community is so amazingly supportive of the university. It is fully intertwined in our local DNA. After researching several programs, UL Lafayette’s Educational Leadership program stood out from the rest.
Two main aspects really struck me. First, the program was very practical, teaching potential school leaders practical skills to utilize in their quest to become true agents of educational leadership. Second, the program recognized me as a working professional. While some programs required sabbaticals, etc., the program at UL Lafayette really worked with us and actually tapped into our experience in our current positions to better prepare us for future leadership roles.
What was so appealing to you about the Educational Leadership degree path you took at both the master’s and doctoral level?
The most appealing aspect of both degree programs was their practicality. Both programs minimized aged educational philosophies to embrace current research in leadership, change, and the use of data to make decisions. While educational philosophy has its rightful place in a program, the greater benefit to me was the practical nature of the courses studied.
While you are carrying out your day-to-day duties as the principal of Lafayette High, in what ways have you found yourself thinking back to what you learned at UL Lafayette and finding yourself applying that knowledge?
Many things come to mind, actually. Dr. Paula Montgomery and the Graduate School always sticks with me. There was a lot to learn about forming a positive, collaborative culture and a focus on building capacity in others. The law classes taught by Dr. Nathan Roberts and Dr. Richard Fossey have daily application. Each of the classes taken as a master’s student really have practical, real life information that will be applied on a regular basis. Truly, each course has come into play at some point, but these really stand out.
Tell us about your involvement in the National SAM Innovation Project and its mission to help principals become mentors to teachers. How does that help with what you see as your instructional and administrative mission?
Where do I start?! I thoroughly enjoy being a part of this program. I volunteered to pilot this program upon receiving my first appointment as principal at Lafayette Middle School. I knew I wanted a focus on instruction and NSIP provided the structures, processes, and tools to help me. Central to the process is a SAM team and the TimeTrack software. The team meets each day for about 15 minutes to establish a lesson plan of sorts for the next day and revisit what I did during the current day. The team pushes me to hand over management tasks to others (called First Responders), freeing up more time for instruction. The software is a powerful calendar program that yields priceless data used to better focus your attention on instruction. In addition, I had the opportunity to present my research about it at the NCCEP Conference in Washington, D.C., in July of 2016.
As someone who also teaches Master’s level Education Law and Ethics at UL Lafayette, what inspires you to teach at the college level?
Once a teacher, always a teacher! My passion is for teaching and learning. As an administrator, we are still teachers just not in the same setting. Teaching in the master’s program gives me the connection to an actual classroom of students of my own. After completing my education at UL Lafayette, I really wanted to be a part of preparing students to become teachers or preparing teachers to become administrators. It is a pleasure to be a part of the Educational Leadership Program and it allows me to help prepare young aspiring administrators for future leadership positions. With the law and ethics class specifically, it gives me an opportunity to show students what the law and district policies say to assist them in making better legal and ethical decisions. Teaching the class also allows me to show students how to apply the law and policies when dealing with speech, privacy, due process, and other issues that school administrators may face.
What would you say to future would-be principals and other education administrators graduating from UL Lafayette?
First, I would say congratulations on completing a quality program that will prepare you for future leadership positions! I would also recommend that they keep current with changes in education law and school board policies. Ultimately, use common sense. Administrators are faced with difficult decisions every single day. Not knowing the law or overreacting to situations could prove troublesome. If they stay abreast of law and policy, while employing common sense, they will set themselves up for a long, successful career in education. Last, I would tell graduates to stay involved! UL Lafayette is such a great school and Lafayette is such a great city because of the willingness of people to get involved. Go to games, participate in university activities, and give back in some way!