I did some summer reading before I started my first year as a principal and found a few volumes really helpful. One, Secrets From the Middle by Elyse S. Scott, spoke to me particularly, as it laid out advice for new teachers about how to connect with kids. A rookie principal, I wished I had a book like it that was directed at me.
Enter social media.
Ms. Scott lives in the Hudson Valley, and I’m in California, but ours is an increasingly interconnected world and I thought: reach out. A couple of decades ago this would have been a letter. Today I had more resources at hand as I took a look to see if she had any advice for me.
I found her on Twitter, read a couple of articles she’d written, and mustered enough courage to send her a message. Twitter led to email, and when I told her my gratitude for her book and my preparations to start my year as a new principal, and asked if she had any advice for the guy in the tie, she responded with humor, insight, and grace.
Bjorn,” she wrote: “I am humbled by the attention my book has received and that my perspective and insights about middle level education seem to be valued. I say that because I simply did my job the way I envisioned it was supposed to be and always based what I did on what I thought was right for kids. My retirement “look back” has allowed me to see certain truths about the awesome task we have as educators, administrators and teachers alike. Recently, I spoke to education students at a local college and also wrote an article for middleweb- the themes in both cases came down to the simple principle I mentioned in the book- a variation on the golden rule. How I want to be treated as a human being translates into how I treat all others, in my personal life as well as in my educational life. Likewise, I think the most valuable lesson I learned in my positions as teacher, team leader, yearbook advisor, committee member, and Union negotiator is that the only person I could control was ME!
And so…..I think there are parallels there for “the guy in the tie.” (sounds like a good book title!) Just as teachers are facing layer upon layer of responsibility, stress, and accountability, I marvel at the job description of today’s principal! I do not see enough hours in the day for all that is required in the position, even if you have a good person serving as assistant principal. That said, I will give you my “Utopian” view of what a principal should be, and ironically the same factors would describe a highly effective teacher.
loves the educational process
caring and compassionate
can relate to students and staff
never complacent/strives to be better
grows from year to year
challenges students and staff
strong academic leader
**follows through, follows through, follows through
I flourished most with principals who were organized, good problem solvers, and really understood the pressures of the classroom. The fact that you were in the trenches should serve you well. They were also strong academic leaders who knew that professional development was a necessary adjunct to their visions. They worked as hard as I did and followed through on initiatives.
I was most unhappy working under principals who had one pet initiative and did not see the bigger picture or lacked understanding of curriculum, state standards, and the magnitude of the testing program. I also feel they created a divided faculty by pressuring those in the core who had state assessments but gave a free pass to others who did not.”
It’s big advice, and something I’ve come back to throughout the year. Over these ten months, I know I’ve gotten some of it right and some of it wrong, but as a compass for what a principal should do, this list strikes me as more than capable of pointing me in the right direction. The times I strayed off the wrong way were my own mistakes.
And now, as I near the end of the year, and take a few minutes to reflect on what went well and what I’ll do differently next year, this message from an educator I respect seemed the perfect starting point for a thoughtful revisiting of the year.
Early in the fall, inspired by the teachers at my school and the students I interacted with when I had to pinch hit in a math class when a substitute didn’t arrive, I made a decision that turned out to be defining for me as a principal. I taught.
Ms. Scott talks about a love for the educational process, and understanding of the pressures of the classroom. Volunteering to develop a lesson and teach some English classes in the opening months of the school year helped me see my school from a teacher’s point of view, connect with my students in a real and meaningful way, and be recognized as an educator, not just a bureaucrat.
As I look back on it, I think that teaching the kids helped to establish my perspective and identity. I hope and believe it also showed my commitment to those important traits on Ms. Scott’s list: approachability, organization, and creativity.
They’re qualities I value and hope to nurture in my staff. Like Ms. Scott, in my thirteen years in the classroom I was at my best when I was given the freedom to do my job “the way I envisioned it, and always based on what I thought was right for kids.” This year I’ve done my best to be the principal I would have wanted to teach for. I’ve taken pride in the bold choices my teachers have made as they tried new approaches in subjects as diverse as math, English, and ASB.
Not everything went smoothly, of course, but if I look at the challenges that arose (rats in the drama room, broken water pipes, and miscommunication between parents and teachers) as opportunities to keep my center, learn, and improve my own leadership, I can find some measure of success in lessons learned and improvements made.
There are some improvements I’ll focus on in the upcoming school year. This year I didn’t do enough to welcome the many new teachers to my school and help them understand the dynamics of our school community. I’ll work to change that next year, with more opportunities for new faces to get to know each other and ask the questions that will help them feel at home sooner.
I’ll also put more focus on articulating a clear vision for our school. This year I did a lot of listening and working quietly to prompt changes that were good for kids. As I reflect on this school year, and think about the things I’ll do differently when we return in the fall, I know that for me to improve as a leader it’s important for my staff, students, and school community to be able to understand my vision, and for me to communicate that vision well.
Finally, to bring that vision into reality, I need to be ready and willing to have the difficult discussions that keep us all focused on the important work at hand. Honesty and kindness aren’t mutually exclusive, and as I’m able to help those around me reflect and improve, and as I reflect and improve myself, I can can contribute to making this the best school it can be.
And the oil in the engine of school leadership, the rope that binds the bamboo scaffolding of school improvement, is summed up by the last bit of advice that ends that beautiful litany of ideals: a principal who “follows through, follows through, follows through.”
Ms. Scott called her list Utopian, but I’d rather see it as the target I should continue to shoot for. Someday, if our paths ever cross in person, I’d like to buy her a cup of coffee and the best doughnut around, and tell her “thanks” for giving me something tangible to strive for. I’ll get closer next year, and closer than that the year after. Until then I’ll end this first year being the best guy in a tie I can be.