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October 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 2

The Principal Connection / Lessons From the Jury Box

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I just returned from a two-day stint on jury duty. I went grumpily because the last thing I had was an extra two days. Being on jury duty meant that I'd be at the courthouse all day, then return to school in the late afternoon to catch up on e-mails, phone calls, and a myriad of meetings. Of course, the judicial system needs us; I understand that. I decided to make it a learning experience and came away with three lessons.

The Power of Information Gleaning

As I sat in the jury box, I was struck by how thoughtfully the two attorneys framed the case for us, the potential jurors. They had information about all 42 potential jurors, and they used that information to ascertain who among us would support their arguments if chosen for the trial. Their probing questions stemmed from inferences they made on the basis of our backgrounds and experiences. The fact that I'm an educator, for example, was relevant to the case, as was the fact that the potential juror next to me had been involved in a domestic abuse situation.
It occurred to me that these attorneys knew more about us than I often know about the families of new students at my school. The lawyers used the scant information we had provided on the jury questionnaire as a tool to make connections. I realized that it would be helpful for me to gather information about families as I try to forge relationships. The teachers and I focus a great deal on our students, as we should. But we should also ask questions that will inform us about the backgrounds of parents and what they want for their children. We can't assume that parents share our education philosophy just because they've enrolled their children in our school.

Catch Opportunities for Connection

The second lesson centered on missed opportunities. I was struck by the little things that some of the lawyers didn't do to connect with us. For example, one attorney had his right wrist wrapped in some sort of brace. It was awkward and made it hard for him to write. I'm sure that we all wondered about the brace, but when he introduced himself to us, he didn't mention it or explain. This small omission made the lawyer less personable; he moved from being someone who we might like and trust to being a functionary who was there to do a job.
Students, parents, and staff need to see the real principal as well. For example, the enthusiasm that I offer will be more meaningful if they know that I have frustrations, too. And sharing some things about myself, such as the fact that I worry that we're not as good a school as everyone else thinks, will encourage them to be a bit more open about themselves.
Along the same lines, the attorney with the brace didn't always make eye contact as he asked questions; he either looked at the sheet of juror information or took notes as we spoke. In contrast, the other attorney always looked directly at the individual she was questioning. It took her a few seconds more to read the information and then look at the individual, but it made all the difference in how we perceived her. The first lawyer's note taking was not the problem; both attorneys took notes as we responded to their questions. I perceived this as a sign of respect, a signal that they considered our comments important. It made me wonder what message parents get if we don't make eye contact with them during a conference—or if we never bother to write anything down when they share ideas and concerns.
Verdicts should be based on evidence, but the judgment that jurors exercise is influenced by their respect for and trust in those who are making the case. Similarly, educators can work more effectively when we gain the respect and trust of both students and parents.

Thoughts on “Deep Support”

As I waited in the juror room, I read The Support Economy by Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin (Viking Penguin Press, 2002). Although the authors focus on the business world, their points apply to schools, too. The book makes the case that consumers need “deep support” and cites example after example of the kind of worthless “support” many businesses now provide, such as a help line that traps callers in a voice-mail labyrinth. The goal should be interactions, not transactions, and the focus should be on serving each customer's needs. I thought about the needs of parents and my role in providing them “deep support.” How can we support parents' needs if we don't know what they need? When is the last time we asked—and listened?
I now plan to begin my next parent letter with two questions: “What are your goals for the school year?” and “What can I do to help you?” And then, taking a bit of what I learned in the jury box, I'll share my goals with them.
I think these two days were a good use of my time after all.

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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