This weekend I was reading an assignment that one of my graduate students submitted for the educational leadership class that I teach that contained an interesting quote by Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer that got me thinking. He stated the following: “How you feel is not the best guide for what you should do… press pause and ask yourself what this situation requires of you?” After I read this I went back and read it again, and then again. As I often do when I read something that catches my attention, I began to reflect on how this relates to my work as a school principal. Immediately, different situations that I had either experienced personally as a school leader or had knowledge of some of my peers experiencing began to flood my mind. Ironically, a good friend of mine who serves as a high school principal reached out to a group of us who serve in leadership roles to share a work related issue he had just experienced at his school that was weighing heavily on his mind. The responses he received from his network of colleagues was impressive and served as a reminder that regardless of the emotional and stressful firestorms that we sometimes have to extinguish as leaders, we will come out stronger and wiser having lived through it.
So this got me thinking about the way we as school leaders feel at times and what the situations we face will require of us. School administrators are some of the most durable people when it comes to handling the emotional toll and stress that comes with the position. Why? For one, they have to be in order to survive the pressures that come with the volume of decisions they have to make on any given day. Secondly, the degrees of importance that some of these decisions comprise at times results in responses from others that are abundant with emotion that often leave leaders feeling inept. Lastly, and often the most distressing, is when decisions made by competent leaders are not supported or respected by those motivated by personal agendas that are self-serving and not in the best interest of all kids.
Being a school leader requires a great deal of fortitude, especially for those who aim to influence the status quo. Recognize that push back will become something you will learn to expect. Having the courage to see things through is necessary in the work that we do. There are a plethora of topics one must be prepared to address in his/her role as building leader. Here are a few I recommend you not shy away from.
- Hiring: Building principals have to be clear up front and be willing to communicate to their staff that they will make the final decision on all new hires. That is not to say they should not assemble a team to help in the process, but be clear the team understands their role and your role in the decision making process.
- Teacher Changes: One of the most charged issues that can quickly go south is when parents request for a different teacher for their child is not granted. This is a leader’s responsibility to implement a process that is equitable for all kids and fair to all teachers. All teachers deserve an opportunity to address any concerns from parents first. Teacher changes should only be granted after attempts to resolve the concerns with the student, parent, teacher and administrator have been unsuccessful.
- Suspensions: Sometimes removal of students is necessary in order to ensure the safety of others. But supporting students in acquiring the necessary skills to help them manage themselves better takes time, patience, and intentional interventions. Such interventions must provide students with opportunities to reflect on their decisions/behaviors and provide a platform for dialogue and mediation with adult guidance in order to impact change over time. Unfortunately, most suspensions that are appealed happen in the athletic arena, often sending mixed messages to students and the community about the importance and value that we place on sports over teaching honesty, integrity, and character.
- Technology/Social Media: I think it’s time that educators and parents alike recognize that the world as we knew it changed in 1990 with the birth of the World Wide Web. There is no going back. 24/7 access to information and global connections are here to stay, so let’s embrace it and begin to work with our students and teachers on how to better leverage technology and the abundance of tools available in order to create more invigorating , authentic and connected learning experiences for students, parents, teachers and businesses alike. Let’s stop placing blame on devices for all that is wrong with learning in schools today and start expecting more of ourselves as the leaders of learners to work together to figure out a solution. After all, isn’t the narrative that is being shared by educators everywhere often dictate that students need to be life-long learners, problem solvers, etc., and then we in turn fall short in modeling the same expectations we place on our students?
- Internal Candidates: Who to choose? This is one the most grueling of all tasks because regardless of which internal candidate you choose, you know someone is going to be left devastated by your selection. The fallout from a wounded staff member can also leave a sour taste in colleagues who supported this staff member’s desire for a new position and consequently lead to serious pushback. If not managed appropriately, this could damage our credibility long term if we are not completely transparent from the onset. If we don’t believe an individual is qualified or won’t seriously be considered, let’s not play a game and make them go through the process. This is offensive. Although difficult, the right thing to do is to have the courage to sit down and be truthful where we see them fitting in long term. How an employee manages themselves during this conversation will tell you whether or not you made the right decision.
- New Initiatives: We need to move beyond the rhetoric that change is difficult. As educators, we do ourselves a disservice when we continue to reinforce and perpetuate that belief. Change is not difficult, it is not scary. Please don’t do that to a profession I love. We are better than that. Not changing is scary. Becoming irrelevant is scary. I would argue that it is not change that gets teachers and administration worked up, but the overwhelming feeling of where the time will come from to make that change manageable. We need to begin to see change as exhilarating, exciting, beneficial, and necessary in order to grow and develop our craft. As leaders, we need to do a better job of focusing on less and doing less better while providing more time for our teachers.
The inventory of feelings that many school leaders are experiencing today would require immediate check-in to an employee assistance program in many other professions. School administrators must recognize that push back is commonplace in schools today and that sometimes our mental fortitude will be challenged to the maximum level. Regardless of how we feel at times, we must press pause and ask ourselves what the situation is requiring of us? Either way, there is no avoiding the push back that will be sure to come with each and every decision.
How we respond to such push back will determine our credibility and success as a school leader.