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March 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 6

The Principal Connection / A Refreshing Conversation

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How do you keep yourself fresh after all these years?" Mark asked me. He was completing his sixth year as principal and by all accounts was doing a good job. He had forged strong relationships with his faculty and was appreciated by the families his school served, and his students were achieving in lots of areas. Mark should have been flying high.
I took a deep breath. You see, I hear this question fairly frequently. I've been leading schools for 32 years and have been heading the New City School since 1981. My job is demanding, and I spend more time working—even when I'm not at work—than I would like to.
Regardless of how hard I work, I am never caught up. The job just doesn't get any easier. Even though I've presumably gained knowledge and learned from my many mistakes, I don't leave work earlier and don't solve problems any faster. My list of undone tasks and persistent frustrations remains long.
Yet despite the challenges inherent in the job, I look forward to going to work. So how should I respond to Mark?
I began by noting that he seemed to be successful and then asked what was bothering him. His words spilled out quickly.
"I'm tired of dealing with the same issues," he said, "The 2nd grade teachers are complaining again about their students, one of my best teachers wants more computers, and I have a teacher who is a nice person and a hard worker, but she isn't making satisfactory progress. The meetings with her are so hard!"
He was on a roll now. "I spent a lot of time on Tuesday morning with three 6th graders who were behaving inappropriately at recess. Then last night a parent called at 9:15 p.m. to complain about her daughter not being academically challenged." He gulped some coffee. "These are the same kinds of issues I dealt with last year and the year before, and I know that they'll be here again next year no matter what I do." Then he rolled his eyes, "And if the 2nd grade teachers stop complaining, then the 5th grade teachers are mad about something else. I go home depleted." He leaned back and looked at me, waiting.
"First," I replied, "I don't have a magic wand. People and situations are different, and what has worked for me may not be possible for you, or it may not be effective. All I can do is reflect on my job and share some thoughts."
"I remember asking the same questions." I went on, "Like you, I came in with lots of energy and ideas. I assumed that the problems would be solved and I'd move to different and newer challenges. But it didn't happen that way."
Realizing that I sounded more like an elder statesman than seemed possible, I continued: "Oh, we made progress. My school is vastly different from what it was when I was hired. People who have been around for a while often comment on the changes, and so do our graduates. But a lot of what I deal with is the same. The kinds of tensions and tasks that you describe are inherent in running a school. Perceptions differ, resources are tight, kids are kids, and parents are parents. No matter how hard we work or how good we are, certain sorts of problems are always present."
I worried that I was sounding too pessimistic. "But that's not all bad," I added quickly. "Teachers who desperately want their students to achieve are going to push for more resources, and we want teachers to always be looking for new and better ways to reach their students, even if we grow tired of their requests." Mark nodded in agreement.
"Working with a teacher who's not making sufficient progress is hard, especially when that teacher is making a good effort, but you need to keep reminding yourself that teachers are the most important factor in a student's learning. We need to do all we can to ensure that a top-notch teacher is in every classroom, painful as that can get." Mark agreed.
"You know," I said, "success can come with a cost." Mark looked puzzled. "It's easy to fall into the 'more, faster, better trap.' Because our goals can be so amorphous, even in this NCLB era, it's easy to focus only on what's not working. We do need to improve, but we also need to celebrate our successes."
Mark offered a wry smile, "Yeah, I don't do that enough."
"When was the last time you held a faculty meeting to thank everyone for their hard work?" I asked. His silence told me that this hadn't happened for a while.
I said, "Running a school can be pretty lonely. We principals need to meet regularly with peers, at some place off campus. A monthly sharing can do wonders for morale. Realizing that everyone has the same struggles (and that some have it worse!) reminds us that perfection is only found in the dictionary."
"I'd be remiss," I added, "if I didn't say that you really need to force yourself to delegate. That's not easy; people never do it exactly the way you want! But unless you give up some tasks, you won't ever have time for yourself. You can't always put yourself last."
"Finally," I said, "when you set your personal goals for the year, one of them should be to keep yourself fresh. Think about what excites you about the job, and find a way to spend more time doing that. No one can really solve this problem except you, and if you make it a priority, I know you'll succeed."
And when Mark does, we'll celebrate that success together.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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