Management as a Principal #SAVMP

Management and leadership go hand in hand; effective principals blend both into their daily practice.  I agree with Bruce Beairsto when he says, “You need management to build a house but only leadership can make it into a home” (from Chris Wejr’s RSCON presentation) – certainly, both management and leadership are essential.  A principal’s vision, no matter how clear and worthwhile, cannot be carried out in a school characterized by chaos and disorder.  So, without being able to manage as well as to lead, a principal will not be able to fulfill the vision for his/her school.

I think an effective way to manage time on a daily basis is to link my everyday practice to my vision.  In other words, the work with which I’m engaged every day should ultimately tie into my vision.  At our school, building a positive, connected community and establishing caring relationships are what we aim for and how I deal with students, staff and parents is always tied to that vision.  Thus, in my everyday dealings, whether talking to students in the office, or teachers in their classes or with parents in the parking lot, I focus on building and growing positive relationships along the way.

Of course, the occasional hiccup like having to unclog toilets (I feel your pain Daisy Dyer Duer) doesn’t really fall in line with my grand plan but these tasks still need to be done.  Certainly, I can’t predict the occurrence of these types of situations but I can deal with my predictable work in an efficient and timely manner so that these hiccups don’t throw off my whole day.  Writing reports or preparing for upcoming meetings ahead of time in an organized fashion nullifies the sense of panic when these unexpected problems occur.  Nothing becomes an emergency when it is dealt with ahead of time; preparation is key.

Long-term preparation involves building school-wide systems to ensure that, when problems arise, there is a procedure in place to deal with them.  When the systems are pervasive and well-established, issues are addressed in an efficient manner, thus avoiding the development of lingering and chronic problems.  Effective systems in place in our school help to prevent me from spending too much time in Stephen Covey’s “urgent and important” quadrant.

As much as I try to integrate my vision into my daily practice and to have efficiently run systems in place, I know that I still won’t be able to complete all of the things on my “to do list”, without delegating some of the tasks.  No matter how effective I am at time management, I will still need help to accomplish everything.  I learned this concept the hard way when, in my first of year of being a vice principal, I tried to get everything done on my own.  This experience taught me that without asking for help, I wouldn’t have a long “shelf life” as an administrator.  I learned that delegation was not (and is not) an abdication of leadership but, instead, a sign of its strength.  Of course, the other benefit of delegating is that it engenders the development of more leaders in my school.  I discovered that letting teachers take charge of initiatives about which they are passionate is an effective way to develop more leaders.  This indispensable leadership lesson for me was a wonderful bonus in learning how to blend management with leadership.

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The Importance of Being a Connected Leader #SAVMP

Being a connected leader has had two profound effects on me.  Firstly, every time I read a tweet or a blog post, it forces me to reflect, whether I want to or not.  I can’t help but think about my own practice when I see other educators sharing what they’re doing.  The trick is to not feel overwhelmed or inadequate.  Take the parts that help and leave the rest behind has become my motto.  For example, I’ve read a lot about awards and grades from different people to a point where it has shifted my own practice.  Reading posts by Chris Wejr, Alfie Kohn and Joe Bower have certainly given me a lot to think about and encouraged me to make changes.  Conversely, I’ve read other posts or tweets that have confirmed my own way of thinking.  For example, one day I was following a conversation on Twitter about the use of Class Dojo.  I knew very strongly that I could never use a system like that in my school.  These are just a couple of examples that show how being connected has affected my way of thinking and, ultimately, improved my ability to lead.

Secondly, I have built lasting relationships with other educators who are passionate about helping kids.  I feel that I can’t help but improve as an educator when I hang out with people (online and sometimes in person) like this.  All of a sudden there is a group of mentors from all around the world (in some cases) who are willing to share their experiences and expertise.  I think that this is what I’ve been struck with most:  people (strangers, effectively) are so kind and willing to help.  That being said, of course, this connection didn’t happen overnight for me.  I’ve had to work at building the connections and it’s something at which I’m still working.  When I started on Twitter about a year ago, I knew no one.  After about a year, I’ve built a small but extremely helpful PLN.

