Lead with HOPE: What is Your Why?

Brandi KellyBlog, Lead Better, Reflect Better


  • Know your why, your purpose, and passion as it shapes your mindset and what you do every day.
  • Brandi shares her personal story that started with tragedy that led to leading with HOPE, turning tragedy into triumph.
  • The Leader in Me program helps every student see they have greatness and leadership potential.

What is Your Why?

We have to get up each morning with a purpose in mind. A reason for doing what we do. Many educators say that their purpose is the kids, but it is important that we don’t just stop there. Take a deeper look within to answer these questions:  Why do you want to lead, and where are you leading? The answers to these questions will provide your vision for leadership. People will follow a person with purpose and passion! Our first step is to understand our own purpose and passion. What is your why?

Purpose shapes your mindset and, in turn, what you do (or do not do) every day! In this article, I am going to share my why with you. My story started with tragedy. As I lead with HOPE, I am determined to turn tragedy into triumph! 

My EDU Story

My EDU story started when I was 15 years old. I was a sophomore in high school and it was a rainy spring day in May. My mom and dad were both at work, my brothers were out riding horses, and I was getting ready for prom. This Saturday afternoon, my brothers were bored and decided to go for a horse ride. Brandon, the middle child of our family, always had a shadow. Dustin was the youngest of three children, and he adored Brandon. Brandon was 13 and Dustin was 10. They decided to ride their horses to a friend’s house and were warned by an elderly farmer to go around the flooded creek that afternoon. They complied but when they returned home they decided to navigate across that flooded creek.

Why do you want to lead, and where are you leading? The answers to these questions will provide your vision for leadership. People will follow a person with purpose and passion! Click To Tweet

Brandon was always a daredevil! There are so many stories that I could share with you to back up this allegation. There were times when Brandon would go a bit too far…ramping dirt bikes, riding 4 wheelers, and much, much more! Brandon didn’t fear anything, but on this rainy Saturday afternoon, he didn’t make it out of the waters alive. Dustin grabbed a limb and climbed out of the muddy waters to safety.  He ran all of the way home to tell us that Brandon had fallen into the creek. My parents immediately went to the location where the boys tried to ford the raging waters!

At the time, we didn’t realize the severity of the issue.

My parents told me to go to the prom, and I complied. My mom assured me that they would find Brandon that Saturday afternoon and that everything would be okay. Well, needless to say, it wasn’t okay. They looked for Brandon on Saturday afternoon. I went to prom but, in our small town, the rumors were already rolling. Teenagers don’t always know what to say, but upon my arrival at the Ramsey High School gymnasium, my friends and classmates were asking me for information. I didn’t know anything, but I quickly learned that they had not found Brandon yet. I panicked!

My prom date and I, in our formal wear, rushed to the abandoned bridge over the flooded creek. The scene was like something out of a movie. It seemed like hundreds of townspeople were searching for Brandon. There were news vans lining the highway. I found my mom and dad, who looked utterly exhausted, at the creek. We continued searching through the night and into the next day…Mother’s Day. As a mother now, I cannot even imagine the heartache she was experiencing. Mother’s Day is a day that should’ve been spent celebrating our Mother. Not this Mother’s Day.

Finally, on Monday afternoon, divers found Brandon’s body buried under a sand bar approximately a mile from the location that he and his horse, Princess, entered the creek. Divers were pulling him out of the creek, with his body placed in a canoe in a black body bag. When I approached the creek on my four-wheeler, my Uncle Troy told me to go back to the house. Thankfully, I listened to him and did not realize the significance of what was happening at the time. I went back to the house to take a shower. My mom came into the bathroom and told me that Brandon was gone.

Our community rallied around my family to provide love and support. The most significant memory that I have of this time in my life was how the teachers and students at Ramsey School District supported us. 

My School Community

Brandon was in 7th grade at the time and his teachers and classmates were amazing! They call themselves the 95ers now! They’re an amazing group of individuals who loved my brother. They made a memory book that I still own, describing all of the things that they loved about Brandon. He was described as funny, the class clown, ornery, and a great friend.  They visited our family, shared stories, and always made a point to include Brandon as they went through their remaining school years.

During high school graduation, 5 years later, they included Brandon in the commencement ceremony. These experiences have shaped who I have become as an educator. They have inspired me to use my story, God-given gifts and talents, and experiences to serve, empower, motivate, and inspire others to realize their own greatness.

Triumph Over Tragedy

I became a school social worker to pay it forward. Early on, I counseled students when a classmate died in an automobile accident. Later, I counseled students when they lost their beloved teacher. I have provided support when staff and students lost a friend, classmate, and student because of suicide. It is emotionally draining work, but it is important work that can be life-changing. I am thankful that I have been able to serve others in this way and pay it forward. 

