Dr. Carmen Maring, principal at Gull Lake Middle School, is a passionate leader who is doing her part to make the middle school experience better for all students. “Everyone’s experience with middle school is varied, but overall, it’s not usually people’s favorite time period,” said Carmen. “I’m trying to rewrite the story for middle-level education and what that looks like from an experience standpoint and how we can get better in the middle, because we know that this time period really matters developmentally and academically for students.”
Carmen participated in the 2019 cohort of Leadership Kalamazoo, a leadership development experience powered by Southwest Michigan First. Her experiences and connections from the program are still with her today, helping her to foster collaboration in the community.
Over the course of her career journey, Carmen worked as a licensed professional counselor, and also was employed at Gull Lake Middle School two times before ending up as the principal. “I never in a million years would have thought I would be a principal at a middle school,” she said. “I had a really great superintendent at the time who taught us all a lot about leadership and vision and was able to help develop my strengths and prepare me for this space.” Finishing up her fifth year in the position, Carmen serves not only her students, but the teachers and staff at Gull Lake Middle School, as well as the parents and families of students.
Bridging the Gap
Interacting with folks in Leadership Kalamazoo helped Carmen gain a deeper understanding of the important role that education plays in the community framework, given the diverse industry representation in the program. She stated, “It can sometimes feel like there’s a lot of pressure from the community on education but it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture of how the community can support education or how education can meet community needs better or differently.”
Working together with leaders from a variety of industries, participants in the Leadership Kalamazoo program were able to solve problems through better understanding. “It’s been helpful to understand different perspectives in the community and to recognize the place that education has in it, but also to really emphasize that education isn’t an island and that we operate in the midst of a community,” Carmen added.
“There’s a rich opportunity to better partner between education and area businesses as it relates to education, career connection, and real-world connection for students,” said Carmen. “I think it’s really hard to bridge that gap.” Doing her part to bridge the gap, Carmen participates on several community boards, and is also an active partner with Kalamazoo RESA, working to advocate for stronger collaborations on the middle school level particularly.
Connecting and Thinking Deeply
Participating in the Leadership Kalamazoo program helped Carmen connect with others in the community and also helped her learn in new ways. “Any time that we’re in a space where we’re being stretched to think differently, it’s good,” she said. “I learned a lot in Leadership Kalamazoo—it was a really interesting experience for me because the majority of our professional development is centered around education and only with people from education. It was good to get a broader perspective on leadership and gain a broader network.”
Carmen explained that other aspects of the program such as learning more about the Clifton StrengthsFinder were incredibly beneficial to her as it deepened her understanding of her own leadership while also becoming a better leader of others. Other program highlights for Carmen include visiting the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, learning more about the history of Kalamazoo, and also having in-depth conversations with peers on diversity and their own cultures.
Connecting with fellow program participants was another highlight of Leadership Kalamazoo. It turned out that there were several parents from the Gull Lake School District in Carmen’s program cohort, which was a unique experience for her. This connection helped spark deeper conversations during and after the program, and Carmen also ended up having one of the leaders participate in her parent advisory committee for prospective families.
Lifting Educators Up
Throughout the past year during the pandemic, Carmen noted that educators and students are especially feeling the impact of pandemic fatigue, which creates a unique, challenging space for most. She added that it’s important to “recognize that people are people, as individuals, and not get in that space where frustration about life in general or our personal angst kind of makes us lose sight of the real humans that we all are.”
“If you know a teacher who is making a positive impact or who has had a positive impact on you, take even two seconds to reach out to that person, send them a text, send them an email, send them a card, or give them a phone call and just encourage them,” Carmen encouraged. “Right now, those positive words are a lifeline to folks and they’re making a big, big difference in keeping people who are really great teachers in the game just a little bit longer and keeping the focus on the fact that they are making an impact.”
Leadership Kalamazoo, powered by Southwest Michigan First, is Southwest Michigan’s premier civic leadership development program that helps professionals build strengths, talents, knowledge, and relationships to succeed in ever-changing environments. This feature is part of FIRST & 42’s Leadership Kalamazoo Alumni in Action series brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.