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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

Why Would Anyone Want To Be a School Leader?

By Peter DeWitt — March 24, 2013 5 min read
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School leadership is hard...especially now. There are point scales to contend with, evaluations based on test scores, and budget cuts that result in the lay-offs of teachers and administrative colleagues. Some leaders who have been in the position for a few years have seen cuts to programs, and have a constant need to find creativity in a very uncreative time.

On top of that leaders have students living in extreme poverty, an increase in the students with social-emotional issues, and in some cases are expected to take on the role of parents to students...and their parents. It’s hard to weed through what is important and what is not.

Why would anyone want to be a school leader these days? Trying to do the right thing at the same time we are being guided by some education departments (i.e. state, federal) to do the wrong thing doesn’t seem to be worth the stress. If that is the way you feel, run away now. Schools need leaders who will fight the status quo at the same time they fight policymakers making education worse. Students and staff deserve better.

Trust Issues
When new leaders enter a position, there are many staff who are ready to support them and others who do not trust them at all. It seems unfair, especially if the leader is new to the district. Shouldn’t all staff trust their new leader? As unfortunate as it may be, it happens and new leaders should understand why it happens.

Sometimes the lack of trust occurs because the staff had a previous leader who did not treat them well at all, and others times it happens just because of the title. There are staff, parents, and even kids, who don’t trust a leader because they have the title of principal.

That has to be ok with new leaders if they plan on running a building. They can’t take it personal. The previous experience that the staff had with a school leader may have been negative. One of the first, and most important, aspects of the job is to build trust with staff, students and parents.

Leaders may not walk into a building with a clean slate but the pursuit of trust is an important one. Trust is something that is built one conversation and one action at a time. Every time a leader acts on an issue and every time they have a conversation with a one faculty member or the whole faculty, they are building trust. These conversations go into our emotional bank accounts.

Covey says,

We all know what a financial bank account is. We make deposits into it and build up reserves from which we can make withdrawals when we need to. An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that's been built up in a relationship. It's the feeling of safeness you have with another human being" (1989. P. 188).

In the End
It is avoidable when working with staff that we make deposits and other times we make withdrawals. Deposits happen when we support staff members through a tough time or cover their class when they need to run out for an emergency. Deposits happen with kids when leaders engage with them and show they care. Deposits also happen when kids are treated with respect during times of discipline. If students see a school leader as “human” they are more likely to trust them.

Withdrawals also happen and they can be devastating. They occur when leaders have to make decisions that staff does not agree with or when the leader makes a major mistake. School leaders are the bridge between the central office and the staff they lead. That bridge is not always clearly defined and school leaders will feel in the middle. There will be times when school leaders see both sides and other times when they don’t but have to follow through anyway.

Being in a situation that ends with a withdrawal of the emotional bank account is hard. However, if leaders did the work before these issues arise and built trust with their staff, the times they make withdrawals will not be as devastating as they could have been if the leaders did not do the work at all.

As school leaders we can call ourselves whatever we want. We can consider ourselves the “lead learner” to symbolize that we take learning very seriously. Other times we want to be approachable and go out of our way to show our door is always open. The reality is that actions speak louder than words and it takes months, even years, for school leaders to show that they are someone that staff, parents and students can trust. Every conversation and interaction helps to build a rapport, or puts a wedge in the relationship. Trust does not come easy and everyone has to work for it.

The bottom line is that school leaders can foster relationships with students, staff and parents that will last a lifetime. They help create a more engaging learning environment, and they get to work in one of the best professions. That’s why educators become school leaders.

Things to keep in mind:
Be human - People make mistakes. Don’t crucify them because of it. Address it if it is a continuing issue.
Have tough conversations - As the school leader you will have to have tough conversations with students, staff and parents. Do it respectfully. The biggest mistake new leaders, and veteran ones, make is that they will call someone out the next time an issue arises. Don’t wait until the next time.
Instill laughter into your everyday practices - Whether you are an elementary, middle or high school leader, you get to work with kids. There is no reason why everyday can’t bring laughter. These days it’s more important than ever.
Surround yourself with good people - I am nothing without my staff at school and support system at home. Your job will be much harder if you do not bond with those around you.
Check in on people - Don’t get wrapped up in your own issues. Your job is to serve those you lead, which includes students, staff and parents.
Complete teacher observations with integrity- Too often people look at observations as something to check off the list. Don’t do that because they do matter. Focus on the parts of instruction that were engaging and the other parts that need work. If you don’t, who will?
Encourage teachers to be who they are - we have too many cookie cutter approaches to education these days. Encourage teachers to be different. Encourage them to take risks. They’ll thank you AND they’ll encourage their students to do the same.

Please feel free to add to the list.

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Resource:Covey, Stephen (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster. New York, N.Y.

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.