After serving as a school social worker for 10 years, I was offered the opportunity to lead as the Principal of Ramsey Grade School. This had been my ultimate goal when I earned my licensure in Educational Administration. Ramsey was my hometown. I knew many of my students, their parents, and grandparents. Ramsey School District has a student population of over 60% low income. Many of our students lived in poverty and dealt with the issues such as trauma, abuse, depression, and other mental health concerns.

The Ramsey School District is, however, a beacon of hope in the small, rural community of Ramsey, Illinois. I credit the educators in that school district for understanding the needs of the community and discovering a transformational program for their school district called Leader in Me.

Leader in Me

The Leader in Me transformational program was implemented in the Ramsey School District in 2015 after a thorough analysis of good fit by Leader In Me professionals and the Ramsey School District Administration and staff. The Leader in Me was a perfect fit for Ramsey School District as it provided the channel by which staff and students better understand, now more than ever, that every student has greatness and leadership potential.

This program, however, was only successful because of the people who implemented it. Ramsey Grade School teachers are some of the most caring and compassionate teachers I have ever had the pleasure to lead! The experience of implementing the Leader in Me program at Ramsey School District has served to help me better understand my own calling… to serve, empower, motivate, and inspire others to realize their own potential. 

I Became a Principal

My next adventure took me to Mt. Zion, Illinois where I led McGaughey Elementary School as Principal for four years. This was an exciting opportunity for me because it offered me an opportunity to continue growing as an educational leader. I had no idea what I signed up for when my husband and I moved to Mt. Zion so that I could take this position. The student population was only approximately 20% low-income but there were almost 400 students in this school ranging from age 3-7.

Every day was all hands on deck! The physical energy it takes to lead a building with the many needs of our little learners can be exhausting. I have become more appreciative of the gifts and talents of our early educators. These men and women are truly special people! During my time at McGaughey, I learned a lot about climate and culture.

The two words often get mistaken for one another. School culture refers to the way administrators, teachers, and other staff members work together and the set of beliefs, values, and shared assumptions. School climate refers more to the “feeling” or “vibe” in a building including physical, social, and academic dimensions. 

A positive school climate and school culture promote students’ abilities to learn.

Mt. Zion, as a school district, has a very distinct culture. The schools, however, are amazing. Teachers overcome a cultural divide created by district-level problems. 

Currently, I am a Principal at Sangamon Valley Middle School. I love middle school children! They are not too grown up to be silly but grown-up enough to understand the gravity of their choices, with some guidance of course. Sangamon Valley Middle School is a school with over 50% poverty and many diverse needs.

The district is made up of 3 towns: Harristown, Niantic, and Illiopolis. The teachers and staff deal with trauma, grief, divorce, and poverty to name a few of the needs represented. The staff is amazing! They are caring and compassionate toward students. And they selflessly serve each and every day!

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Lead with HOPE

I am proud of the teachers and staff that I have had the pleasure to work with at Sangamon Valley Middle School,  McGaughey Elementary, Ramsey School District, and Effingham School District. My experiences, both personal and professional, have shaped the educational leader that I am becoming. My faith also plays a large role in who I am and who I am becoming. God provided me with very valuable life lessons that I am looking forward to sharing with you. 

My EDU story has inspired me to write a series…Lead with HOPE. Over the next four weeks, I will share with you how to be an inspirational leader using timeless principles. The acronym H.O.P.E. stands for:

  • H – Habits
  • O – Optimism
  • P – Passion, Purpose, and Perseverance
  • E – Excellence

I have implemented these principles, through trial and error, over time. The principles of HOPE have helped me to lead successfully while inspiring, empowering, and motivating others to do the same. Implementing these principles will, over time, do the same for you! The goal of this series is to motivate educational leaders to dive deeper, become more self-aware, and reflect on your own practice. Consider implementing these timeless principles to further discover your purpose and thrive in your role as an educator!

About Brandi Kelly

Mrs. Brandi Kelly is currently a Middle School Principal in the Sangamon Valley School District. Sangamon Valley Middle School is a small middle school in Illiopolis, IL west of Decatur, IL. Brandi began her career as a school social worker in the Effingham School District. She has served as a building administrator in three districts to date: Ramsey School District, Mt. Zion School District, and Sangamon Valley School District. Brandi has been in the field of education for 20 years and has served as a building administrator for 9 years. Her goal is to build teacher and student capacity by providing tools and strategies that empower and inspire others toward greatness!

Brandi believes that everyone can learn and has the potential for greatness. Relationships are incredibly important to the learning process. It is necessary for educators to invest time in students to build relationships in an effort to maximize their influence and impact.

Brandi is a wife and mother of two children. She is passionate about learning, growing, and inspiring others to do the same. She is an inspirational educator and leader and works diligently to empower others each and every day.