Categories
Leadership Journey Writing Projects

The Rest of the Story, Pt. 1

Listen. I have to tell you this story. It’s one you may not have heard before, except in bits and pieces. And they are all important pieces, believe me, but they will make more sense once you see the whole picture.

The toddler came through the main entrance of the apartment complex and out into the bright sunshine with her mother following closely behind.

It was a cool day and a light snow had fallen earlier that morning. At the moment, standing on the sidewalk outside the complex, I had a feeling run through me similar to the one I experienced when the older siblings had first come to live with us: this could be the last time this little one sees her mother. This premonition had come true last time. I was hoping it wouldn’t turn out the same this time.

Upon seeing us waiting, the child’s mother began crying instantly. This was not what she wanted, but knew there was no other way.

The baby had to eat.

Without money, she had to find a way to put food on her table. Leaving the toddler with us was the only way she could see. I agreed, though it would not be easy. I reached my arms out to this little person who had only seen me on two other occasions. She immediately came to me and allowed me to pick her up.

Goodbyes happened quickly and mom kissed her baby on the face. I gave the mother a hug and promised her we would take good care of the child. She nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.

I thought back to the courthouse scene when the judge handed her first four children over to my wife and I. Mom asked me if it was all right, asked me if we would do this for her.

Though the judge had just severed all legal ties and rights to her children, it was mom’s last effort at some sense of control. I did the only thing I could – I assured her it was the right thing to do and, with tears streaming down my own cheeks, assured her that they were in good hands.

My thoughts turned to my work at the high school. Selfishly, I knew I would not be able to take any days off to help with the demands an added child can sometimes require. My wife must have been reading my mind, knew the troubled look on my furrowed brow as we drove back home with our little bundle strapped into the back. She quickly asserted that this time would be different. This time we would elicit the help of others.

The number of people living in our home, the number of humans that I felt personally responsible for, had just grown to 9. We had become the size of a favorite TV family from the 70’s.

A former superintendent I worked for and admired would always tell the story of how she finished her dissertation under extreme circumstances. She had recently lost her daughter, and shortly thereafter been promoted to her first superintendency.

I never knew how she managed, and to this day still cannot fathom how one continues on after having experienced loss of this magnitude. Nevertheless, she did finish the requirements of her doctoral degree, and she did step into the role of superintendent. She did so with dedicated intention, even though there was a quiet storm brewing just underneath the entire time. It drove her forward and led her to doors she didn’t know were there; doors that might not otherwise have opened.

This is what I believe to be true: in life we are given only that which we are able to handle. We are given no more and no less, but it is up to each of us – as individuals – to figure out how to manage the load. We have still not figured out quite how to manage that which we have been given, but each day we get better, and each day we learn something new that is able to help us along the way.

My superintendent learned along the way, as well. She never missed an opportunity to talk about her daughter and those dark days when she first came to the realization that she would have to carry on without her. Talking about her memory helped her cope, helped her manage the pain of loss, and showed her that there was a way to carry on and still have a good, productive life.

The four siblings were waiting at the door when we pulled up with their little sister. We had told them in advance. Any type of change can send them into a flurry of uncontrollable excitement that doesn’t always end well, so we always try and prepare for anything that will look different in their lives.

This was a big difference, especially given we had no idea how long little sister would be with us. It was Christmas time, so we were hopeful that mom would want her back at least by the Big Day. We have also learned not to have too many expectations in this fluid world of foster care, emergency placements, and adoption, so we were prepared for anything.

As my former superintendent learned the hard way, life has a way of throwing you curveballs. It can be unpredictable, unreliable, but unmistakably steadfast in its resolve to show up every day ready for however you want to receive it.

We were bound and determined to face it head on and stare down any challenges it may have in store for us.

If you are a school leader, or an educator in any capacity, you’re looking at me and shaking your head right now. And you would be right.

Categories
Writing Projects

Simple Thoughts

I wonder about the impact I’m having.

Seriously.

I think about it every day.

I crawl back into what is simple, into what is easy, and I try to rationalize with myself.

I try and tell myself that I am doing the best that I can.

