The meeting at the Principals' Center began early. Louise, a principal at a suburban school, arrived first, anxious to share. It had been a long week at Louise's school. A few days earlier, the phone had rung at her home at around 5:00 a.m. There had been an automobile accident. One child was killed instantly; another, Aaron, a 3rd grader for Louise's school, was hospitalized.
The recent hours and days had been nightmarish as Louise phoned parents and communicated with the press and police. She counseled and consoled parents and classmates and kept an open line to the superintendent. She became minister, manager, counselor, and comforter. She stood with police and family at the wake and funeral.
Louise told the story—through tears—to the other principals. These people were more than an audience. They were friends who may have had to, or will someday have to, cope with similar situations.
The events Louise shared struck a chord in others who spoke of similar experiences. Some were surprised at the quality of relationships Louise had developed over the years with the police. Several told of the crisis teams formed in their own schools. The less experienced principals took notes. The comments ranged from "I never thought of that" to "That's something I've got to get in place." We shared stories about complex issues that had no textbook answers. A deep sense of the "wisdom of practice" was embedded in the conversation.
Conversation about craft knowledge among practitioners offers principals rich professional development. This readily available and inexpensive learning enables leaders to share the real worlds of their schools and construct incredibly rich knowledge that walks a short path between theory and practice.
Beginning your own principal conversation doesn't have to be complicated. You might form a book club, breakfast club, or principals' forum that meets regularly to discuss a shared book, article, or other topic. You might split the time at district leadership team meetings between the usual "administrivia" and conversation among principals—and only principals. Because central-office personnel have their own agendas, meet with them separately. Leadership of your group can rotate and be formal or informal. The purpose, always, should be conversation. No lectures or PowerPoint presentations!
Setting Ground Rules
Keeping conversations on high ground is crucial. At the Principals' Center, we have found the following general guidelines to be invaluable:
- Establish a schedule. There is no convenient time for everyone, so begin and end on time.
- Set ground rules similar to those expected of students. "Take turns." "Listen." Above all, demand confidentiality. Principals must feel safe.
- Stay focused. One person might facilitate the process so the conversation stays on topic and does not deteriorate into a whining party. All have issues with the central office, parents, teachers, and state and federal requirements. Move beyond that.
- Network. If possible, invite principals from several districts to the table. Although their schools may differ in socioeconomic, racial, and geographical dimensions, principals share an astounding commonality.
- Address essential questions. For example, a review of policies on cell phone usage might move into considering how best to use current technologies. A conversation about bullying can morph into an examination of school culture. Take care not to grapple with "the bubbles at the top of the pot" without looking at the flames that are creating the heat.
- Take turns hosting and providing leadership. Principals can offer their buildings as meeting sites so participants can see other schools. Others have found a restaurant with a quiet room to be a neutral and comfortable setting.
Informal meetings may lead you to organize a formal center like our Midwest Principals' Center. Existing organizations such as regional offices of education and universities might provide conversation opportunities.
Most "principaling" takes place in isolation. Principals desperately want to talk to one another—to find they are not alone, to be affirmed in their work, and to discover the courage to persevere. Blogs, Nings, and webcam technologies can support our need for community. These add to, but do not substitute for, face-to-face conversation.
Conversation about craft knowledge is more than talk. It is neither therapy nor the simple venting of frustrations, although both of these occur within it. Such conversation requires deep listening, a willingness to trust, and an ability to have a high regard for one another. It is learning at its best!
What did we learn from Louise's story? Principals returned home better able to address crises and more aware of the importance of parent communication and ongoing relationships with community agencies. They sensed, above all, that the dilemmas they face and the problems they confront are common experiences. What they unmistakably heard is "You are not alone."
Principals need not continue to go it alone. We need one another's wisdom, support, and affirmation. This is how we learn best.
Joanne Rooney is Codirector of the Midwest Principals' Center; email@example.com.
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