The best teachers remember what it was like to be a student. While teachers are preoccupied with their lesson, students are often preoccupied with different things entirely, When students are silent, they may be engaged with your lesson... or they may be having thoughts that are a bit more impertinent. Granted, the perceptions of kids can be irrational, and they may be skewed by the immaturity of youth, but they are still perceptions that need to be accounted for.
There were many things that I thought to myself during class... but never told my teacher. And I imagine my students thought some of these very same things:
I don't understand... but it's embarrassing. I'll just keep quiet. This kid keeps cheating off my paper. Why can't you see that? Copying down the questions is dumb. We think you are having us write them down so it will take us longer to complete. Do you know how hard it is to sit quietly the whole period? Every once in a while, change the tone of your voice. It will make the class more bearable. How would you like to sit in here and do this stupid assignment? Why do you always seem so annoyed with us? I gotta pee so bad, I'm not hearing a word you're saying. How am I supposed to be paying attention to you? Do you have any idea how cute that girl is? I need your hall pass. I'm not thirsty, and I don't need to go to the bathroom; it's just that I'm bored to tears, I gotta get out of here for minute. If you had some snacks available, we would all be in a better mood. You're seriously making us copy down all these definitions? What good will that do? Why can't you do anything about the kids who are mean? You don't seem real interested in this lesson, so I don't think I'm interested either. Are you really punishing the entire class for what Joey did? Do you have any idea how unfair that is? I know life isn't always fair, but if you're not doing your best to make it fair, then you're actually kind of a jerk. My butt is so sore! Are you sure that clock is right? You do know that when you put us in these groups, I end up doing all the work? That doesn't seem right to me. When we ask you why we need to know this, and you say... "Because I said so!" ... it ticks off the whole class. We all know this is busy work, and it actually makes you look kind of lazy. When you complimented me in front of the whole class, it made me feel proud.
(And other times...) when you complimented me in front of the whole class, it embarrassed me. It made me look like the teacher's pet. Will you come to my desk and answer my question? I want to smell your perfume again. I know I forgot my homework yesterday too.... but if you had any idea what was going on at my house last night...
We want our students to learn empathy. We can start by showing empathy. It behooves every teacher to consider what their students are actually thinking -- to imagine what it would be like to sit in their class -- to have to complete the assignment that is on their board. The teachers who remember what it was like to be a kid really do make the best teachers.
We all know the culture of our school is important, and you understand that building a strong one is how school leaders can impact student achievement. You intuitively understand that schools need to be safe; they need to foster collaboration; and they need to stay focused on the needs of the students.
But don't ever underestimate the small things you do on a daily basis that contribute to the strength of your school culture.
How do you respond to staff members who complain?
To be sure, listening is an important part of our job, and everyone needs to vent from time to time. But how you handle these conversations says a lot about the trajectory of your school. Do you allow staff member to wallow in their negative vibes, or do you re-frame the situation? Every challenging conversation is an opportunity to remind staff of our true purpose... doing what's best for kids. In our school we had our teachers write their own "Teacher Oath" which outlined their own core values and personal beliefs about why they come to work each day. These are helpful for keeping us grounded and keeping the negative energy in check. (You can read about about our teacher oaths here.)
What do you communicate through your conversations with the secretary... with the custodian... with the lunch lady?
While the teachers are the adults engaged in the core business of the school, it is a tragic mistake to underestimate the value and contributions of those individuals who play a supportive role. Most principals appreciate the work of the secretaries, custodians, and CNP staff, but they may not always be mindful of how their interactions with these people enhance the culture of the school. When you invest in your support staff, you demonstrate to all those around you that everyone in the school is valued. A strong relationship with your support staff goes a long way toward ensuring the school runs smoothly. It affects the morale of the teachers, and it certainly creates a more positive environment in the building. What are the little things that get recognized?
This year, our school started "The Kindness Project." When a teacher spots a student demonstrating kindness, they are given a card. The student redeems the card for a ball to throw in our ball pit. The student also receives a wrist band and gets their name on the board. Here's the thing though: these are not big acts of kindness; these are little acts of kindness. It is the brief conversations, the little moments, and the small deeds that shape a school. Make a point to notice the little things. When you recognize them and reward them, they
will happen more frequently. Don't just praise the big accomplishments. Your culture is built when you validate the small ones.
What have you failed at recently?
Nobody likes to fail. We all want to feel competent, in control, and on top of our game. Leaders must remember, however, that we will not encourage a culture of growth within our building when we are never willing to step outside of our own comfort zone. If we have not failed recently, we haven't been trying anything new. If we want our teachers to innovate, we need to start with taking some risks ourselves. When things don't go as planned, be transparent about it. It may feel threatening, but there is strength in vulnerability. And teachers learn from our example. A school culture that values and celebrates innovation begins with a leader who is willing to climb out on a limb. How do you handle the interuptions?
You're busy! I know you have a lot of things on your to do list. It would be so tempting to be frustrated with the constant interruptions. But never underestimate your impact when you respond to those little distractions - the ones you could easily view as an annoyance. You never know which moments with people will be the ones that they remember ... for a long time. Every interruption is an opportunity to make someone's day, and every interruption is an opportunity to reinforce who and what you value. So embrace the interruptions. Make the most of those unplanned, unscheduled moments. They could end up being the most important moments of your day.
