Education professor: Teachers must embrace risk-taking to benefit students

Dr. Judith Stegmaier-Nappi is the director of Rider's teacher leadership/principal leadership program
Keith Fernbach

Throughout her career, Dr. Judith Stegmaier-Nappi has embraced two main concepts to help students realize their full potential: take risks and work together. 

“I think leaders have to support risk-taking and the sharing of ideas, both on the part of the faculty and administration and students," she says. "And I think that when we work together as a team we’re more successful in doing that.”

Stegmaier-Nappi began her career as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent. Since 2013, she has been an assistant professor at Rider University and is now the director of the teacher leadership/principal leadership program.

At Rider, Stegmaier-Nappi draws upon her years of experience to help the next generation of classroom teachers who want to become teacher leaders, supervisors or principals. Her teaching philosophy is built on the same principles that led to her success as an administrator.

“In today’s climate, it’s unreasonable to expect the principal or any one person to be able to do everything that’s required to bring a school to its full potential,” she says. “Shared leadership recognizes the positive attributes of others — including teachers and stakeholders — and draws upon them to work in conjunction with one another for the improvement of the school.”

Stegmaier-Nappi’s research focuses on practical applications for individuals who want to remain in the classroom and take on leadership roles, whether as administrators or coaches or team leaders. Through the investigation of the various roles that teachers can take on in their schools and districts, she has become interested in the concept of social capital and how it can be applied to teacher leadership and shared leadership.

“The more that I looked into teacher leadership and shared leadership, the more I began to realize the real crux of the work was student achievement,” she says, adding that some of the key factors that may have a positive effect on student success include teacher leadership and how teachers can impact the teaching/learning environment.

When Stegmaier-Nappi began her teaching career, she had no plans to transition into a leadership role. “I just kind of fell into it,” she says.

At the time, she was teaching social studies and psychology in Ridgewood, N.J. “The administration there recognized leadership qualities that I must have exhibited,” she says, “and they asked me to apply for the position of what they called the ‘grade-level administrator.’”

In that role, she was in charge of attendance, discipline and class activities for half of the school’s roughly 1,900 students.

“I liked working with teachers, and I liked having that daily interaction with the students," she says. “I believed that I was touching more individuals than I would have by teaching five or six classes a day.”

Stegmaier-Nappi rose quickly up the administrative ladder, becoming a vice-principal, then a principal and finally an assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction. She believes that a big reason for her success was her willingness to innovate, take risks and collaborate.

“Before it was popular, I fostered shared leadership in the school where I was principal,” she says. “I worked with the teachers, students and other stakeholders to bring about change that was positive and cutting edge.”

For example, she implemented a block schedule (a type of academic schedule in which students have fewer classes per day, with each class meeting for longer periods of time). “Today, block scheduling is not all that unusual, but at the time it was a new concept,” she says.

She was also instrumental in introducing digital portfolios as a graduation requirement, which has also become more common in recent years. “It was almost like a capstone project where students had to display their work and then talk about how their four years of high school prepared them for whatever their plans were for after high school,” she says.

Five questions with Dr. Judith Stegmaier-Nappi:

What do you see as your most important contribution to the education community?

Working with teachers to implement positive changes in schools. I did this during my career as a principal, and I hope that I’m still doing it now by modeling for the teacher leaders and principal candidates that I’m teaching.

Do you have any new projects that you would like to discuss?

I’m very pleased with an article that was recently published. I’ve come up with a concept for school leaders on how to build teams, using what I call the three corners of engagement: focus, resources and structure. These are all based upon the vision and beliefs that have been developed for the school and for the district.

What about Rider sets it apart from other universities?

There’s a very caring environment here, and I don’t know that other universities necessarily exhibit that. You can see it in the way that we advise our students and in the way our students are treated in the classroom. There is a respect for our students, and the students in turn exhibit a respect for us.

If you didn’t do this for a living, what would you do?

I think I would still be working in the public schools, either as a principal or at the district level. Right now, I’m enjoying working with students who are pursuing those kinds of careers.

What is something about you that would surprise people?

I can think of two things. One is that I used to be a pretty avid weightlifter. I just love lifting weights! I started off just dabbling in it and then I got personal trainers and would go to the gym whenever I had the opportunity. The other is that I’m a grandmother of three!