(Originally posted on The Principal of Change)
By George Couros
I am so intrigued with the number of people that are jumping into principal positions as I think it is truly one of the best jobs in the world. It is also one of the toughest. Isolation within a school (even though that is a choice that we now make ourselves) has been kind of a norm in past years, so to have a shared focus as a school is foreign territory for many (including principals). Yet with a constant focus on “change”, many principals bring people together, but often for the wrong reasons. If you move to fast, that can often lead to strained relationships within a school and resentment towards the new “leader”. As much as principals want to make it “our school”, many admin really try to make it “their school”, or at least, that is the picture that they paint to their staff. Sometimes you need to move slow to go fast.
Here are some things that I have learned from my time in both success and failures.
1. Build strong relationships first. If you did a “Wordle” on my blog, I am guessing the term “relationships” would be the word that is in the top five for being most used. Although this may seem redundant, to emphasize the importance of this over and over again, is something that cannot be understated. The investment you make in your staff, students, and community will come back tenfold, but it takes time to build trust. I have watched administrators like Patrick Larkin, Kathy Melton, Jason Markey, Amber Teamann, and Jimmy Casas show and share the significance that they put into people. This is not just your teachers either.
Every single person on your staff is an important part of the team and should be treated in that same manner. Make sure that you connect with every person on that staff and know something that goes beyond the building.
One of my favourite things to do with the community was to wait for the buses and talk to kids and parents as they arrived to school. Talking to kids is huge and a great proactive way to avoid issues later, while also being visible to the community. It also builds credibility with staff. Relationships, relationships, relationships. Trust me, it is the most important part of the job and the foundation that all great schools are built upon.
2. Find the value of every staff member. I tweeted the following yesterday:
Principals often want to make a splash with staff and bring in “gurus” to move them ahead, but I truly believe that most schools have everything they need within the building, we just have to find a way to bring it all together. It is not that you shouldn’t look for outside help ever, as a differing perspective helps sometimes, but you should also balance that with having your own staff deliver professional development as well. This builds capacity and relationships (see number one) within your building.
Every person in your organization has something to offer. What is it? This is fundamental to “strengths based leadership” and people that know they are valued will go above and beyond. There is a difference between “developing” and “unleashing” talent; a great principal does both.
Great leaders develop great leaders.
3. Show instructional leadership. There used to be a belief that “those who can’t teach, become principals”. This drives me crazy. The other idea is that the principal should be the best teacher in the school. That is also a fallacy. Some teachers are absolutely amazing and have no interest in becoming principals; there is nothing wrong with that. You do however, need to show credibility in your role as principal. This could be in delivering professional development to your staff or teaching a class, or even a combination of both. Teachers connect well with teachers, and when they see that their principal, no matter the position, is still a teacher, it shines a different light on them. When you teach, it also reminds you that the “change” that we try to implement is not as easy as it sounds with 25 kids in a classroom. It is possible, but it takes time and this perspective that you gain by staying current in your own teaching practices is important.
4. Don’t focus on “change” as much as you focus on “growth”. Change and growth are often synonymous but the words sometimes the words evoke different emotions. If you walk into a school and constantly talk about “change” or how you are going to create the “best school yet”, you are disrespecting the work that has been done prior by the same staff that you are now serving. I agree that there are lots of things that need to “change” about schools, but I also know there are lots of great things that have already happened in many organizations. Growth is different. We expect it from kids and we should expect it from ourselves. You may have seen the light and changed your teaching practice, but my guess is that you didn’t change every aspect of what you used to do. You probably got better. And when you ask for “growth”, make sure you model how you are growing as an administrator as well. Say when you screw up, admit mistakes, apologize, learn openly, and do things that show you want to get better in your role to model what you want from your staff. Modelling growth moves from saying, “do this”, to “let’s do this together”. Very different ideas with the latter being much more effective.
Everyone wants to make a big splash when they are starting a new job, and administrators are no different. Yet sustainable growth takes time and as Covey states, it is important as a leader to show “character and credibility”. Both of these things take time. You may have a vision of where you want school to go but the best leaders hold that vision and break it down in smaller steps so that people can gain confidence and competence in the process. If you want to create something great, it will take time and will only come from the people that are a part of your learning community. Honour and tap into them and you will move further than you could have ever imagined.