Culture is not primarily built through mission statements, faculty meetings, and school improvement plans. But rather, you cultivate it through the hundreds of little interactions every day. I have heard of leaders having personal mission statements. Those can be a good thing, I guess... but great leaders don't actually need them. Everyone in the building knows what they're about. Their values and priorities are consistently reflected in how they spend their time. The behavior of the principal is never neutral with respect to school culture. Like it or not, they build it every day. I don't want to build it accidentally or inadvertently; I want to build it on purpose.
I have been a principal for six years. Here is some stuff I have learned:
Teachers who consistently maintain a positive attitude are worth their weight in gold. Lunch ladies can make some really good cinnamon rolls. If you are sick... or if you have to stay home with a sick child... the school will go on without you. Do not allow yourself to be consumed with tardies and dress code. These will always be with you and there are meaningful things in the school that deserve your energy. Everyone in the school matters -- every student and every adult. Learn as many names as you can. If you neglect to tell someone good morning when you pass them in the hallway... they will remember it, and may remind you about it later. Sometimes teachers and students need a little time apart. There are many circumstances... and they are always extenuating. It is usually not a good thing to make unilateral decisions. You will almost always make better decisions by talking to people. The school assembly that you arranged for will impact something else in the school day that you have not yet thought about. Math teachers don't like to write. It's important to make time for shenanigans. The school is a better place to work when you cut up and have fun with the other adults in the building. Students like to see administrators in their classrooms. Teachers don't always read all your emails thoroughly. (That will frustrate you... but it's not the end of the world.) It's important to extend grace to teachers when they don't do everything they are supposed to do... just like principals expect teachers to extend grace to their students. Have a teacher proof read your important emails before you send them out to the entire staff. Teachers love to wear jeans. Seriously... some teachers really do love their jeans. Positive energy goes a long way. Teachers won't change what they're doing if you don't give them feedback. Teachers have families outside of school... and they need to take care of them. If you go to a game or a concert... everyone will notice, and everyone will appreciate it. Kids who feel embarrassed often times become disrespectful. It's best to reward collectively and punish individually. If you do not love the students, and if you do not love the teachers, you should not be a principal. Do not go in teachers' classrooms the day before a holiday break unless you're playing a game with the kids. Sometimes go into classes and play games with kids. When teachers have cool ideas, figure out a way for them to "run with them." Make a note of staff birthdays. As you're walking the halls with visitors, it's good to introduce them to the custodians. Capitalize on the talents and passions of the adults in the building. This is one of the most important things you do. There is no substitute for being in the hallways during class change... and the other times as well. Students respect authenticity... and so do teachers. Learn to say, "I'm not sure" ... and "I'll look into that." You will say these things a lot. Teachers appreciate it every time you follow through. They will usually remember the times you don't. It is important to assume that the adults in the building want to do a good job. Treat them that way. Remember that respect is never given because of a title; it is earned because of a relationship. No program in the school will ever exceed the passion of the adults implementing it. Listen to students. Put yourself in situations to hear about awesome ideas from other principals. Positive recognition, praise, validation -- these things never get old. And everyone needs them. Secretaries know a lot. Someone always throws the first punch... but it takes two to tango. It's important to give teachers the benefit of the doubt. Start and end your meetings on time.
Being a school principal is a very cool job... and I plan to continue learning.
If you're a teacher, you have taught (or will teach) thousands of kids. You are a professional... and you are creating a legacy every day you come to work. You are leaving your mark -- an indelible impression upon the children entrusted to your care. What will they remember about you... I wonder.
They may not remember your tier two interventions.
They may not remember your authentic assessments.
They may not remember your brilliantly scaffolded lessons.
They may not remember your innovative rubrics.
They may not remember your curriculum map.
They may not remember how cute your bulletin boards were.
They may not remember their benchmark scores.
They may not remember that you always had your objectives written on the board.
They may not remember your bell ringers or your exit slips.
They may not remember how many degrees you had or that you were "highly qualified."
These are all good things, and teachers are more effective when their professional practice reflects the qualities and behaviors on this list. The fact that your students may not remember these things could discourage you. Don't let it.
There are plenty of things that your student will remember.
They will remember that time you played dodge ball with them in PE.
They will remember the fist bumps every time they walked into your class.
They will remember the funny stories you told about your vacation.
They will remember those times you never gave up on them.
They will remember how kind you were.
They will remember that you had real conversations with kids in the hallway.
They will remember that time you intervened with the kids being mean in the lunchroom.
They will remember that you always had a smile.
They will remember that time you made a bad decision... but you apologized to the entire class.
They will remember that time they forgot their lunch, but you made sure they ate.
They will remember you coming to their games and concerts.
They will remember that you always seemed to be excited about teaching.
They will remember that you didn't mind being silly.
They will remember the time you called them at home when they were sick.
They will remember that you seemed to genuinely enjoy being around kids.
They will remember that you were patient... even with those who didn't deserve it.
They will remember that there were days that you made school bearable for them.
They will remember that you encouraged their dream.
Continue to engage in all those activities and strategies that characterize professional educators. The conscientious practice of your craft will elevate the academic achievement of your students and contribute to their brighter future. But remember that you are leaving a legacy that transcends grades and test scores. Your impact on kids will be felt in the little moments -- the handshakes, the high fives, the hugs, and the quiet conversations. Don't forfeit any of those moments; your kids will remember them. So your students will remember you... and they will smile -- because you were their teacher, and YOU made a difference!