I recently returned from Ignite 2016 in Orlando were I had the good fortune of representing my professional associations – School Administrators of Iowa (SAI) and The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Like many of my colleagues, I am extremely proud of what I do for a living. Being a high school principal has been one of the greatest joys of my life. There are still days I reflect on my journey and just shake my head in disbelief. I never take for granted what I do for a living and I am genuinely grateful for the opportunities I have been given to make an impact on members of my school community as well as in my profession. A dear friend and colleague of mine gave me this advice in my early 20’s while I was quickly advancing my way up on the administrative ladder. She said, “Remember to spend less time focusing on your own accomplishments and focus more time on serving others so they too can experience their own successes. Only then will you experience the sense of accomplishment you hope to achieve.” I have never forgotten those words.
Upon my return from the Ignite 2016 conference, a gentleman by the name of Roger Riddell who works for Education Dive reached out to me and asked me this question – “What do you wish you had known on your first day on the job as Principal?” I responded by saying that I never realized the emotional toll that this job can take on any one individual. I simply wasn’t prepared for that part of the job. I still believe this to be true, but Roger’s question caused me to reflect even more and the quote above made me wish I had taken more time to process his question and reflect on what I wished I had known. So I decided to add a few more thoughts to my original response and share them in this blog post today.
I wish someone had told me to…..
1. Focus more on experiences – as I reflect back on the last twenty-two years I realize at the end of the day it truly is the experiences I cherish the most. The relationships we foster over time will ultimately dictate our happiness and our impact on others.
2. Take time to invest in yourself as much as others – as someone who was raised by parents to always serve others first, I have learned over time to invest in myself as well. By doing so, I have seen that the impact I can have on others is greater when I am in a better place and space.
3. Stay connected – the job of a school leader can be all consuming. By re-connecting to mentors former co-workers and current colleagues, you will gain a greater appreciation for the work that you are doing and recognize how much you have grown over time. The energy you gain from this perspective will launch you further down the right path.
4. Not just tell them, but show them – one pitfall for teachers and leaders is we want to tell people how to do things. We are fixers by nature. If you want to influence change, don’t tell others what it will look like, but show them what it looks like. The visual impact to this strategy can be a game changer whether you are teaching a lesson to students or moving an organization forward.
5. Not depend on the same teacher leaders – every organization has a group of people who have a desire for more leadership roles. Be grateful that you have a core group from which to begin building capacity, but you cannot build capacity if you depend on the same people over and over to support your mission/vision. Give others the same opportunities by trusting in their abilities and showing your confidence in them in order to maximize their potential as a leader. The job of a leader was never meant to be a committee of one.
6. Understand it takes more than one conversation to influence change – an initial conversation is a great start, but the real change comes from the ongoing follow-up conversations. Make the time to make change happen 100 conversations at a time.
7. Not stop with the conversation, but model what you want to happen – sounds like I just contradicted myself, but for some, the conversation is enough where for others we must follow up the conversation with action. I’ve learned over the years that people will fall back to status quo unless there is a plan for continuous modeling and support.
8. Differentiate for staff like we do for students – this is especially true when it comes to professional development, evaluations, feedback and/or growth plans. As a profession, we continue to expect all staff to meet the same standards at the same level at the same time. We must move towards a growth model of continuous improvement where failure is encouraged and reflection is required. Only through reflection and honest, genuine dialogue can we ever improve our craft. Everyone can benefit from a leadership coach.
9. Invest in our new teachers, but also don’t forget to re-invest in our veteran teachers & support staff – they need just as much support if not more in some cases when it comes to managing change, improving best practices and adjusting to a new type of learner. If we are going to expect all staff to cultivate learning environments that are more personalized for students, then we need to personally invest in our staff so they too can experience the same return on investment.
10. Focus on skill sets rather than knowledge when hiring staff – I need staff with the skills to use their knowledge in practical ways to lead, model, collaborate and provoke greater learning not only with their students, but among their peers as well. By having the ability to apply what they learn, they are able to build confidence in themselves as well as others.
11. Believe my words and my actions can inspire others – I have learned over the years that we can move others to want to be greater tomorrow than they are today, both through our words and/or our actions. To have a vision and then carry that vision out with the support of others can inspire others to do more than they ever thought possible. More importantly, it develops a culture of hope and faith that things can and will be better. We all have something to offer others from which they can learn from. Believe you can make an impact.
12. Take responsibility for my own professional growth – I have come to accept that my experiences will be whatever I want them to be. One of my most satisfying and rewarding findings as principal was when I finally recognized that the only barrier to my own learning was my own willingness to learn.
I know there are others in my profession who do not feel the way I feel and at times I have been criticized for seeing things through rose colored glasses. But I choose not be like those who are unhappy, or others who look weary and tired. That sounds too much like a job to me. I did not choose this way of life so I could become negative and bitter or in some cases, even cynical. I am not willing to accept that things can never change or feel that I can only do so much. I have encountered principals, secretaries, teachers, district administrators, support staff and teacher librarians who harbored such feelings. No one is immune. Rather than judge, I choose to believe that these folks were not always this way and for reasons unbeknownst to all of us somewhere in their own journey they simply lost their way.
After all of these years, what do I still wish for? I wish to be able to help those who have lost their way find their way back so they can experience their own successes. I want them to be able to feel the same sense of accomplishment I feel on a daily basis.
If they can just remember that their experiences will be whatever they want them to be.
How will you choose yours to be?