That what I am doing is working.

As I stare at the empty page of my planner,

Wondering what I can write down.

Wondering what I can say that will, perhaps,

Be meaningful.

Make a difference.

And I come up empty.

For today, anyway,

I still wonder about the impact I’m having.

Categories
Forming Habits

Delegate. Drop. Empower.

One of the things I don’t do well is delegate. I have to admit that I am really quite bad at it, and that this has been on my mind a lot lately. Probably as a result of my Accountability partners – those people with whom I speak multiple times a week, if not daily. They hold me accountable, ask how I’m doing, if I’ve kept up with my commitments, and they do so in the nicest way possible. Truly, I think if they approached and took the stance of, “Why haven’t you done this yet like you said you would,” I’d probably be less inclined to push myself to these higher standards.

And that’s what they do: push me to higher standards. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as productive as I have been over the last few months. And it’s due, in large part – like, a REALLY large part – to having these friends in my life.

But really, this post isn’t about them. They WILL appear in it, and they WILL get their OWN, separate and even MORE awesome post, but this one is about me and DELEGATION and DROPPING things off of my to do list and the EMPOWERMENT of others.

My inability to delegate, as fixed-mindset as this sounds, is, of course, rooted in the best of intentions. I come across it honestly. A very long time ago, I learned that if I wanted something done to my liking, I needed to do it myself. It was proven to me time and again that, if I tried to put my trust in someone else to get something done, it was never done to my high standards.

The ones I set for myself. The ones I never shared with anyone.

Yes, you know where I am going with this. It’s in that line, “time and again.” After the first one or two times of not getting the results I wanted, this was on ME! No one else. The reasons for the outcome can vary – you weren’t clear enough in your instructions, you didn’t speak your expectations out loud (or loudly enough), you didn’t follow up with someone after they “failed” you the first time… the list could go on and on. But the one thing all of these excuses have in common is YOU. Or in this case, ME.

What ends up happening when we don’t break out of our own bad habits, or when we don’t stop telling ourselves that “I’m just bad at something (whatever that thing is),” is actually three things:

1.) We take EVERYTHING on ourselves;

2.) We don’t DROP anything off of our plates, and:

3.) We aren’t able to EMPOWER anyone else.

A good friend of mine pushed my thinking this week when she asked,

“What can you do to make it possible for others to lead?”

This floored me. I couldn’t answer. I truly didn’t know, and had to wait until this writing so that I could work it out. I have heard the phrase (and even used it once or twice), “I need to get out of my own head,” before. I could easily fall back on the excuse that I am not good at delegating. What’s probably closer to the truth is that I find it hard to delegate when I’m always thinking about what else I should be doing as a leader, that I am never doing enough, and, worse still, that there are actually other people out there who think I’m not doing enough.

See what I mean? I really need to get out of my head. It grips me, and it stops me from doing what I know how to do; from doing what I am good at.

And it keeps me from delegating to others so that they have a chance to lead, and it keeps me from dropping things off of my plate so that I can be free to do the really important things that I always talk about but never seem to get around to do doing, and it keeps me from empowering others.

It keeps me from investing in people well before their opportunity to lead even opens up.

And this is not okay.

Categories
Leadership Journey

Becoming Principal (Part 6)

IF I HAD REACTED BADLY IN THIS SITUATION, rest assured everyone within earshot would have been telling all of their friends that I had lost my temper and was not very approachable. I’m not sure I changed this parent’s mind about me that year, but the real issue, I knew, had nothing to do with me and I just had to grow a thicker skin. This was tough for me. As someone who doesn’t like conflict, this also means that I am much more comfortable around people who are usually getting along.

As I was to learn in the years to come, this doesn’t always happen in a school setting.

Even though adults are all there for the same reason – the students – they don’t always see eye to eye, and they definitely don’t always get along. I had better grow that thicker skin sooner rather than later.

But this is really where my second core value came into play, and came in handy. I have always understood that perception is reality, whether true or not. People are going to make all kinds of assumptions based on what they think is true; they will tell stories about what they see, about what they hear, and this will become fact. It will become what people talk about. And it will turn into an image of you, of your school, of the kids and teachers in your school… whether it is the truth or not.

