A couple of weeks ago I attended the Iowa ITEC Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. I was fortunate to have been asked to take part in a panel discussion with two colleagues that I greatly respect to discuss our school’s story on going 1:1. During the discussion I was able to listen to my fellow presenters talk about their journeys, including their perspectives on leadership, professional development and building a culture of success. Later that morning, I came across these same two colleagues gathered in a small group conversing about a variety of educational topics. At one point the topic of conversation moved from student voice in schools and what students value about their school to the role of the adults and how our behavior impacts their experiences both positively and negatively. Eventually, we got on the topic of how we collect feedback from both students and staff and the role their voice plays in creating a culture of success. I walked away from that twenty minute conversation reflecting on my impact as a school leader. What I realized is that regardless of how much I believe I have learned over the course of my career as a school administrator, it is humbling to recognize how much I have yet to learn. That was evident again this past week as I spent those twenty minutes in a corridor between sessions listening to some outstanding leaders such as @JeffDicks, @DeronDurflinger, @SKwikkel, @BobMiller146, and @B_Wagoner engage in a dialogue about a variety of educational topics in a manner that was so passionate, I couldn’t help but want to listen and learn.
Over the last few days I have been thinking a lot about leadership in general and reflecting on what I have learned at different points in my career over the last nineteen years as a school administrator from colleagues, mentors and sometimes from recent acquaintances. It is these types of experiences which continue to influence me in significant ways and often remind me that learning is constant. What I recognized is that effective leaders are always learning and are willing to share their expertise in hopes that someone will benefit in some way from their time together.
What have I learned? I have learned…
1.) No good deed goes unpunished – sometimes our generosity is going to come back and catch us on the back end. Accept the fact that our kindness is not always going to be well received and in fact, it may even be used against us later. However, we must not allow these instances to keep us from doing what is right for students and for our school communities. I love this quote but do not remember the author. “Leadership is not about how we behave when we know what to do, rather how we behave when we don’t know what to do.”
2.) No matter how good we think we are, we are only as good as our last decision – never get too high and never get too low. We make hundreds of decisions a day so don’t spend too much time dwelling on the “what ifs.” Reflect on your decision and do your best to learn from it. However, we can’t be so arrogant to believe that sometimes we won’t get it wrong. Be prepared to admit your mistakes and try to fix them. There is no better modeling than to allow others to see their leader admit he/she got it wrong and sincerely apologize for it.
3.) Sometimes supporting and caring for others means telling them what they don’t want to hear. We are confronted daily with many difficult decisions. Sometimes the easiest thing would be to “fix the problem” and make it go away; less stressful, quicker, easier, but not necessarily the right thing to do. Often times we need to go through a process when making a decision so we are being fair, consistent, and using these situations to learn and grow together. I often tell students and our parents the easy thing for me to do would be to quickly fix the problem and make it go away, but working through a problem together provides the greatest opportunity for learning to take place; for all of us. I try to work under the guise that I expect our students to mess up and better they do that while they are still in school with supervision and support from caring adults to support their growth. I want them to learn from their mistakes so they can mature into more responsible adults. I am a believer in teachable moments.
4.)The school does not belong to me. The school belongs to the kids, the parents, the community. I am a guest leader until either I or someone else decides it is time for me to move on. When we do leave, the school will still be here. Our responsibility is to honor and respect our school community, serve our guests, strive to build capacity and a caring community, and cultivate a positive culture where all students believe they can be successful.
5.) One of the hardest parts about being a leader is that everyone’s problems become yours, but there is no one to take care of your problems. As leaders, we are privy to an abundance of information about students, parents, and staff. We are expected to be great listeners, empathetic, positive and problem solvers. The stress of carrying these issues can take a toll on even the greatest of leaders, so be sure to surround yourself with others that you trust and can confide in without violating anyone’s trust. This is why twitter has been such a powerful tool for me. It allows me to surround myself with positive educators who understand the complexities of my world and can lift me up when I need a boost.
