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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Leadership Matters: The Dual Role of Leader and Teacher

By Barry Saide — July 29, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Barry Saide, a fifth grade teacher in Bernards Township, NJ

Becoming a new principal is tough. Having a vision, creating an organization that best represents that image, staying true your core while empowering others to fill theirs, it’s all part of the process. It’s even tougher when you take on the responsibility while still teaching full-time.

I know this, because I did this. For five years.

In 2008, my building Principal and Superintendent approached me about directing the Before and Aftercare program in the building I teach in. They were looking for someone to lead the program, as the district would be taking it over from an outside provider. This was an opportunity for me to build something. Create an entire school within a school: organize, budget, schedule, hire and observe staff, order food, handle all student discipline and parental communication. Make sure people were paid on time. It sounded great, and it was. It was also overwhelming

We opened in September of 2009 to growing pains. Literally. We expected 120 students to attend. Over 150 showed up. I had to hire staff and ask them to work that day. Yes...that day.

Families who hadn’t been required to hand in paperwork or pay on time under the prior administration didn’t understand when we explained that legally we couldn’t take care of their children without emergency contact information or health records. Nor had I ordered snacks for their children. These parents would need to come pick up their kids. Now. Otherwise state law dictated I had to contact the police. Mentioning that last piece seemed to persuade the initially reluctant.

Parents were stopped at the attendance desk when they did come to pick up their children, and had to adjust to new security measures: show identification, then wait as staff communicated by walkie-talkie to locate students and bring them to the desk. Once staff dropped off students, parents had to sign them out.

If a student was injured, staff documented the injury, precautions were taken, and parents notified. This was new, and the learning curve was steep.

This ended day one. I didn’t know it then, but in essence, I added what was another full-time job to my plate overnight.

My Day Job

I teach fifth grade, and was grade level leader at the same time we rebooted the Before and Aftercare program. Many times, after the last student left, I would hustle back to my classroom: I needed to be ready for my own students the next day. Reviewing student work, grading, planning, returning phone calls and e-mails -- these things continued. There were times I don’t think I slept for more than 40 minutes, and days I did not see my family or friends.

However, the experience I garnered working with staff, supporting students, learning how to hear what parents actually meant versus what they sometimes said, and in the end making decisions on what was best for kids, those were life-changing experiences. No educational leadership class or degree prepared me for when an irate parent came in red-faced, steam coming out of her ears, lambasting me with four-letter words because I signed off on a decision she didn’t like. Didn’t matter that I believed my staff acted professionally, and everyone did what was in the best efforts of the child.

In the end, I was in the side room off the cafeteria, trying to explain to a woman who pelted me with verbal bombs why we did what we believed was in the best interest of her child. And, would do it again.

I learned many things (besides sometimes shutting my mouth and letting someone else vent) during my five years as Director. Five years later, as I prepared to let the program go and release the responsibility to another teacher in the building at the end of the last school day, I thought back to the most important things I learned as a fledgling leader. I hope that these things will resonate with others, and people will learn from my experiences. No sense in both of us doing it wrong:

1. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: in many situations the truth may seem self-evident. When working with people of any ages, this is hardly ever the case. I’m an emotional guy with a deep sense of fairness and belief in the moral obligation to do what’s best for the global community through a commitment to excellence. However, sometimes all that needs to be set aside so I don’t make an uninformed decision. If I don’t take time to understand the situation fully, then, that’s on me, because not everything needs to be decided immediately.

2. Accept When Haste Does Make Waste: there will be times when an instant decision must be made. When protocol must be followed. When doing what’s best for kids, staff, and families means a choice needs to be made now. Leadership means being able to make the hard choice, again and again, even if I know it will make someone(s) upset. Emotions and hurt feelings will fade. I need to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing based on the situation, even if it has a bad aftertaste.

3. They Don’t Care What You Say: but they watch what you do. Early in my career as Director I used to call attention to the things I did: visiting classrooms, monitoring the lunchroom during snack, working with parents to better educate them on a situation that occurred with their child. It wasn’t until someone on my staff brought it to my attention that I realized people noticed what I did. Most times they appreciated it. I didn’t need to tell them. Actually, I needed to shut up.

4. ...And Trust My Staff: who for the most part were teachers or aides in the building during the day, and inherently began every shift wanting to do the right thing. I don’t believe anyone came in thinking, “I’m going to make this student in my group neurotic,” or, “I think I’ll just mail it in and make myself look terrible.” Everyone hired was professional, coming from a place of wanting to do well for students and their families. It was up to me to remember when working with them to understand decisions they made, so we could both learn and grow from them.

Being open to growth during these past five years as Director meant owning each mistake I made, and learning from it. It meant sharing with my building administrators and staff questions I didn’t know the answer to, and figuring it out together. I showed positivity, even after a challenging situation. I modeled flexibility, as I expected my staff to adapt and adjust as needed. Because, that’s what I did in the classroom. For my other day job.

Connect with Barry Saide on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.