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October 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 2

Principal Connection / Pretend You're New Again

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Has education ever been in the state of turmoil and tumult that it's in today? Headlines proclaim challenges followed by crises, all enveloped in a changing education landscape. We face funding cuts and slashed budgets as cyberlearning, home schooling, and charter schools proliferate. Tenure laws become weaker, accountability gets stronger, and the long-awaited modifications in high-stakes testing please no one. Is this a fun job, or what?
Regardless of how long we've been in charge—whether, like me, you've been leading schools for so many years that some of your former students now teach for you or whether you are relatively new to the big desk—there are a couple of factors that color all that we do. It doesn't matter whether your school is big or small, urban or rural, elementary or secondary, public or private. Leadership is leadership, and we all must face certain realities.
The first reality is that education and educators today are subject to harsh criticism. When was the last time that a news program lead or headline shouted positive news about something happening in a school? The context in which we live exacerbates this negative tone: Our future seems more uncertain, economic competition is tougher, and prosperity is more elusive. It's not surprising that parents worry more about their children's future, and it's no wonder that they want us to do more. When we don't deliver to parents' satisfaction—whether failing to challenge or to offer extra help or perhaps not communicating as proactively as they feel we should—the discourse can quickly become strident.
The second factor is that technology is playing an increasing role in how schools are organized. Whether we tweet or send handwritten notes, our jobs have been irrevocably changed by technology. We rely on e-mail, spreadsheets, and the Internet. But the increased amount of information available and the speed at which it is delivered—note that relevance and judgment aren't always part of the equation—often mean that our work is faster paced, more superficial, and less satisfying. Unless we work at it, we could spend our day interacting with a computer screen.
Conditions like these are sometimes called "the new normal"; this is the way things are, and they're not going to go back to the way they used to be. What to do? It's not enough to accept; we must ask ourselves how we can be effective and enjoy our jobs at the same time.
Think back to your first principalship. You were no doubt filled with vision and ideas; you may even have been hired because of your ability to inspire. But no matter what ideas you had, you probably did a lot of listening that first year. You made a point to consciously listen, to seek out people and set a time to meet with them and hear their thoughts. You might have worked from a script and said something like, "I'm new here, and I want to know how the people who work here see our school. What do you see as the school's strengths? What are its challenges? What could I do to help the school and to help you?" Those are powerful questions, and it's time to ask them again.
Without a formal process of asking and listening, it's easy to fall into routines—remember the new normal!—and to fail to take time to solicit others' thoughts. It doesn't matter how long you've been at your school. Even if the people are the same, the situation is different. It's too easy to assume you know what people are thinking and to believe you have the solution. You might, but how can you be sure?
Everyone nods and approves when a new principal announces that he or she is going to see what people are thinking and then takes the time to meet and ask and listen. But that listening process should happen again in year 3 or 5 or 15, as well as the years in between. If we found the time to do that as new principals, we can surely find a way to do it now.
Granted, the process may be a bit different if this isn't your first year at the school. Perhaps you will meet with some folks individually and others in a group setting. Maybe you'll throw out an invitation and see who chooses to meet. Possibly you'll use a survey to see what's on people's minds and what they think the school needs. Perhaps you'll use a combination of approaches. Formally listening—and announcing that you're doing it—is the key.
Scheduling time to listen won't change the world around us, and it won't solve all our problems. But it will give us a head start on developing the relationships and making the changes that we need to succeed.
Now, what did you say?

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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