Lately, I find myself thinking deeply and critically about the purpose of education. I’m reflecting on K-12 education: first, my own that I experienced, second, that of my own children, and third, for the 677 students in the school where I am blessed to lead each and every day. In contemplating the complex intersection between school leadership and management, I can’t help but reflect on where leadership and management meets, and how it impacts school culture.
“Management works in the system;
leadership works on the system.”
– Stephen Covey
This school year, in some (but not all) ways, I’ve gone “back to basics”. One example of this is a commitment I’ve made, to write a letter. The letter I have in mind is to the future students in my school. The topic is what they can expect of the education they will receive. This is a personal-professional legacy project, a challenge issued by a leadership mentor of mine. Another example of this year’s approach is in response to some unexpected life circumstances that have arisen for a number of staff members. This has created a need to be available to serve their needs, in the interest of some members of our school community, who need my support.
It’s about the long and short view, a confluence of factors revealing a tension between “Leadership” and “Management”.
The need to balance between leadership and management presents opportunities, to reflect upon how a leader’s decisions impact those who matter most in our work: our students. While there are times when we fall prey to what John Hattie refers to as “the politics of distraction”, there is no more important time than now, to identify what we want for our students, and as a result, what will be our focus, as school leaders. Despite distractions, the best school leaders maintain their obligation to keep students’ best interests at the forefront of our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
My first leadership mentor is much revered as a keen and perceptive manager of details, no matter how small they may be. Through my early formative experiences in school leadership, I gained a quick appreciation for how close scrutiny of details can serve the organization, and in turn, serve the needs of the students and school community.
During our close work together, I would often listen as my mentor would mutter quotes that stick with me, to this day. For example, when we’d run a fire drill, he’d say, “You play like you practice, and you practice how you play.” In a post-drill analysis, we’d dissect where things went well and could’ve been more efficient. My mentor explained and modeled, breaking down these components, this worked well when practicing for a fire drill. He’d say, “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” We’d look at how much time a drill would take for people in different parts of the building, working with different populations of students. We’d bring people together to conduct our analysis and collectively reflect on what we did well and where we’d commit to doing better next time. Every second counted. Every detail mattered.
These management strategies resonate in my day-to-day management of details, to this very day. Now, when faced with a planned or even an unexpected event, the importance of planning and preparation is at the front of my mind.
However, not every decision a school leader makes can or should be treated as drill practice. Great leaders know this.
How do we message what’s most important?
Every day presents a fresh start and opportunity to convey what’s most important to others, through our thoughts, our words, and our actions. These messages may be less about procedural management, are more about snapshots of our leadership vision. They reflect our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for our school community. They represent opportunities for others to see our leadership values and our learning priorities for both students and school community.
“It’s about the people, people.”
I smile when I think of these words. The first time I said them aloud was at the inaugural Edcamp Long Island. During the Smackdown. I blurted this response to the question, “What is your big takeaway from our day together?” As anyone who has attended or has been part of planning an edcamp knows, there is an electricity that surges through our personal connections with those whom we’ve decided to learn with for the day. Often, this feeling continues, into the friendships that result and the learning that flows into our schools and into subsequent professional learning events we attend.
This is where I learned, what we do as leaders: It’s all about the people.
While it’s vital to pivot comfortably between management and leadership in a school building, it’s equally as important to keep vision focused on who we serve, and why we serve.
Looking beyond the drills:
Promise. Perspective. Potential.
Promise. Perspective. Potential.
Two decades ago, as a new entrant to the teaching profession, I saw an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. Regrettably, in retrospect, my teaching career was more about how I was to impact one group of students: “my students” and “my class”. While I made a promise to be a great teacher, looking back, in all truth, it was more about me than anyone else. Today, that promise has evolved. Today, it’s my privilege to serve in a role where I can be part of making decisions that result in positive outcomes for hundreds of students, and a generation of people. While my promise has evolved for the better, my commitment to the promise for that the future holds steady. It’s helping others to discover and fulfill the promises they make to themselves. It’s no longer about me. It’s about others. It’s about them. It’s about us.
What promises do you make
to your students or those who are impacted by your decisions?
People’s perception of a situation is their reality of that situation. Not everyone has had a positive school experience. For some, it was with a teacher or fellow students, and for others, it was a challenging subject area or extenuating circumstances outside of the school day. These mental models often inform the experiences of these people, as adults, and we’ve got an obligation to meet people where they are, listen to and understand their perspective, and walk with them towards our new reality, together. Conflict resolution is an unavoidable aspect of school leadership. Having the courage and tact to navigate such circumstances is an essential part of maintaining a positive school culture. Whether students have a difference of opinion or adults disagree, it’s the role of the school leader to be tactful and respectful in resolving conflict, peacefully and with student dignity in mind. Active listening and maintaining an empathetic mindset not only yields better results, but it also models for others how we can all do this. Honoring what we want for the other party, for ourselves, and most importantly, our priorities for the relationship between us, that is where leadership lives and school culture thrives.
How do you place and maintain empathy,
even in the most challenging of circumstances?
When I was first afforded the chance to lead the school where I currently serve as Principal, the school was not yet two years old. The vision was set and the master schedule, built for success. Those years prior to my arrival, I would have to imagine, were most challenging – defining the school culture as it found its own level. As teachers blended practices and students shaped and defined expectations, it was then that the seeds were sown. When it became my unexpected privilege, being handed the responsibility as “master gardener”, it was was chance to take a school community to the next level. While this may sound great, as a new principal, it did not come easily at first. For starters, I didn’t quite possess the “green thumb” that was necessary to yield consistently flawlessly abundant “crops” that made up a positive school culture. Fortunately, I as a member of the school community, I, too, am a learner, among other learners. In a school, and in any school and any classroom, when we look close enough, we can see where potential lies. We can nurture it, draw it out, and make the leadership choice to celebrate it. Now, eight years in, I see reasons to celebrate every day. And, I know, the best is yet come.
How do you grow the potential in others?
Image Credit: Lee Araoz
“This is not a drill.”
The next time we have a fire drill, undoubtedly, I will smile and think of the words of my mentor: “You play like you practice, and you practice how you play.” And as we exit and re-enter the school building, safely and soundly, settle in and get back to the learning at hand, I will remind myself: It’s about the people, people. It’s about promise. It’s about perspective. And it’s about potential.