Having said this, I still have a long way to go and I realize that’s okay.  My transformation as a leader has only just begun but, really, that’s the exciting part.  I know now that being a connected leader is going to be a fact of life for me and I won’t go back.  One area in which I need to work is to provide some contributions to my PLN and, in general, to other educators out there.  I need to share more and one way I can do that is by blogging more.

Sometimes I do feel inadequate and anxious when I see how little I’ve contributed but I’ve become better at taking a deep breath and reminding myself that I can do only what I can do.  I have to remember that I’m not going be a George Couros or Dr. Justin Tarte but that’s okay.  What I ask myself is:  Have I become a better educator since yesterday?  Have I pushed myself to do better today than yesterday?  Most of the time my answer is yes and I’m good with that.  Most of all, I have to compare myself to me and not to anybody else.  I can certainly learn from others but I’ve still got to be me.

The Importance of Trust

Trust is a crucial factor for the success of any relationship.  Moreover, the trust that has been built up and nurtured over a long period of time can be lost in a flash.  It is for this reason that we, as administrators, have to ensure that we are absolutely trustworthy in all that we do.  I don’t think that being trustworthy is innately difficult; however, building trust requires hard work and consistency.  To maintain trust in my relationships, I try to demonstrate my trustworthiness to others over the long-term.

I think it was Phil Boyte who said that to build trust a leader must have a high “say/do” ratio.  In other words, people must feel comfortable knowing that I will do what I say I am going to do.  This form of operational trust is a prerequisite to a deeper level of trust.  Once people see that I keep my word, they will feel more comfortable trusting me.  Each subsequent trustworthy act serves to solidify the trust gained.

To further cement trusting relationships, a leader should be willing to do the hard work first before asking the same of his/her staff.  Whether it be working hard at school or being a life-long learner, I endeavor to model these attributes before I ask them of my staff.  Moreover, I would never ask my staff to do something that I’m not willing to do myself.  For example, when I ask them to take risks, I put myself out there first.

Leaders also have to show that they value their staff by genuinely listening to them.  How much do you trust a person with whom you’re having a conversation when you can tell that they’re not really paying attention to what you’re saying?  When people show up at my office it’s because they feel that they have something important to tell me.  The best way I can honour them and gain their trust is to stop what I’m doing and give them the attention they deserve.  Taking the time to know their story is important to me.  By doing so, I can show that I care and this further helps to establish trust.

Another way that a leader can demonstrate care about his/her staff is to acknowledge their contributions to the school community.  Doing so doesn’t need to involve pomp and circumstance; I find that a simple thank you to a hard-working teacher, or a kind note left in a mailbox will go a long way toward strengthening positive relationships between me and my staff.  This demonstration of caring by showing appreciation for good work done is, I believe, a stepping-stone toward developing trust.

Leaders should be open and honest about themselves; people should know where you stand.  It is only after being upfront about my core beliefs, that people can see my actions are indeed consistent with my value system.  It is then that people are likely to trust me.  They may disagree with my point of view, but they won’t distrust me as a result.

Leaders should also be open about their school community and one way in which they can demonstrate their transparency is through using social media.  Last year, I started to share publicly with our parents what we do at school using Facebook and Twitter.  I think by showing parents what we do at school in this manner will only serve to facilitate the building of trusting relationships.  If nothing else, it’s a great conversation starter when a parent approaches me to talk about a photo they saw of their child working in class.  These types of conversations can be the beginning of building trusting relationships.

In my opinion, school communities thrive when positive relationships abound.  In order to foster these relationships, trust must be at the root.  When I start at a new school, ways I can establish trust are by being open and upfront right from the start, demonstrating appreciation of my school community members, being a good listener, and ensuring that I do what I say I’m going to do.

My Vision

When people walk into my school I want them to notice the positive feeling of community right away.  As intangible as this seems, I really do sense the difference between the schools that have the “vibe” and those that don’t.  It’s like when you’re invited to someone’s home and the warmth and happiness of its occupants is so strong that it spreads to you.  That warmth comes from the positive relationships within the family.

