Becoming Principal (Part 5)

If there is anything I have learned over my years of experience as a school leader, it is this: stand by your people, take care of your people, LOVE your people! If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Feed the teachers, or they will eat the students,” and thought that it was just a funny phrase, you’re wrong! It’s absolutely, hands-down, 100% true! I mean, they won’t actually eat the kids, but it is true that they will treat them with love and respect if they feel loved and respected themselves. And the phrase doesn’t mean you necessarily have to feed them donuts and cookies (although this doesn’t hurt); rather, I take it to mean the feeding of their souls, their minds and their spirits!

Fill them up! Make sure they feel noticed for all of the little things they do on a day-to-day basis. No, you can’t possibly know everything as principal, but you can certainly make them think that you do (if you worked with me and you know me, I know what you’re thinking… he most definitely THINKS he knows everything)! Recognize your people at staff meetings for the small gesture of kindness no one thinks you know about, surprise them with random treats throughout the week just because (NOT during Teacher Appreciation Week, but DEFINITELY during Teacher Appreciation Week as well).  These small acts done consistently let your people know you care and that you are thinking about them, even when you can’t always be there for everyone all the time.

I didn’t always realize the importance of this value, and of the simple yet powerful ways in which you can show people that you value them, but I did always know how I didn’t like to feel. Unfortunately, I learned this from working for some seriously not-so-nice people over the course of the years, and learned ABSOLUTELY what NOT to do. At the start, though, I was just walking blindly through the days, trying to learn, trying to understand.

One of the things I walked blindly into was my first-ever faculty meeting.  I don’t remember much about that meeting. I’m sure it’s because I was a nervous wreck (and the whole “walking blindly” thing).  I’m also sure I created a long list of all the things I wanted to make sure I covered – things like who I was, my wife and kids, my background, what I envisioned the school year to look like. Mostly, I just wanted that first day with kids to be here. I was ready to get started and didn’t want to wait any longer. I had heard from many teachers for the last couple of weeks, and though it was overwhelming, I thought I had an understanding of their feelings and thoughts. 
There was one thing I do remember from that first staff meeting. A veteran teacher pulled me aside and suggested I send out a “Dear Jeff” letter, inviting teachers to tell me things they may not want to share in public or in person. I took her advice and got many suggestions and great pieces of feedback to start the year.

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When you arrived I was so hoping there would be a positive change in our whole school atmosphere. It definitely took patience and time to transform us all from the inside out. I remember sort of feeling you out to see if you were approachable and open to suggestions. Once I knew you were I suggested the “Dear Jeff” letters from the staff. I’m not sure how many teachers participated or how many letters you received, but I am sure they were eye opening. At least you knew where to start Becoming Principal. I still wonder if you continued that practice once you left Murphy.

~ Classroom Teacher

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The very first day with kids was finally upon us.

W.J. Murphy Elementary (circa 2004)

That day was chaotic for me, and I’m sure my teachers were feeling the same way.  Everyone was coming up to me, asking how I wanted things done and  to tell the truth, I had no idea!  I don’t know if anyone could sense this, and I tried to walk around confidently and like I knew what I was doing, but I’m sure I looked like a deer-in-headlights.  Eventually, I just told them not to change a thing. I needed to be able to see things run the way they always run. No sense in changing things up if they already worked how they were meant to work. 

One thing I discovered right away, and that was concerning drop-off.  There were two main drop-off points – the bus lane and the parent drop-off.  There were kids who didn’t fall into either category, those kids who either walked or rode their bikes, but they were older and knew what to do already so I didn’t pay them much attention at first. The problem with the bus lane and parent drop is that they were the same lanes; this, and the fact that the staff parking lot was directly beyond the main drop-off lane.  Parents would pull into the staff lot to let their kids out, leaving them to walk across the drop-off lane… which meant they were running in front of, and behind, all of the cars and buses!

Because I didn’t know what else to do, I asked a couple of teachers to stand out there and help to escort kids across the drop-off lane.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was the only solution I had at the time.  
It was the first day, after all. 


I took advantage of the time to circulate around on the concrete playground in front of the school, which is where the kids all lined up in classroom rows that had been spray-painted on the concrete. All of the teachers were out front that day; we had agreed to use the term “all hands on deck” for anything big like the first day of school. It was basically a call for anyone and everyone to come out and lend a hand. We started using it with parents a few years later, as well. People came to understand that this call meant that we just needed bodies – we may not have known exactly what you were going to do once you showed up, but we could guarantee that you would be doing something!

With all of the teachers and other support staff outside on the playground that morning, I could get around and mingle with kids, take a look at any potential problems, welcome parents who were waiting around with their kids until the bell rang, and introduce myself to people. It was warm outside, but excitement for a new school year (and a new principal) was in the air, and I was feeling ready to go.

Until I made my way to the back of one of the 5th grade lines.
Where some parents were congregating by themselves,  Away from everyone else.I could feel them watching my every move. As I approached to say hello and introduce myself, one of the dads looked right at me and said, “I can already tell I’m not gonna like you.” 
I had to put my tongue back in my mouth…
I don’t think it registered exactly what he just said to me!

Now, I’m not a confrontational person, but my blood was really starting to boil!  I really didn’t understand this mentality!  I wanted to tell him that I had similar feelings about him as well (not that I really did, of course)… but I thought better of it, and so just didn’t say anything at all for a good minute.

What could I say to this man I didn’t even know?This dad who had clearly already made his mind up about me? How could he possibly know that he didn’t like me? What had I done to him? As soon as I asked myself this question, I knew the answer. Of course I knew the answer.  He didn’t even know me, There was absolutely nothing I had done that could have brought about this reaction in him. He was clearly still not over the fact that the previous principal was gone. He wasn’t ready for this change. There are lots of people who don’t handle change very well. He could be one of them.

What I eventually said, after what seemed like an hour, was, “Well, sir, I’m sorry you feel that way. I hope you’ll give me a chance and eventually change your mind. What really matters to me is that your children like me; I’m here for them.” 
I’m sure I didn’t need to add that last part, about me being here for his children, but I was still mad.

Author: jdprickett

Educator Father Blogger

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