Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

The #1 Trait of a Good School Leader

As an administrator, I’ve always had something to prove
By Erica Walters — November 15, 2022 4 min read
Photo illustration of a tangled path that ultimately straightens out superimposed over graduates lined up on a stage.
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“Tenacity” is the word that comes to mind when thinking of my focus for this school year. As school leaders continue to face staffing vacancies in critical content areas, anxiety over safety and security measures at our schools, and mental-wellness strategies to maintain a healthy environment for students, we must remember to be tenacious.

Tenacity is the one attribute in my day-to-day professional life as an assistant principal in a large Title I high school in central Florida that keeps me in the education profession. Let me explain why, my friends.

I will always be the type to root for the underdog. It must come from my basketball background and being the youngest child in my family. Because of my small stature, playing basketball from the age of 6 while walking in my very successful older sister’s shadow, I always felt like the underdog. I felt like I had to prove myself to everyone.

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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.

That is exactly how I have felt as an administrator for the past six years. I have had to prove something to a staff who had seen multiple administrators come into their school from year to year. I’ve had to prove something to a community that wasn’t used to a woman in a leadership role. I’ve had to prove to everyone that our students are worthy and they can be successful, no matter their background.

Having the tenacity to not give up on teenagers in their high school years, no matter what neighborhood they come from and no matter their prior life decisions, is not always an easy task. It is imperative that we do it anyway. When these students succeed, I relish the look on their faces when they walk across the graduation stage. It only takes one person to believe in a student to allow them to see and believe in themselves, to help them be successful.

Will there be bumps in the road? Of course. Is that not what makes life interesting? But having the tenacity to not give up on students, especially when so many other people have given up on them before, is what makes this job worth it.

When I think of the beauty of tenacity, I see the face of a student at a previous school where I was an administrator. Q was tall, loud, and popular (if sometimes for the wrong reasons). He could win the hearts of any room, but he also could turn a mood sour, depending on the interaction. Q was used to being told he would be nothing in life, that the choices as a middle schooler that had led to his expulsion would carry over to his adult life. Q was intelligent, both in academics and street smarts.

I first had a one-on-one conversation with Q in his sophomore year. I sat down with him one day after his umpteenth time being sent out of class. Sitting down with him for that conversation, I quickly realized that Q had a big heart that just happened to be broken in a million pieces for reasons outside his control. I told him that I believed in him and that I saw his potential. I promised to help him see his own potential.

Throughout his remaining years at the high school, Q joined several clubs that were outside his comfort zone. He volunteered on the homecoming committee, rallying students to buy tickets and attend. He was the leader in the boys’ mentoring program I ran. Once he’d gotten his grades up enough to qualify, he even tried out for the wrestling team.

Despite the message he had gotten from countless other teachers—and administrators—that he was never going to make it and that he should stick to the “street life,” Q had the tenacity to stick with school. When he wanted to get a start on job training, we worked together to figure out how he could balance that training with his graduation requirements.

He managed to graduate a semester early, right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was fortunate timing, as Q has told me that had he been at school during the global shutdown, he would have probably dropped out because he did not have the push from home to continue on his own. The pull to the street life was too great for him.

That last semester he was there and completed all his requirements was tough on him, but he did it. On. His. Own.

When the graduation ceremony finally rolled around, no one from his family showed up. He came by himself, and that was only after I called and begged him to come. He said he didn’t want to come alone with no one to cheer him on. I never yelled louder than when he walked across that stage.

Although the pandemic forced us to relocate graduation to our school’s auditorium, rather than our city’s large civic center where it is traditionally held, Q was able to walk the graduation stage and prove to the world—and to himself—that he was worthy and capable. Shouldn’t this be the case with all our students?

Administrators, please remember that without tenacity, we cannot accomplish the many jobs that we have throughout the year, heck, throughout the day. We push forward when we think we don’t have any gas left in the tank. We hold back our tears of frustration when all we want to do is hide under a blanket. We put a smile on our face, even if our heart is breaking. Why? Because the final look on a student’s face crossing that graduation stage is worth more than a paycheck ever will be.

This is why we do what we do. Good luck this year, my friends!

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