For most people, January is the only time of the year that they stop to consider the past year’s triumphs and challenges and make resolutions for a new year. As educators, we’re fortunate to have two times per year to engage in such reflection: January and July.
We reflect in January like everyone else, but after the close of another year, we have the chance to engage in a reflective process once again. Whether it’s a good-bad-ugly, plus-minus-delta, or rose-bud-thorn approach, we have several choices for how to reflect.
What’s something you’ve done in the past two weeks that you’ve been proud of and what’s something that hasn’t worked yet? When I ask my staff these questions, they can be difficult topics. It is the “yet” part that I have always found the most opportunity for growth. I encourage my teachers to do the same. If we can acknowledge that we are not perfect, then identifying areas for growth should be a reasonable next step.
In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.
Over the years, I’ve found that people resist change—or at least being asked to change. We’re comfortable with who we are and what we do, unless something causes us to pause.
Consider your morning routine. How often does it vary? The alarm wakes you. You jump in the shower, brush your teeth, get dressed. Rinse and repeat. You don’t really think about “what to do next.” You just do it.
If we aren’t careful, the same thing can happen with our careers. We just “do it” from day to day, and before we know it, one day becomes one month, which becomes one year and then 10 years. Before we know it, our careers are coming to an end, and we may have missed the opportunities to grow if we weren’t being intentional about evolving.
Here’s the great news: It’s not too late! If you’re reading this article, you’re likely still working for a school division. You still have time to stop, reflect, evolve.
The challenge? Doing the heavy lifting of change can be scary. “If I try this new strategy, it may not work. The staff may see that I make mistakes. The teachers may see that I don’t always have the right answer.”
Even if you try something new and fail, there are several other reactions your staff may have about you. “My principal tries new things. If it’s safe for him to do that, then I’m going to try something new in my class.” Or: “She isn’t perfect after all. The fact that she showed her ‘humanness’ means I can, too.”
You may be wondering where to even begin this process of growth. Without realizing it, you’re already engaged in one of the easiest ways to identify areas of growth: reading professional literature like Education Week! There are countless ideas that I’ve gained over the years that have helped me either improve a weakness or evolve an area that was “average.”
Most recently in August of this year, I read an article in this publication about what principals carry in school. The article noted creative ways that principals carry their belongings around school, but the interview of the third principal was what stuck with me. That principal carried her items around in a clipboard that had a pocket on the backside. She put all her observation and desk essentials in there so she could avoid having to return to her office if an observation or meeting occurred on the spur of a moment.
That article focused on something that I regularly struggled with but didn’t realize how to improve. I’ve always loved being in the halls to connect with students and staff, but I wasn’t always as efficient as I wanted. Instead, I was regularly rushing back to my office to collect my items before heading to the next appointment.
After reading that article, my efficiency has drastically improved. I am now able to attend both scheduled and impromptu meetings. In fact, I’ve enjoyed the clipboard idea so much that I’ve already purchased a “thinking of you” gift item for colleagues: a copy of the article along with their own clipboard. By giving my colleagues something that has helped me so much, I hope they’ll enjoy that same level of improved efficiency.
Of course, there are always ways to improve. I thoroughly enjoy attending professional conferences and hearing the kinds of issues principals are working on and strategies they are using to manage them.
I also enjoy meeting with colleagues for collaboration and professional learning. After 27 years in this business, I still learn so much from my peers. Ideas like how to handle student prayer time during the school day, address students who want to protest a political issue, and create strategies for student misconduct. These are just a few of the recent issues that I addressed with my colleagues to develop management strategies.
My point is this: Reflecting on you, your growth, and your immediate future is akin to looking in the mirror. You see what you like and don’t like and adjust accordingly. I encourage you to put on a new you. Read professionally, attend conferences, and participate in professional learning communities. Give yourself the gift of reflection time so you can be at your very best for your students, staff, and parents.
Consider cellphones. They’re constantly changing, with new standard features every year. The newest smartphone of 2024 can’t offer the same features as even 2023 or else nobody will buy one.
If we used that same mentality in public education, we would feel the urge to find new ways regularly and persistently for our “standard features” in school to be something new and exciting for our students.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as How Principals Can Grow Professionally This Year