Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Lasting Impression by my Second Principal

I'm often asked by my staff and parent community about my path in becoming a school administrator. They ask if there was one individual who inspired me to leave the classroom and join the dark side of administration. During these conversations, I think back to my time in the classroom and my site principals during those classroom days.

During my first five years in the classroom, I served under three very different principals. Each of these individuals had their own unique leadership style.

I had very limited interaction with my first principal. I'm not sure we ever spoke outside of my initial interview. Within the first few weeks of my time on the campus, she retired. Hopefully, my arrival on the campus wasn't the cause of her departure.

All I can remember from my third principal was his comment about my work attire (cargo shorts and Adidas flip flops were frowned upon for the teaching staff) and his love of Bruce Springsteen's album The Rising. My future (and current) wife worked in the main office as a counselor so I learned a lot of what it felt like to be part of a front office through her experience.

It was my second principal who made a more lasting impression. Despite only serving on an interim status for a short few months, it was his support during my first semester as a classroom teacher that helped shape my perspective on what a teacher-principal relationship could look like.

He always provided critical and timely FEEDBACK.

As a teacher new to the classroom, I was woefully unprepared. After my interview and mid-year hiring, I was given the keys to my classroom and wished the best of luck. Even with the additional adults in the classroom for student support, it was my first classroom and the early goings were quite rocky. During my prep periods, I'd often venture to the office to check in. Even early on in my educational career, I liked the quasi chaos of the main office.

During these visits, the principal would take me aside and ask me pointed questions about my teaching practice. He'd ask what I felt at the time to be very challenging questions about my lesson planning, how I was addressing the social and emotional needs of my students, and how I was working on integrating myself into the staff as a new teacher at the school. Truthfully, I did a lot more listening during these conversations, as I didn't have any of the answers I felt he was looking for.

During these conversations, he would give significant feedback on my responses and what he noticed from his formal and informal visits to my classroom as well as any observations he made from my interactions with other staff members, students, and my students' parents. This feedback was often very pointed. He did not mince his words, although never in a mean way. He shared a sense of compassion toward my classroom and school site efforts while, at the same time, strongly encouraging me to reflect and figure out how I could improve my practice. The feedback he provided made me think about school topics and classroom issues in a manner I had not expected. Always supportive, not all of his feedback was positive. A significant part of his words were actually quite critical. However, his overall message was something I needed to hear if I were to be the best educator possible for my students. He offered resources and opportunity for growth. He had the talent to pull from my strengths while allowing consistent reflection on my many areas for improvement.

He modeled what diplomacy and consistency should look like for a site principal.

One of my biggest challenges as an administrator was perhaps my second principal's best talent: he truly got along with so many different types of people. Whereas I may get a bit frustrated and impatient in my conversations and observations with various members of my staff, he always maintained his composure and remained oddly consistent in his leadership. He avoided making huge waves amongst the staff. One of my main takeaways was how he trusted the teachers, as professionals, to be curriculum and classroom decisions to best support their students. Outside our school walls, he was perhaps one of the leading conversationalists on neuroscience in education and had knowledge regarding the science of the teaching profession that was unparalleled in our district.

He encouraged me to network, both on and off our school site. He was one of my strongest advocates, always trusting in my abilities while offering resources and opportunities to improve. He shared his secrets on how to remain engaged in the activity of the middle school without allowing it to overwhelm you. He was a shield of the new-to-the-teaching-profession individuals on our staff, always providing a level of consistent support.

He led with a good sense of balance. Just because a parent or a teacher had what they felt to be a significant concern, he didn't allow their issues to become his issues. He maintained a sense of self and compassion, always willing to listen but not becoming overly emotionally involved in the latest drama that occurs way too regularly on a middle school campus. It is perhaps the hardest challenge of a caring principal to not get negatively involved in the poor behaviors of the adults we interact with on a daily basis. Somehow, he threaded the balance of continued diplomacy while still showing the compassion necessary for our kids, parents, and staff.

He encouraged me to look past my current position and toward my educational FUTURE. 

As a new teacher to the classroom on an emergency credential, I was not thinking ahead to my professional career; instead, I was simply enjoying my first few days in the classroom and wondering what it would take to somehow acquire a teaching credential. As previously shared, my arrival into the classroom was based on the puzzle pieces of a chance encounter that just seemed to all fit together. I gave no consideration toward any career past the classroom.

My principal had other ideas.

He would stop me on my visits to the office to talk about my experience in the classroom that day. What had I learned. How would I apply these findings toward tomorrow. He would regularly pull back the curtain to what it was like to be an administrator. He regularly encouraged me to consider a future in administration. Without any prompting, he offered to write the eventual necessary letter of recommendation I'd need down the line for any educational career advancement. When the time came four years later where I'd need his recommendation, he had it signed and ready to go almost instantaneously. After my first few interviews, he sat with me and provided the necessary reflection to improve. When I got my first administrative position, he was one of the first people to congratulate me. When I later returned to my first district, he was one of the first people to greet me. After I once again left for an outside district, he supported me every step of the way. He seemed to have a better vision of my future than I may have had. He was always there to provide those bits of encouragement along the way.

It is from this individual that I grew many of the tenets of my administrative philosophy. While I may not always manage to reach these lofty standards, it doesn't stop me from trying to best support my fellow educators at Union Middle. Hopefully, when we have a chance to look back, a few current Union Middle staff members will reflect upon the time we spent together in a similar fashion as they move forward in their educational careers.

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