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December 1, 2017

Principal Connection / What Would a Visitor to Your School See?

The little things may be the most important.
School Culture
In August and September, I visited a dozen K–12 schools and met with their principals. Although I was officially at these schools supervising graduate students who are doing administrative residencies while pursuing a master's degree in educational leadership, I was also there as an observer and learner. I enjoy the university classes I teach, but the best part of my role is getting into schools. I visit with my students in their schools throughout the year, beginning by meeting with each of them and their principal in the fall.

First Impressions

The schools I visited are public, charter, and private. They vary in demographics, location, and the ages of the students they serve. Some, as proclaimed on their banners and signs, are high-achieving schools, whereas others are still at the high aspirations stage. But there was one constant among all these schools: Without exception, the principals I met were friendly and concerned about their pupils and teachers—and my graduate students. These principals receive no compensation for the extra duty of providing graduate students with administrative experiences—but each one was eager to help a fellow educator prepare for a leadership role.
All the school entrances were welcoming (despite the buttons I needed to press for admittance) with signs touting mottos, mascots, and goals. What I didn't see in most schools was student work posted in the halls.
I believe common spaces like hallways give us an opportunity to celebrate and encourage students' talents. It's powerful when students see their products posted for everyone to view. As a principal, I purposely featured students' work that reflected strengths in the various kinds of intelligences (verbal, kinesthetic, and so on), and tried to make sure every child had something prominently displayed during the year. School walls and halls can also be used to recognize students who have used grit and changed their learning trajectory. If I were to make one suggestion to many of the schools I visited, I'd suggest they have a faculty discussion about what student work could be displayed and where.

Balancing, Juggling, and Feeling the Stress

I noticed another constant among these principals. Although the year had just begun, almost all of them were already behind, trying to balance too many competing demands, and close to running on empty. I was reminded of how difficult it is to lead a school.
Almost all the principals were late to our meeting—and that's understandable. As a school leader, I was often late to meetings despite my good intentions. The reality is that when a student or teacher needs attention right now, that should come first. One principal apologized in advance when I first saw him, telling me that he would probably be late to our meeting because a decision by a local judge was expected to lead to protests near the school, and he had to inform parents that after-school programs wouldn't be operating that day. I was pleased that this leader had the right priorities and was struck by the matter-of-fact way in which he handled this change of plans. Clearly, he was used to responding to last-minute influences.
One principal expressed frustration because although he loves his job, he is weary of making decisions that cause some people to be unhappy. "No matter what I do," he said, "someone is going to complain." I told him that this reality had worn on me, too. To maintain my positive outlook, I noted, I used to remind myself that if everyone is happy, then I'm not doing my job. A key to survival and success is being sure that the right people are unhappy for the right reasons.

The Things They Wore—and Where They Sat

The attire of the principals ran the gamut. Most of the men weren't wearing ties, and this, along with the security apparatus at each front door, reminded me of how times have changed. (I was known for my wild ties.) What struck me was the principals' rationales for how they dressed. One principal who was wearing a polo shirt and jeans began our meeting by saying, "You may wonder why I'm dressed so casually. I want to be sure that my students' parents are comfortable coming in and talking to me. They don't wear suits, so if I'm wearing one, that puts distance between us." Other principals, both male and female, told me they dress formally to match the attire worn by their students' parents. I appreciated these leaders thoughtfully trying to establish rapport with their students' parents by the clothes they wore.
As each principal, graduate student, and I would move to a meeting room to talk about the expectations for the residency, I found myself aware of physical positioning—who sat where—and the message this sent. A few principals sat behind their desks. Others made a point of moving to a table so that the three of us weren't separated physically and the discussion would feel more collaborative. (To be fair, some of the principals' offices were too small for a table that could accommodate three people.)
One principal sent a powerful message by an implicit invitation she ignored. The graduate student (who was also a teacher) and I had entered the meeting room a bit early, and I consciously sat across from my student so the principal could sit at the head of the table when she joined us. But when she came in, she walked past the head of the table to sit beside me. After the meeting, I complimented her on the warmth I felt in her school, and noted that she had rejected the option of sitting at the head of the table. She simply smiled and said, "We're all working together." It was a little thing, but one with big implications.
Take a moment to reflect on what visitors experience when they enter your school. Is the message they receive the one you intend to send?

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