Someone’s Fallen Overboard? Don’t Just Offer Them a Free Swim Lesson!
It’s Principal Appreciation Month and one of the most impactful ways we can support Principals is by helping them focus on the core responsibilities of their work. In the countless beginning of year meetings I’ve had as Fulcrum has launched school partnerships in the 2020 school year, I have seen a few consistent trends emerge that indicate how we as partners might be able to help do that. Generalizing a typical ice breaker with a principal, asking “how has the school year started?”, has yielded many similar answers. Below I try to capture the most common themes of these answers and some matched suggestion for partnerships supporting Principals in these spaces to help them focus on doing their best work.
Theme A: It’s actually started well, but all I can think about are the parts that aren’t as good as I like so I am going to skip any good stuff and jump right to my problems.
These are the leaders that immediately tell me about their open positions, enrollment challenges, late arriving texts, etc. They gloss over the positive changes, because they truly don't see them and allow themselves to enjoy them. They are also steeped in a culture of feedback. As a result they ask and receive it from so many folks, they are likely to hear about every shortcoming multiple ways from multiple people.
Partner Suggestion: Ask them what’s improved. Make them tell you what is good. Ask them how and why it got better. Ask them how long that took. Ask them how hard that was. Then, use the narrative to connect to the current goals and give them permission to apply their same processes and time frames. Change that lasts is the goal. That isn’t always quick.
Theme B: Everything is great. They don’t know how much longer they can keep it up, but it’s great.
You would be shocked if you knew how many principals eluded to this. Things are generally great or much improved. Why would they want to leave? It’s because the amount of “them” it took to get it and keep it at this level can be demoralizing. Every level of education has a slice of this issue, but no person is held more accountable by more people that can directly reach them, than a Principal. Every day their entire staff and school community can access them, hold them accountable and give them “feedback”.
Partner Suggestion: Validate their feelings. They likely have had many folks around them shift and are feeling a lack of hope. Yes, it’s hard work. It also doesn’t get easier, but you get better at it. Make sure you are giving this version of yourself a fair evaluation and don’t worry about a year from now.
Theme C: It’s started poorly. It’s hard to see how it will get better. Please don’t go in the classrooms X,Y, and Z after 10am.
The school is in transition and hoping to right the ship. It’s not a secret to anyone, but the path to righting it needs to happen immediately. This urgency is well-intentioned but the product of it is pressure and often accommodation of short-term wins at the expense of sustainable school improvement. This leader may have grants, coaches, and layers of support, but if they aren’t building toward common, sustainable improvement these supports themselves become a point of stress.
Partner Suggestion: Remind them change is hard. Be urgent about the urgent things, but if everything is urgent, then there is no real urgency. Figure out the things that are your “submarine” issues. The space where even one hole will sink you. Fixate on improving those and tackle them one at a time. Maybe classroom X first. It doesn’t mean ignoring other issues. It does mean making tough choices to improve.
Most conversations are combinations of these buckets and vary depending on the day. There’s a ton of systemic and viable reasons for this, but what I have learned is that school leaders in many situations don’t need to be immediately “developed” out of their problem.
Throw them a line. Dive in after them. Add value immediately.
They need the life preserver before we can figure out which direction to swim. Swim lessons as you are drowning, not as useful. Stay with them in the journey and you can make progress. I am more sure than ever that we have the right leaders after these conversations. As partners in their work, we need to help figure out when they need the swim lesson and when they just need a thank you card.