How do we go about establishing this kind of culture within our schools?  In the same way; that is, I believe that positive relationships formed within the school community are the building blocks for creating the kind of culture to which I am referring.  Thus, my vision for my school begins with and depends on forging positive relationships.  Building trusting connections where community members feel valued and cared for is essential.

My fundamental belief is that students learn best when they are immersed in a positive culture where relationship building forms the cornerstone of learning. Martin Krovetz sums it up well for me in his book, “Fostering Resiliency” when he writes:

Human relationships are at the heart of schooling.  The interactions that take place between students and teachers and among students are more central to student success than any method of teaching literacy, or science, or math.

It has been my experience that a teacher’s greatest tool is his/her ability to establish a trusting relationship with the student.  Students often will try harder to achieve for teachers with whom they have a positive relationship.  I also firmly believe that, generally, the more connected a student is to his/her school community, the more successful and motivated the student will be.  In the same way, teachers who feel connected to the community and have positive relationships at school will also be more motivated and will often go the extra mile, striving towards excellence.  Students, teachers, staff and parents will be engaged and inspired as a result of these caring relationships.  Success naturally follows.

Once people taste success in an environment where they feel safe and valued, they will be more willing to take risks.  This risk-taking will enable the community to strive towards continuous improvement.

As the community is working together to improve, the positive culture is reinforced which also serves to further strengthen the bonds and relationships already established.  The caring connected culture feeds upon itself.

When these caring relationships are established, it becomes increasingly possible for everyone (students, teachers, and parents) in the building to feel a sense of belonging and ownership.  It’s like the “Cheers” effect – you want to go to a place where everybody knows your name (as well as your story).  To be a part of something is a fundamental human urge, and school is a great place to nurture this sense of belonging.  My vision is that the stakeholders all feel that it’s their school and their community; each member feels valued and wants to contribute to nurturing the warm and inclusive culture of excellence within the school.

Why I lead

I lead because it’s important and it matters and because it is part of my being.  I’m not talking about being a saviour, but about making a contribution to my community and ultimately to my students.  I was a leader as a kid, organizing the neighbourhood children for soccer or hockey games.  I worked with trouble teens as a camp counselor right after high school and I was a leader in my school before ever becoming an administrator.

Having progressed as a leader into a position that allows me to influence change on a greater scale, I can’t imagine ever stepping back.  Even though being a VP is the hardest job I’ve ever had, I don’t think I could ever give it up.  The more I work in education, the more I realize how important the school has become to so many of our students, in ways beyond purely academics.  I strive to make our school a warm and welcoming place so that our students feel safe and comfortable being in our building.  I feel very lucky to be in a position where I’m able to affect positive change and it is now my duty to continue in this way.  Finally, although there are many days when I am exhausted emotionally in my job, I do have to confess that being a leader and helping others makes me feel really good.

Not Waiting for Superman

Over the past week, I’ve read a few blogs that have talked, in general, about the tension between what we, educators, would like to achieve and what we can actually accomplish.  This year, it seemed to me that I felt more of a pull between what I wanted to get done and what I could realistically do, more so than I’ve felt in any other year.  To a certain extent, I was relieved after reading different posts and noticing that many people seemed to feel the same way (not that I was happy when other people were feeling stressed or anything!)

This sentiment made me start to question why we feel such a pull as educators.  During an admin meeting earlier in the year, I brought up the fact that ever since I’ve become a VP, I’ve regressed as a support teacher.  Any administrators with a split load will probably relate to my dilemma of having to do two jobs at the same time.  My deterioration as a support teacher forced me to look at my practice and try to figure out what was going on.  I quickly realized a major factor was that I had started to sacrifice one part of my job for another.  After reflecting upon this problem, I consciously decided to devote some more time to my support teaching and to ask for help, in the form of delegating, with the administrative part.   This solution wasn’t an easy fix for me, since it felt as though I had to choose one part of my job over the other.  But I knew that something definitely had to give, in order to reach a better balance and to properly support my teachers & students.  And I think therein lies the dilemma.  We are all human, we try to do our best but we can’t do it all.