6.) Often times when parents, teachers, or students seem angry at you, they are really angry about something else. I see this on a regular basis. My advice is to always remember to model that it is not about us, rather it is about others and their concerns. When I deal with an angry student, staff or parent, rather than take it personally, I view it as a challenge and try to utilize the following strategies: a.) listen first to their concern, b.) take time to gather all of the information, c.) assure them that everything is going to be all right, d.) ask them what you can do to help, e.) offer to work together to resolve their concern, f.) follow up and ask how they think things are going and thank them for the opportunity to work together, g.) if things still aren’t resolved, start the process all over again but try a different approach. In my experience, this has been an effective way to address potential conflicts in a positive way and also build trust.
7.) As long as you keep believing in a student, there is a good chance that you may have made a positive impact on that student’s life, but if you give up on a student, then you will know that you didn’t. Simply put, think long term vs. short term. The fact of the matter is not everyone matures, develops or responds to a particular situation in the same way. Again, another great challenge for leaders. A strategy that was effective with one individual may not work with another individual, hence why you need to keep trying to come up with another approach. Keep trying. If you continue to reach out to a student in a caring, respectful and genuine manner, you have to have faith that you are making an impact even though you may not see immediate results. Have you ever received a note, email, letter, etc., years later from a student thanking you for the impact you made on them? If so, this is why you never give up.
8.) Troubled kids know lip-service when they see it. They can peg “fake” teachers and administrators very quickly. Let me give you an example of what students have shared with me over the years. I have dealt with thousands of troubled students over the years and have come to this conclusion based on my conversations with them as well as my own personal experiences as a troubled student growing up. For a moment, put yourself in their shoes. From day one when they entered school they have heard teachers, administrators, etc. tell them how much they care about kids, how glad they are in their class/school, how they will not let them fail, how they will be successful,(blah, blah, blah). Yet, what they learn is what we really mean is we believe these things as long as they are compliant, get good grades, do their homework, come to school on time, be respectful, and follow school rules. In other words, play the game or else. If we truly love our children and believe they all have the potential to learn and learn at high levels, then we have to accept the fact that some will take a different path than others to get there. We can’t say “I will work with you and help you earn a passing grade,” and then when the student is late, cuts class or fails to complete a homework assignment turn around and throw it in their face. Our message needs to be delivered in a caring way with intent to help, not demoralize. In other words, accept them as they are and work to genuinely reach them and inspire them to want to behave themselves back to success by modeling what we really know about kids – “they don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.”
9.) Without a doubt, the teacher is responsible for the learning environment in the classroom, but the principal is responsible for the learning environment in the school. We cannot continue to place the blame for student failure solely on the kids. That’s a cop out. But as leaders, we also can’t continue to strictly blame the teachers either when a student fails. We all have a responsibility and we all own part of that failure, including the student. As the adults and professional educators, it is our responsibility to model, challenge, encourage, support, inspire, and serve our students. As principal, it is also my responsibility to do the same for our staff. That is our fundamental responsibility and if our passion and purpose for serving kids/staff and for teaching has become stagnant, then we either ask for help and support in order to shift our mindset or do the right thing and accept it is time to do something else.
10.) The job of a principal is immensely challenging, but also so rewarding, so accept it. How is it possible we didn’t know this? We went to school ourselves, probably were critical of administration at one point or another or knew of people who were. I can go on and on about this, but you get the idea. A few days ago I spoke to a group of aspiring administrators at a local university. You know why? First, it is my way of giving back to a profession that I love and has been so good to me for many, many years. Second, because I love teaching. Third, because I recognize that our profession needs great young leaders and if we do not all do our part to continue to model, promote and share how wonderful and rewarding this job truly is, then our children and our schools are going to be left to chance.
In my experience, I know administrators work a tremendous amount of hours and do their best to make a positive impact in their school communities. I am convinced that the experience our students and staff have in our schools today depends greatly on how we behave and the way we communicate to members of our school community. It is often not what we say, but rather how we say it or in some cases, what we don’t say that creates a culture of mistrust or worse yet, leads to a negative school/work experience for those who we are entrusted to lead and serve.
So what does all of this mean? We must continue to give back to our profession and support our fellow colleagues and potential future colleagues in their endeavors. Learning is critical, but learning from each other is even more critical if we do not want the success of our school communities left to chance.
So ask yourself, are you committed to becoming an effective leader?
“When the principal sneezes, the entire school catches a cold.” @ToddWhitaker