The Worst Mistake I Made As Principal

Being a school principal is equally challenging and rewarding. It’s challenging because of the number of leadership and management decisions that must be made daily, shifting expectations and demands, and the relentless amount of information that is taken in and requested at such a rapid pace. These are just signs of hyper-change and the new normal.

The principalship is rewarding because of the countless opportunities to impact the lives of so many people on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. I’ve been reminded of this quite a bit the last couple of months in the form of seeing former students who share a memorable story or a kind word I may have spoken to them in passing. Or, from invitations to their graduation parties and other life moments such as weddings (Yes, I am at the stage in my life where I attend weddings of former students).

When I was a principal, I immersed myself in the work. I looked forward to attending sporting events, concerts, plays, awards ceremonies, and the like. However, when I became a father, I struggled internally with wanting to be at the multiple school events and being home with my daughter. I never really found the proper balance… What an ugly feeling.

I enjoyed preparing for parent and community events, staff meetings, and professional learning opportunities. I enjoyed discussing the work with my administrative team during our weekly team meetings, or during informal conversations throughout the day (and night). I especially enjoyed visiting classrooms and still regret not creating opportunities to get into classrooms more. It’s a demanding job and one that requires a great deal of emotional, mental, and physical stamina.

Being a principal is also a public position, and in today’s world of total transparency and desire for immediate information, nearly every decision is scrutinized, discussed, debated, and analyzed.

Professionally, my wife is also somewhat of a public figure. Over the years, she’s had several clients and coworkers who had children in the schools where I was the principal. Often times, she would be approached by a client or a coworker and asked about something that may have occurred at school or why I made a particular decision. I was always aware of this possibility and didn’t want to put her in a tough position where she had to respond to such questions. To protect her from such scrutiny, I decided that I would not talk to her about most things that happened at school. I’d either talk to a principal friend in another state, talk to my team about it, or simply not talk about it at all. My philosophy was ignorance is bliss.

For the most part, this strategy seemed to work. However, after being away from the principalship for a year and learning more about myself, I realize that the worst mistake I made as a principal is that I DIDN’T share my work with her; the good, the bad, the beautiful, or the ugly. I simply just didn’t talk about it, and I thought I was doing it to guard her against others who clambered for “insider” information, but it prevented us from connecting about an essential part of my life: my role as a principal. Since then, I’ve learned three key lessons about the importance of talking about the principalship with your spouse or significant other:

1. It creates opportunities connection. Studies show that, on average, we spend about a third of our lives at work. That’s A LOT of time creating shared experiences, celebrations, going through trials and disappointments, and making an impact. This world should be shared with your spouse or significant other.

2. It creates opportunities for compassion. The feeling of walking through a situation with someone creates closeness, understanding, and empathy.

3. It improves communication. The opportunity to share a significant part of your life without judgement, ridicule, and complaint can be comforting and is much needed. It reminds me of the video, It’s Not About the Nail. While funny, there is so much truth in the message.

I encourage you to share your work with your spouse or significant other. Be transparent about the exciting ideas or projects you’re working on, challenges you may be facing, or opportunities for growth that are on the horizon. You’ll be a better leader and spouse because of it. You need that, and they need it as well.

Feel free to share your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and celebrations in the comment section. Thanks!

Be Great,

Dwight

Cope, Adjust, and Transform (#CopeAdjustTransform)

I had the pleasure of co-authoring a book with Mark White (@MarkWhite55) titled, Leading Schools in Disruptive Times: How to Survive Hyper-change. In it, Mark White and I introduce a solving framework we call, CAT: Cope, Adjust, and Transform. CAT helps school leaders to successfully deal with change in the 21st century, especially the sudden disruptive events that often are sprung on schools without warning. In the CAT framework, school leaders do the following:

1. Recognize the disruptive event and cope with it immediately. When a crisis occurs, the goal is to peacefully resolve it as quickly as possible, usually within hours or days of its inception.

2. Adjust school policies and operating procedures in the days and weeks after the incident to prevent its reoccurrence or to handle it and other disruptions more efficiently.

3. Continue to transform their philosophies and school cultures through study and reflection in the months after the incident so that their thought processes and adaptive strategies will be deepened in the future.

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You would be hard pressed to talk to a teacher, secretary, or school administrator who would say we are not experiencing some disruptive times in education. Since 2008, public perception of educators, in general, has been less than favorable. One might say we face one disruption after another, yet we continue to find ways to meet the needs of our students, engage parents, respond to community desires, and do what is best for all stakeholders.

We explore seven disruptions educators face today and describe how to apply the CAT framework to each one. The disruptions are as follows:

1. The emphasis on student safety, including the fear of school shootings, the laser-like focus on social/emotional development, and efforts to combat high-stress levels in today’s students and families.

2. Accelerating technology advances that change how students learn and how schools operate, including the influx of smartphones, wearable technology, and the impact of social media.

3. A system of reform efforts such as A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Common Core State Standards, and the Every Student Succeeds Act that has resulted in complex school accountability ratings that drive instruction, learning, hiring practices and budgeting.

4. The generational challenges that occur when baby boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Yers, and millennials work together in the teaching force, and the demands of Gen Z that are leading to new types of teaching methods and spaces.

5. The explosion of knowledge and getting students global ready, including the challenge of teaching global skills in a rigid, test-driven curriculum and attempting to answer the question, “What does it mean to be educated in the 21st century?”

6. Dealing with increasingly complex diversity issues, including racial tension, ethnic differences, political polarization, and LGBTQ issues.

7. The growing demand for transparency by parents who want access to school information, including 24-hour access to student grades; their need for prompt responses from educators to their questions and demands; and their constant examination of the school’s curriculum, clubs, and overall grades.

In the book, we share stories from 21st school leaders and educators who have faced one or more of these disruptions,

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we highlight what they learned, and emphasize what they would do differently in the future. Through their stories, the reader can reflect on their daily work using the guided questions and CAT Framework activities at the end of each chapter.

I not only encourage you to use the CAT framework as a guide to handling disruptions at your school but to share how you are embracing these disruptions on social media by using the hashtag, #CopeAdjustTransform. We need each other, and one or the best ways to learn from shared experiences is to connect with your PLN through #CopeAdjustTransform. I look forward to celebrating with you as guide your students and staff through these disruptive times!

Be Great,

Dwight