MLFTC alumna guides future education leaders

Lisa Norwood Williams Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
September 29, 2023

Lisa Norwood Williams (MA, Educational Leadership '13) has thrived in education for 23 years, starting as a teacher and moving into a principal role, most recently at Solano Elementary School in Phoenix, AZ. Now, as the district director for the nonprofit ElevateEdAZ, she supports high schools with career technical education and dual enrollment programs.

Norwood Williams says that a crucial part of her career trajectory is what she gained from Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, from which she graduated in 2013 with a master’s of arts degree in educational leadership that evolved into the MEd, Educational Leadership (Principalship) program. The program is ranked No. 1 among Best Online Master’s in Educational Administration and Supervision Programs, according to the U.S. News & World Report.

The program’s courses are delivered remotely to meet the needs of working educators, with integrated student supports that include a leadership coach and mock interviews, along with internship shadowing.  Here she shares how the program supports students’ transition into leadership roles guiding systemic change — and why she continues to give back as a coach.

What about the MEd in Educational Leadership program appealed to you? 

The MEd in Educational Leadership program at MLFTC is a very intensive educational leadership program and very intentional. I learned so much, and am the leader I am because of the program and the instructors in the program. 

When I was in the classroom back in 2008, I was reading information about the aspiring principal program at ASU’s MLFTC that became the MEd in Educational Leadership. I was interested. Three years later, when I moved to a different school district, my superintendent and supervisor talked to me specifically about the program and said that they saw this program being beneficial for me. “We want you to be part of the program,” they said. When I went through, there were 16 students in my cohort, and all of us except for a few received principal jobs that first year. We’ve all gone on to careers as educational leaders. 

How did the program help you to move from the classroom to principal and other administrative leadership positions?

On a systems level, a central part of the program is the way it’s structured, to allow someone to go into different schools and know what to look for to evaluate the school. The strategies the program teaches have allowed me to look at each school, including my own over the years, in a totally different light. Basically, they trained us to go into a school and turn it around, to help it succeed.

Everything we did, such as evaluating a mock school, was to prepare us to go into any school and evaluate it through a systemic approach, to be able to see what systems were in place, what were missing, what ones needed shoring up and what ones to add. MLFTC designed the course to be realistic and directly applicable. When I stepped foot into the schools, it was real, and I brought that into my work all of these years, using it all of the time.

I never thought that I was a systems person, but the program trains you to be a systems thinker, to be able to be at a school for an hour and assess what systems are in place and which ones are not. I use that all the time now, especially when I moved from one district to another as principal and on to other leadership roles.  

What makes this program so special against others?

The leadership coaching aspect is critical — and it is unique to this educational leadership program. Coaches are former or current educational leaders who work in tandem with faculty to provide student support and guidance. 

The coach is your coach for life, a mentor for you for life. I still keep in touch with my leadership coach from all those years ago. I had amazing leadership coaches. They were supportive, helpful and engaging. They knew us. 

I also had amazing instructors, who came to know us on a personal level; they knew what we would respond to and how to work with us individually. Because they knew me so well, they were able to help me understand how to get out of my way and problem solve what was going on as I transitioned from a Staff Development Coach to a school principal in those first few months. 

Both the instructors and leadership coaches always saw me as Lisa, a future leader.

There were times they called me out with constructive criticism — they had my best interests at heart, and helped me work through a situation or weakness that forever has transformed me into a better leader and educator. It’s hard to do that well, but the program’s coaches and instructors do this well. To this day, I still tap into those networks I’ve built through the program. Today, I am a leadership coach for the program myself, having come full circle. I, and the other coaches, are here to help you transition from the classroom directly into leadership roles.

How does this degree program emphasize personalized approaches to learning?

The personalization aspect of the MEd in Educational Leadership program at MLFTC came in through the relationships the instructors and coaches built with us. As part of the program, there are three instructors in those five weeks of the summer intensive. 

The instructors took the time to get to know each of us, our stories, our experiences. We journaled our professional problems and goals for them. That helped them customize our experience for each of us. Our instructors knew their areas of expertise. They were confident in what they knew. They knew how to match themselves to us to help us in our roles as students and leaders. That relationship piece is vital. That was a massive piece of learning and walking away with what I walked away with. 

In addition, today, the program is offered mostly online, opening up the opportunity to emerging leaders around the world and allowing for emerging leaders to have access who would otherwise not. As a leadership coach, this term, I have students I’m coaching all over the world. I have a student in China, two in Michigan, one in Illinois and five that are here in Arizona. I'm big on giving back to future leaders.

How has the program transformed you and prepared you for leadership roles?

During my first and second years as a principal, I told my coach, “This is the very thing we learned in class; I’m using this directly.” Everything I was doing on campus was precisely what I learned in class. I had an aha moment; this works.

In addition to preparing students to identify education system needs, the program emphasized learning and developing the three core critical pieces of being a school leader — building relationships, hiring the right people and putting systems in place. As a leader, you take those skills with you everywhere in every school setting. There’s not a better leadership program for educators looking to move into leadership than the MEd in Educational Leadership program. 

Learn more about the MEd, Educational Leadership (Principalship) program here.