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School & District Management Opinion

Principals, Don’t Try to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

Three strategies to keep you challenged as a leader
By Nick Davies — December 13, 2022 2 min read
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For The Principal Is In column: We have all heard the advice: Never be the smartest person in the room. What does that mean for principals who, at times, can feel like they work on an island? Here are three strategies to ensure you are not the smartest person in the room even if you are the only leader of the building.
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We have all heard the advice: Never be the smartest person in the room. What does that mean for principals who, at times, can feel like they work on an island? Here are three strategies to ensure you are not the smartest person in the room even if you are the primary leader of the building.

1. Show vulnerability. When I started as an elementary associate principal, I had never spent time at an elementary school. I believe I have a strong understanding of how schools are effectively run and how to work with and motivate teachers. I don’t, however, have a strong understanding of teaching kindergartners the basics of reading. I was honest with the teachers I was evaluating about that part of my background.

I also then offered to co-plan and co-teach with the teachers or run a small group for them. I know that if I can co-plan with a teacher, they will be able to see my understanding of teaching best practices regardless of the age of the student, and, in the process, I can learn more about teaching kindergartners.

About This Series

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.

So, be vulnerable with your staff. If there is an area that they can help you grow in, be honest and find a teacher to work with. I now tell staff that it is a pleasure to learn with and from them instead of saying it is a pleasure to work with them.

2. Empower others and distribute leadership. Find opportunities to empower teachers. I believe this does multiple things. First, it gives teachers opportunities to be leaders in the school.

Who is excellent at analyzing data? Ask if they will help you present the state testing data to the staff and what the next steps are. Who has used the new literacy curriculum before? Ask if they will model a short lesson for the staff to see how it can be used effectively in the classroom. Do you have a coach or equity mentor in your building? Ask them to give you feedback on how you are doing.

I lead the equity teams at two schools and I always ask an equity mentor to sit with me and give me feedback before and after meetings to know how I can do better. If I am focused on equitable outcomes for students, then I need perspectives other than my own and to be constantly pushed in my thinking to make our schools more welcoming and inclusive.

3. Rely on your professional networks. Ensure you have relationships with the other principals in your district. If you have a small district or are the only person in a particular role, find people in neighboring districts. There is also the broader educational community that is incredibly open to helping each other.

I always tell the teachers I supervise and the preservice ones I teach, “Don’t go it alone.” That same message is true for principals. Don’t try to do everything on your own. Who in your district can be a thought partner with you? Who can you reach out to for advice? Who are you partnering with to grow as a leader?

If you are thinking about these strategies and none of them is possible for you, then it might be time to think differently: If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. Maybe it is time to switch from elementary to middle school or from a building to the district office.

Or if you don’t want to leave your current role, maybe it is time to really challenge yourself. It could be pushing to increase student voice and agency in your school or maybe it is encouraging more parent involvement. It could be time for you to find a mentor or executive coach to push you in a new direction. We only grow if we are continually challenged. How do you ensure you are not the smartest person in the room?

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