A couple of weeks ago I was hiking with my two daughters in Yosemite National Park when a father and his two sons walked up to us as we examined a map to determine which route to take next. The father looked at me and asked where we were headed. “That is a good question,” I responded. “We are not exactly sure.” “Well,” he said, “wherever you are going you are almost there.”
Those words had barely left his mouth when I immediately began thinking about a conversation I had had a couple of weeks prior with a new assistant principal in between sessions at a conference I was presenting at in Orlando. Ironically, she had asked me a similar question in regards to a comment I had made about my role as a veteran principal and the joy I found in coaching aspiring school leaders. “When did you know you had finally gotten there? “I am not exactly sure,” I responded. “ I guess that would depend on where I am headed and I haven’t quite figured that out.” I could tell by the expression on her face that she was puzzled by my response. We continued the conversation and by the end of our talk I had shared a few of my personal experiences with her that I think finally framed it for her in a way that she understood what I had meant by my comments.
Simply put, no matter how many years we serve in the role of a school leader, we will never ever “get there.” We are always evolving in our role as building leaders because the role is so complex and the variables ( i.e.: students, staff, families, policies) are always changing. As soon as we think we have it (whatever “it” is) figured out the variable changes and the role of a school administrator quickly humbles us. Admittedly, early on in my tenure as an assistant principal I often struggled to deal with the emotional toll that came with not being able to figure things out, especially when it came to working with struggling students, trying to impact low staff morale in a positive way or addressing a negative school culture in order to cultivate an environment where all students and staff were able to feel a sense of pride about their school. There is no doubt in my mind that I still haven’t figured it out, but I don’t ever use it as an excuse not to keep trying. On the contrary, I am often fueled and energized by the challenges that come with solving such complex problems.
Having said that, there are a few things that I believe can serve as good reminders to all of us as we examine which route to take next when it comes to leading schools and evolving as school leaders.
- Acknowledge, Don’t Ignore: As teachers and administrators, we often find ourselves in situations where we either hear certain things or observe specific behaviors that we know are not appropriate and certainly don’t meet the high standards that we should expect in schools. Yet, often these conversations or behaviors go unaddressed either because staff believe it is not “their” student, not their place, don’t feel they will be able to resolve the issue, or in some cases, are even afraid to confront a student or staff member for fear of retaliation. We may not be able to resolve every inappropriate situation we encounter, but at a minimum, we need to acknowledge through our own words or behaviors that the behaviors are not acceptable, thereby modeling an expectation of a higher standard. As Todd Whitaker often reminds us, the worst behavior we decide to tolerate will determine the level of excellence for our organization’s culture.
- Nothing to Fear: There is nothing wrong with being afraid, only acting afraid. You can expect to find yourself in many situations where you will feel exposed and vulnerable. It is just part of what comes with being a leader. Rather than fear it, embrace it. The best people take action when confronted with difficult decisions rather than remain frozen and wishing someone else would make the decision for them . And in those moments where you find yourself questioning your decision just remember, at least you had the courage to make a decision which will give you more credibility than making no decision for fear of making the wrong decision.
- More Than What You Have Done: Don’t get caught in the trap of feeling like you have reached the end because of some personal award or accomplishment. Yes, take time to enjoy it and celebrate it with those who helped you achieve such recognition but never forget that your charge as a leader is to serve others so that they too may feel the same sense of accomplishment as you. That is the true sign of a successful leader. The fruit of all labor is never harvested and enjoyed without the care and support of another laborer(s).
- Model Positive Interactions: Effective leaders never stop modeling positive interactions. They recognize that every interaction with a student, parent, or staff member is one single moment to inspire more positive interactions and to impact every person they encounter in a positive way. Our organizations and quite frankly, our profession, would be so much better off if we just modeled this one simple act at every opportunity. Be that moment for others.
- Your Body Hears Everything: One practical way you can ensure you will bring your best YOU to every situation is to bring a positive attitude to every situation you face regardless of the severity of the situation. Never forget that your body is listening to everything your mind says. So if your mindset is projecting an attitude of “we shall overcome,” then your body language and actions will mirror your beliefs. You become what you believe.
- The Adults Can Change Student Behavior: Educators everywhere, both teachers and leaders alike continue to look for a solution when it comes to reducing student behavior referrals. Programs across the country are infiltrating our buildings as schools continue to look for the silver bullet. No matter what program we decide to implement, we will never attain the level of satisfaction we desire if we fail to recognize that the adults in our organizations are the silver bullet. In other words, if we want to improve student behavior in our schools, then we must change the way the adults in schools interact with our kids. I would ask you to genuinely reflect on the archives of the referrals you have accumulated over the years and ask yourself this question, “How many of the referrals that were written by staff members originated with a comment, response, interaction, behavior, or in some cases, a lack of response that rather than de-escalate a situation, actually served to elevate a student resulting in a behavioral referral to the office? In cases where the adults were effective in managing a student situation that still resulted in a referral, flip your mindset, and relish the interaction and view it as an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with a student that otherwise may have never been there before.
- Show Appreciation: A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected. This statement could not be more true. I have been blessed during my principalship to be surrounded by a strong administrative team and office staff who understand the significance of a simple thank you, pat on the back, handwritten note and an occasional gift that comes with it a personal touch of a shared prior experience. This statement is based on the premise that the most heartfelt message/act we can share with others is rooted in the most impactful word in all successful organizations; relationships.
Every day is a new beginning, a day to move forward in our trek as school leaders, not looking back but evolving as we move towards tomorrow, regardless of where we are headed. There will be days, events and even moments that will appear as though we have finally made it, that we selected the correct route.
Wherever you are going, you are only almost there.