Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Trust Your First Impression

Sometimes, your first reaction to a person, experience, or event is the right reaction. I've often shared with my colleagues that "you'll know" within the first few moments of an interview whether or not you can see the interviewee as a member of your team. It's not just one thing; it can be their smile, their energy, their personality, or how they engage the panel. So far in my decade of administration, my first reaction has almost always been the right reaction when it comes to the interviewing process. What those new to administration may not realize is that the same theory applies to your first few impressions of your new school.

It is not uncommon for administrators to spend just a few years at one school before moving on and exploring new opportunities. At my first administrative placement, the middle school had experienced eight (!) principals in eleven years. Two of the principals from this school didn't even last through their first year. This school has just as many assistant principals over that time period. This trend has continued since my departure as they're on their fourth acting principal in three years. Given similar practices throughout many other schools, you will, as an administrator, have many "first reactions" to a variety of schools and situations. My last two "first reactions" have been very telling to the school experience and community support I later encountered.

Immediately, during my first week as an administrator at a previous school site, there was an odd buzz across the campus. There seemed to be a slight distrust of the administration by the student body. I had walked into what turned out to be a schism of ethical decisions on how to best support the educational and social growth of our students between the staff and the local community. I felt that I had walked into a difficult situation that would take much work to build and hopefully repair what had happened prior to my arrival. Personally, I had an ethical dilemma on how to address what felt like an out-of-control student body. In fact, I was tested by a first week experience that served as my "first reaction" to this new administrative opportunity.

It was the first Friday of the school year. After a relatively quiet first Friday, I headed home to begin the weekend. As I departed campus, I saw no less than a dozen students atop a nearby bridge throwing water balloons and eggs, some of which were frozen and hard as rocks, at freshman students as they rode the bikes home below the bridge. It turns out that this Junior and Senior class believed in a "tradition" where freshmen would be hazed on the first Friday of the school year. I pulled over and approached the bridge to stop the poor behavior. Students, upon seeing my arrival, ran in dozens of directions. A few of the students remained but denied any responsibility despite my and other eyewitness accounts of their behavior. A few students later bragged about their behavior on social media. An even worse hazing incident happened elsewhere off campus and involved an assault and battery on a middle school 7th grader. This didn't feel like a school community; it felt like something out of the last few chapters of Lord of the Flies.

It was at that moment that I realized that this was not a school community that matched my core values and that would challenge our administrative team daily. While I championed positive change and improved student choices over the next two years, I knew almost immediately via my first reaction on that first Friday that this was not a school, at least not at that time, that I wanted to spend my days. Truthfully, there is little doubt that the decision to venture elsewhere was the right choice, having landed at my current school site and all of the positives therein I experience on a daily basis.

At my current school site, my first week of school was nothing short of amazing. Students went out of their way to introduce themselves to me. There seemed to be a lot of instant trust and communication from the staff. The front office team was supportive and liked to spend their days in a middle school environment. Later on in the month, at one of my first discipline meetings with a parent regarding their student, the parent thanked me after our conversation, proud of how well I handled his student and the situation, and said they agreed 100% with the discipline result. Over the past four years, I've experienced many more moments like these first few days at our school. It was a staggering change from my previous administrative appointment and one that I welcomed wholeheartedly.

Sometimes, things can change for the better throughout a challenging situation but I'm a strong believer in trusting your first impression. I wouldn't take back those years at the challenging school site as that time has helped refocus my core beliefs in how I support all students and address difficult discipline incidents. That said, once you find the "right fit" for your administrative home, you'll experience many moments that mirror your positive first reaction. For me, every single day at my current site has dozens of moments that leave me smiling and appreciative to be able to spend my waking hours with our students, staff, and community. Similar opportunities are out there; you just have to trust your first impressions.

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