Everyone knew who I was, of course. The teachers, students, parents, and custodial and office staffs all greeted me by name that first day. I remember a sense of imbalance welling up, a kind of professional vertigo as I looked at all those welcoming, wondering faces with names not yet securely attached.
I was sure that most of them wanted me to succeed; certain, too, that some of them had special interests to guard, maybe even axes to grind, and that they would be anxious to know where I stood on a whole host of issues facing the school and its community. All those projected hopes, unvoiced but no less real, piled high on the in-basket of expectations and emotions that met me as I began this new and different work.
I had come to The Common School from state government, from the governor’s staff where I’d worked on state policy for education and youth services. I’d been eager to get away from state politics for some time. I wanted to work with real families again, with individual children instead of statistical populations and groups. Politicians constantly wondering about the extent of their minimal obligations to children had strained my commitment to child advocacy and early education. The opportunity to lead a small, experimental school was timely, a chance to move away from questions like “What can we afford?’' toward “What’s the best we might do?’'
And besides, the governor I devotedly worked for had lost his reelection bid and then died suddenly while still in office. His successor seemed an unlikely patron for the liberal likes of me.
My political past followed me from the State House to the schoolhouse. Who was I to head this school, to lead this faculty? What values would a veteran of political trenches bring--and project--in the hitherto untainted role of school leader? I hadn’t been a teacher in years, and I’d never taught long division.
So I’d planned carefully for that first opening day. I would be outside to greet all the arriving students and parents. I would spend the bulk of the morning in classrooms. I would be out with my sneakers on for recess. I would be visible, engaged, observing, welcoming, offering a hand.
Things went from hopeful to hectic in a hurry. First my wife called to say her car was dead in the driveway. She was late for work. Our boys (already bearing the ignominious weight of having Dad for a principal) were late for their first day, and I would have to drive home and pick up everyone. School opened without me, essentially. No doubt some thought I was isolated in my office already.
By the time I returned, there were other problems. A toilet had backed up. No custodian was available. Did I know where the plunger was? On it went through the day to the faculty meeting, where my bumbling efforts to ingratiate myself with humor met with puzzled (not even bemused) silence. It was a rocky start.
I thought the first few months should be a time for observation, for gathering ideas, for listening to opinions, for constructing a set of ideas about challenges and priorities for the future. Others immediately thought otherwise. When would I move from being a facilitator to being a leader? How soon could my ideas for curriculum be implemented? Any luck yet on new sources of funding?
I kept responding and reacting, eager to solve, to soothe, to please. It took me a while to figure out that I wouldn’t be able to work this way for long. Or that if I did, I’d never accomplish anything significant or coherent. I needed help.
People who become principals aren’t very good at asking for help. We tend to be the types who, when faced with a problem, respond with “I’ll tackle it,’' or “I’ll get right on it,’' or--if we’ve made a little progress--"You’re right about that. Let’s work on it together.’'
We want to get things done. We have faith in our own ideas and abilities. We like to get right to work. A worthy attitude, but not necessarily always what’s needed. And an untenable attitude when the demands pile up, as they did so quickly for me.
So I called my father and a colleague and spilled all sorts of concerns and questions into the phone, hoping for answers from these wise and experienced leaders. The similarity of their responses was startling. Neither of them had answers to offer. Instead they had questions. Question after question in response to mine, probing for details about the culture of my school, about the nature of the particular challenges I faced, about my own tentative ideas and strategies for the next steps.
Suddenly, the connections began to form clearly in my mind--between a belief in questions as the essential units of learning and a commitment to leadership as meaning more than coming up with all the solutions by myself.
I reflected on all the questions my interrogators had for me. And I thought back to my own schooling’s emphasis on answers, on getting it right alone. This school--and I--had a philosophical commitment to discovery learning and collaborative problem solving for students. I learned right then that this commitment was as important for the principal as it was for the pupil. Good leaders and teachers understand that the questions, not the final answers, are where the learning is. Of a great leader, Lao Tze reminds us, the people will say, “We did this ourselves.’'
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as From Hopeful To Hectic