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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

Principal Connection / "Dear Teachers,"

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It’s lonely at the top. We knew that when we applied to be principals. Certainly, leadership has its rewards—an enormous sense of satisfaction stems from helping people grow and leading a team to success—but those rewards come with a price. Leadership involves making decisions, and if everyone is happy, you’re not doing your job well. Good leaders provide direction and offer lots of feedback; although they give more positive than negative feedback, the negatives take a toll. Friends come and go, but enemies accrue. 
These costs of leadership have always been present, but technology has exacerbated them. Leadership is based on relationships, and our reliance on technology can make real relationships more difficult. Sherry Turkle says we are shaped by our tools. Those tools don’t always help us communicate well, as anyone who owns a smart phone—or has led a meeting in which everyone was constantly glancing at their smart phones—knows. It’s easy to retreat into a screen to avoid an in-the-flesh confrontation. Turkle notes that digital connections “offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” 

Do We Play a Part in Our Isolation?

But how much of that loneliness, that feeling that we have no colleagues and aren’t understood, do principals bring upon themselves? Too often, we are active participants in patterns that isolate us. 
This hit me in the face years ago during an annual review with an assistant principal. I always ended these summative meetings by asking, “What can I do to help you grow?” My colleague told me that she felt a need for more positive reinforcement from me. That surprised me, but I heard her, and I appreciated knowing how she felt. I told her that I would work on this. Then I added, “Well, you know, it’s a two-way street. I feel that you haven’t given me many positives lately.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, my colleague replied, “But you’re my boss. I don’t need to give you any positives.” I was stunned. 
This was someone with whom I had worked for years. I knew she respected me, but it was clear that the hierarchy—the fact that I supervised her and made decisions with which she didn’t always agree—prevented her from seeing that I had the same kind of human needs she did. 
Some of this, I realized, was my fault. With my quick pace and reliance on e-mail, the quality of our personal connection had diminished. I hadn’t made my needs clear and had neglected to let her know how she could help me. 

Laying It Out for Teachers

You may be in the same boat. So here’s an assignment: Share this column with at least six teachers in your school—especially the letter below that lays out three things most school leaders would like our teachers to do for us. Sharing the entire column will provide the context—and let teachers know that you’re completing an assignment! 
Dear Teachers,
This letter isn’t about me and, truly, it isn’t about you. It’s about how we can work together so we can be better at our jobs next month—and next year. I hope that I’ve given you the direction and feedback that you need. In this letter, I ask you to do three things to help me.
1. Invite me to visit your classroom. Yes, I know I should be there more than I am—to observe students and give you the feedback you need and the praise you deserve—but it’s hard to get out of my office. That’s not a good excuse, but it’s reality. My days are filled, so unless an event is on my calendar, it probably doesn’t happen. So please, offer a few specific times I might come in to watch a regular lesson, nothing special. And if I don’t respond to your invitation, bug me again until I do: This is permission to do so. Believe me, I will enjoy it! Time in classrooms offers renewal. 
2. Don’t surprise me. Certainly if a problem with a student, parent, or colleague arises, I need to hear from you before I hear from them. But I’d also like you to keep me in the loop on most issues, even about issues you’re not sure are really important. I’m trying to balance lots of balls (while pedaling on a unicycle), and knowing early is much better than knowing later. If in doubt about whether to inform me of something, inform me—and we’ll talk about what’s relevant and what isn’t.
3. Give me your positive and negative feedback. The rule of five—that we should consciously work to give five positive comments for every negative one—applies to all of us. We know that approach helps us develop relationships and trust with students; it also applies to our interactions with colleagues, friends, family, and supervisors (that would be me!). But I want more than praise. I also want to hear what isn’t working, how I can help you, and what I might do differently. Of course, I need you to be as thoughtful about how you deliver those suggestions and criticisms as you want me to be when I offer the same to you. Good communication—open, supportive, and effective—requires ongoing effort and focus, even among people who respect one another and share the same vision. We all pay a price when we take good communication for granted.
Your principal
I hope you share this article with several teachers. I’m sure the dialogue that it elicits will be helpful to everyone—and I welcome an e-mail about how this worked for you!
End Notes

1Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

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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