I recently started preparing to teach a graduate course for aspiring educational leaders. All the students in my class are currently working in education in some capacity - most are classroom teachers while some are specialists or pseudo administrators already. As part of the introduction to the course, which starts in a couple of weeks, I asked them to fill out a quick Google Survey so I could get to know a little about them. One of the questions I asked them was...
Why do you think you want to be an educational leader?
Although only a few of the students have completed the survey thus far, their answers got me thinking about myself when I was an aspiring administrator (a little over 10 years ago). My mind was quickly flooded with the romantically idealistic notions and aspirations that dominated my thinking at the time. I thought I was single handedly going to change the world of education and be the catalyst for creating a school that was the panacea of teaching and learning. Well, guess what? That didn't happen; in fact, almost the opposite happened. I failed pretty miserably at my first administrative position and was a pretty crappy leader - I literally cringe when I think back to some of the things I said and did during those first couple of years as a building administrator.
Why did I fail so miserably? It wasn't for a lack of trying or lack of work ethic; it wasn't for a lack of passion or lack of enthusiasm; in fact, in retrospect, I can honestly say that nothing really could have prepared me to be successful for that first job... except if I could get some insight from my future self. So, in an attempt to share some knowledge with the aspiring administrators I will be teaching in a few short weeks, and reflect on my own journey (reflective practice is a critical element to learning and growing), I humbly offer the following 3 tips on being a successful school leader... or as I like to call myself, a Lead Learner:
1. It is all about you and not at all about YOU at the same time... the position of school principal is a critical one that literally impacts every person in the educational community. From students to staff to families to colleagues, the principal's impact is felt by all. The principal can control and shape and dictate the culture, tone and climate of the entire community. As Todd Whitaker taught me... When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold! Well, that is the truth - so sneeze into your arm and carry around lots of tissues (just kidding). The principal can be the one who models learning; can be the one who offers an open ear when someone is struggling; can be the one who enacts a spirit day when it's been a long month and the students and staff need a little fun; the principal can be the one who advocates for the needs of the students and staff; the principal can be the one removing the barriers and obstacles so that the staff can maximize their teaching techniques by taking risks. The principal can meet with the parent who feels that their child has been wronged; or can be the one to sit with the superintendent and present a sound case for why a specific child might need a teacher aide in the classroom. The principal can do a LOT so on some level it is all about you as the principal but it is NOT about YOU the individual. Please, do NOT take yourself too seriously; do NOT see yourself as reaching some sort of pinnacle and not needing to learn and grow anymore; do NOT sit in your office all day and dictate to everyone around you; do NOT employ a fixed mindset or allow institutional biases to continue because of your personal position or thinking... be the principal who takes their work seriously and pours their heart and soul into their school community but at the same time understands that it is not about them.
2. There are a LOT of politics in education... so, take the time to develop and nurture relationships with all members of the community. Know your boss; know your board of education; know your colleagues; know your staff; know your kids; and know your families. Know what those around you want, expect and need. When you invest the time in nurturing relationships with members of all constituent groups, you slowly amass social capital and social capital becomes your "Get Out of Jail" card when navigating a particularly political situation. Truth is, most people in an educational community have an agenda (even the principal) and it is the principal's responsibility to gain the trust of those around them so they can better understand the individual agendas and help align them in the best interest of children and the community at large. Is everyone going to like you? No so don't waste your energy on being liked (at some point in time, EVERY member in the community will not like you for some reason or another but that's ok) but instead, expend energy on gaining people's trust and confidence because they are the keys to healthy relationships. Remember - it is not about you but it can be all about the politics so healthy relationships must be at the core of the community!
3. Make decisions that are in the best interest of children... not ones that are easiest for you or less disruptive for teachers or cheaper for the district... make decisions for children that provides them access to a rich and meaningful learning environment. Of course, decisions should rarely be made in a silo; instead, all members of the educational community should have voice in some way, shape or form and it is your responsibility as the leader to listen to these voices as a way to broaden your perspective and make the best decision possible. Sound decisions generally don't come as a result of reacting; instead, sound decisions come when a leader reflects, deliberates and considers potential consequences. Effective leaders spend more time trying to be proactive and less time being reactive. Often times, when one reacts, the decisions can be influenced by emotion and that could be problematic. So, remember, always try and make the decision that is in the best interest of children because then you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and know you did the best job possible.
Are there hundreds of other tips I could offer my graduate students (or my former self)? YES (please feel free to leave more tips in the comments section)! But in the end, these 3 have been keys to my success as a Lead Learner and I don't think any course, workshop or internship taught me about these ideas when I was first asking myself... Do I really want to lead?