I hated school, especially high school, so I surprised a lot of my old pals at the first few reunions when I became a teacher. I made the "top list" about 10 years ago as the graduate with the least likely profession- school principal. I always loved reading and writing, but cultivated my passion for literacy at home. I’m sure I would have excelled in math also except that I had such poor math teachers. I became a teacher to give children a school experience that would help them grow into well-rounded adults who love to learn because of their school experience, not in spite of it. I became interested in special education as a result of teaching first grade. There were kids that I taught that struggled and I just couldn’t break the barrier to reading for them. Special education opened up a fascinating door. I learned so much about all areas of development as well as strategies to break down learning and teach so that any child would be able to access content. I expected to stay in the classroom my whole career until I got a taste of professional development and the influence that had on an entire school. When I applied to my leadership program, an essay on “Why I want to be a principal” was required. I wrote the essay and renamed it, “Why I don’t want to be a principal.” I learned in those classes that the principal has the greatest influence on learning. So after spending a year in a curriculum position and having very limited influence, I had the fortune to return to the school where I taught and had already cultivated some strong relationships. I am sharing my thoughts on my final day of my career.
The top 10 things I’ve learned in my career:
1. Parent communication directly from the principal is essential. No one else’s words can replace your own. Your own voice speaks the passion and vision that you own.
2. You have to be “hands on” meaning that you have to visit the classroom of the misbehaving student. You have to learn with teachers and develop assessments, strategies, and try new products. Reviewing lesson plans is a must.
3. The vision and values of the school must be repeated over and over again. I have experienced a strong commitment towards an effort and then, when it gets tough, the staff wants to disregard it. It’s the principal’s job to make sure that no one forgets what they jointly committed to.
4. The culture of the school must be one in which new teachers are supported by everyone. That culture is developed and pushed by the principal. The principal should provide coaching support, but also needs to encourage other teachers who have something of value to add for the new teacher, to share with her. Secretaries and custodians need to be included in conversations regarding new teachers and shown how they can help foster a welcoming environment.
5. Nothing happens without thorough planning. Details need to be attended to whether it’s lesson planning or planning a curriculum night. Lessons can be learned by observing event planners. The principal does not need to do it all, but does need to make sure that all aspects are covered.
6. The development of teacher leaders within a school is critical to the operation of the school as well as the career path of those individuals. Finding ways to pair new teachers with veteran leaders to learn together as well as take on a responsibility will cultivate future leaders. Principals should stay aware of those that are quick to take new responsibilities. Coaching and support of teacher leaders is critical. New leaders grow strong through helping them to think through goals and pathways. The ideas and strategies will be their own, but the principal’s guidance will give them confidence in their work. Working with teacher leaders strengthens the skills of the principal. The adage, “to teach is to learn twice” applies to everyone.
7. Visiting classrooms daily serves many purposes. Principals should be involved in planning either directly as part of the collaborative group or viewing the plans. Observing those planned lessons help the principal with coaching and next steps. Reflect on your daily practices in order to get better.
8. Take care of yourself and each other. The age-old idea that you are no good to anyone else if you can’t hold it together is so true. There’s settings on most phones that will protect you from alerts or rings that happen after you’re asleep. Speaking of sleep, you’ll need plenty in order to keep all the plates up in the air and spinning. Exercise will energize you as well as to keep your brain and body strong. Schools can be awesome communities if everyone remembers how powerful support and positive action can be in good times and bad.
9. A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is essential. In this era, connectivity with anyone who can support student and adult learning is critical. Showing new teachers the power of the PLN early on and then continuing to support and encourage use is essential for teacher growth. It goes without saying that principals have to fully participate in learning with teachers. I have observed teachers noting their disengaged principal tapping away on emails or texting throughout a PD. Not only is that poor modeling, but the principal missed the opportunity to learn.
10. Relationships are invaluable for growth. Learning is accelerated within a good relationship. We all will work harder for someone that we like and genuinely cares about us. There is no difference between kids and adults when it comes to this idea. Teachers should work tirelessly to develop meaningful relationships with their students. Principals need to do the same with staff members. Some people are easy to like and others, not so much.
I hope this helps someone. No one will get it right all the time, but effort toward what matters most and good reflection habits go a long way. Our kids deserve the very best from us! Marilyn