As workers in the educational system in BC, we have all been pushed to do more with less for many years now.  This affects everyone:  teachers, custodians, Special Education Assistants, office staff, and administrators.  It seems that no one in education is immune to the “pull”.

Thank you to people like @datruss, @c_durley and @TiaHenriksen for sharing your ideas and struggles via your blogs.  I’ve found that reading your posts really helped me to reflect on my own practice.  I know that, at the start of the next school year, I will remember the lessons I learned this year about how much I can realistically accomplish.  I’ll still do my best and try to be as helpful as I can, but I know I’ll have to be okay with not trying to be Superman.

Parking lot life-lessons

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a “cup half-full guy” but be forewarned that this post is not a super positive one.  I had an experience today that shook my faith, not in humanity, as I don’t want to overplay the experience, but I must say that it did make me very sad.  Current and former vice principals know the feeling of doing parking lot duty and the ups and downs that go with it (I like the chance to have a quick chat or a “How’s it going?” when I’m out there but I don’t look forward to asking people not to park in the bus lane, yet again). 

In preparation for this morning’s big field trip to the waterslides (close to half of our students were going) I had to cordon off more than the usual amount of the parking lot in order to accommodate the seven school buses arriving at our school.  Things seemed to be going well while I was out there until I noticed a man trying to park in a spot that was cordoned off.  I noticed him edging forward and, thinking that he was adjusting his line to back into a handicapped spot, I picked up the pylon that was in his way and started to edge backwards, out of his way.  As I was doing this, it became clear that he wasn’t going to stop driving toward me and he ended up bumping into the pylon that I was holding!  In disbelief I looked at a parent who was standing nearby only to see the same look of disbelief on her face. 

After the man had parked I approached him, calmly (I promise you I didn’t lose it), introduced myself as the VP and asked him what he was doing.  To be honest, I was quite shocked by his answer.  He said, “I’m late and you’re causing a traffic blockage”.   In other words, I had the right to nudge you out of the way because you’re making me late!!  I tried to explain to him that we were expecting seven buses which was why the parking lot had to be organized differently on this particular morning and he shot back, “Where are they then?”  I explained that the buses were running late but that they could arrive at any moment.  I also explained to him that his unsafe action would not be tolerated again and that he would not be welcome in the parking lot if he acted in a repeat fashion, to which he just harrumphed and walked away.  I just kind of shrugged it off in disbelief and went about my business. 

A few minutes later the disgruntled man returned and went at me again about causing back-ups in the street due to the changes I made in the parking lot with the pylons.  Ironically, today the traffic was actually much calmer (not as many back-ups into our school parking lot as usual) since many of the kids had been dropped off early for the field trip.  He finally got into his car and with his windows rolled up, mouthed some words at me.  Luckily I’m not a good lip reader.  Being a cup half-full guy, I moved on and headed out to supervise on the field trip. 

I didn’t really even think about this event all day (as there were many other things to consider when taking nearly 300 kids on a field trip) until we got back to school.  It turns out that the man had written an “apology” letter addressed to the principal, funnily enough.  After the first line of a backhanded apology, the rest of the letter basically outlined why I had caused his frustrations and how he was justified in doing what he did.  So, in sum, the man pushed his car into a plastic object being held in my hands and felt justified in doing so (as my changing the parking lot’s organization that morning was “making him late”). 

What infuriated me was not necessarily that he lost it on me, though I didn’t enjoy that experience, but that he took no responsibility for it afterwards.  When did we as adults decide to abdicate all sense of responsibility and what kind of example does this set for our kids?  Whenever I deal with a student in my office, the first sign I look for is to see if the student has realized what they’ve done, and if they genuinely feel contrite about it.  Then we move on to discuss how they’re going to go about “fixing” the situation.  I was saddened that this man felt no sense of remorse; in fact, he seemed to feel entitled to carry out his unsafe actions.  I was also concerned that, as a family member, he would have influence over one of my kindergarteners.  What I take away from this experience is that one of my goals as an educator should be to instill in my students a balance between their own sense of self-worth and that of others.  I’d like to teach my students to feel valued but not entitled.  It’s a lofty goal but one that I believe is well worth aiming for, especially after my experience today.