(Originally posted on Hallway Access.)
By David Hochheiser
School administrators bear the weight of myriad responsibilities. Our days are filled with diverse questions, interactions, scenarios and tasks. Some of these happen predictably and can therefore be planned for, but many realities in our purview present themselves organically, with little forewarning.
Schools are living systems, hopefully steeped with a variety of academic, social, experiential, and even virtual experiences geared towards students’ growth. No two days are going to look alike and chances are that no solution is going to work equally well a second time without being at least finessed into the specific situation. Even within this variety and uncertainty, however, there are a few non-negotiable traits that afford me my best chance at success.
Although I am ultimately responsible for everything in a building, I know that I can’t even come close to doing all of the work myself. Being at my best, then, has always meant actively making use of the unique and innovative talents within my schools. The first key to my success as an administrator is, after all, my ability to form tightly bonded relationships with the educators, support staff, and other administrators in the building.
These trusting and culture building relationships hinge on three things:
1) I must believe in the faculty’s, support staff’s and students’ strengths and abilities to grow and take on tremendous challenges. Only then will I be able to sincerely seek out and listen to ideas, delegate efforts, and involve many stakeholders in the decision-making processes.
2) I must be humble enough to know that my job title doesn’t make me the expert in every room or situation I walk into. Keeping this humility in the forefront reminds me, again, to keep seeking out advice and listening to all stakeholders’ perspectives and ideas.
3) I believe too strongly in the urgent need for everyone to receive a quality education to ever let people out of their obligations, but I do need to empathize with people’s struggles instead of chastise and blame them for coming up short. Whether I’m working with students, teachers, families, or colleagues, I always want my schools to be places of learning, where we work collaboratively to recognize struggles, identify their root causes and find paths forward. I take pride in being an administrator who says: “I hear you. I understand. How are we going to find a solution?”
When one student in a class has a question, I have always found that (s)he isn’t alone, so I would think about not only supporting that one student in the moment, but also how to adjust the overall curriculum and pedagogical work so that I can improve my work in ways that hopefully prevent the issue from manifesting the next time.
The parallel for my work in administration is to leverage the strength of my building, school district, and professional learning network to understand struggles within my school and brainstorm ways to overcome them. Systems are strong and the vision I have for schools can best be manifested when I’m smart enough to leverage the collective work, insight, experiences, and resources of a learning community instead of working in isolation. Improving a student’s literacy experience, for example, used to be considered something for which his/her English teacher was responsible.
By changing the paradigm, however, I can dramatically increase that student’s chances for success through vertical and horizontal teaming and the alignment of curriculum and assessment. Now I can connect the work being done from year to year and ensure that all teachers are framing lessons with multiple levels of literacy in mind, helping students to access, process and express their understandings and questions about information.
Examples like these continue to prove to me that turning individual relationships into supportive communities is a non-negotiable part of best practices for strengthening schools and helping students.
This perspective allows me to use insights from both distinct, individual moments and large trends from a variety of places within the school to help improve upon the work I’m doing; it’s about being able to see the forest and the trees.
Finally, I’d add that the clearest truth about work within education is that there are wide varieties of unpredictable factors that will contribute to my days and my planning for the school’s future. This uncertainty brings a sense of life to the work that is one of my favorite aspects of working in schools.
It’s not a problem I have to deal with, but it does mean that I must be flexible. While I begin any work with goals and a vision, working in education means that the people I’m serving and the systems within which I’m working will likely present needs, mandates, perspectives and issues that I have to take into account. Learning is, after all, much more fluid than it is linear.