That first day of school, I was walking around and introducing myself to parents, high fiving the kids, being goofy and having a good time. I don’t know if this is what the former principal had acted like. Maybe she was more stern than me, maybe she didn’t joke around with people, maybe she didn’t smile ‘til Christmas (this was actually something we learned in our undergrad program. I still can’t believe that one). Whatever the reason, the father who didn’t like me was most likely not ready for someone who looked like me; I mean, I was 33 years old at the time and definitely looked much younger than, perhaps, principals are expected to look? I don’t know what his reasoning was, but I know I thought about it a lot. Probably too much.

Either way, I knew that he had already made his mind up about me.
His perception was his truth, and I could do nothing about that.
But I also knew that I was on stage.
I knew that everyone was watching me.
People are like that when someone is new – they are watching your every move,
waiting to pounce if you fail.
Maybe even hoping you fail.
These two manifestos go hand in hand –
“Perception is Reality,” and “Everyone is Watching You.”
Mess up while everyone is watching,
and the new reality becomes everyone’s truth.

As I navigated that first year, one thing stood out to me more than anything else. This was not going to be easy, and it was not always going to be fun, but it WAS going to be the best I could make it, and I was still so VERY excited to be doing the work I was doing. It has always resonated with me how grateful I am to be working in the field of education. I have worked many jobs in my life – many of them directly out of high school, or while I was in college trying to support my young family. I have worked in a photo lab, worked on a food truck delivering meals to factories and warehouses, worked 3rd shift on an assembly line in an air filter factory, worked for a carpenter learning how to build room additions, shingle roofs, constructing backyard decks, worked for a construction company pouring concrete basements, and worked at my dad’s full-service pumping gas, changing oil and fixing tires.

NONE of them compared to this work.
This was not work.
This was the stuff I lived for.
There was never a time when I wasn’t excited to go in to the school every day.
____________________________________________________________

We made it into the building that first day without further incident.  The parents eventually left.  I kept peeking out the front windows of the main entrance wondering what they were doing, when they would leave.  My secretary had been in the building for at least a few years prior to my arrival and told me that they always do that.  


“What for?”  I asked.  “Mr. Prickett, are you serious?”  I must have looked pretty dumb.  “These are their babies.  This is harder for them than it is for their kids.””Oh,” was all I could muster.  And then this: “Call me Jeff, would you please?”  She looked at me and turned to walk away.From down the hallway, she hollered, “Okay, Mr. Jeff.”It was better than such a formal greeting.  I wasn’t used to it, and didn’t know if I ever would be.  

And she was right, of course.  About the parents, I mean.  It was 30 minutes or so before they had finally all dispersed and gone back home, or gone on to work, having given in to the fact that teachers weren’t going to come back out and return their kids to them for a few hours.  


I walked down the first grade hallway.

I had no idea what to do.  

There were 6 classrooms,

3 on either side of the hallway.

I decided to take a peek into the rooms, 

see what goes on in a 1st grade classroom.  

To my surprise, 

there was a great old piano in the first room I walked into, 

the teacher already sitting at it, 

kids at her feet on an oval-shaped, braided rug, 

singing songs of welcome.


My plan was just to pop in and welcome everyone for a minute or two, hang out around the edges of the classroom, not be much of an intrusion. After all, this was what I did at the middle school as an assistant principal the prior couple of years.  


It didn’t quite work out that way.  


Over time, I got the reputation of being quite a troublemaker.  It wasn’t intentional – well, the “troublemaker” part wasn’t; what was VERY intentional, was the having fun at work part, the having fun with kids and with teachers part.  If we couldn’t be serious about our work and still have fun, I didn’t want to be there.

___________________________________________________________

When I say he walked the halls causing trouble, here’s what I mean. I had a classroom in the “basement” in a room with no windows. It would get so dark with the lights off, that there were emergency lights in that room. One day, as Mr. Prickett often did, he walked the halls to just look in and say hi. He came by my door, switched OFF my lights and walked away! As the kids started screaming, I yelled “Mr. Prickett…. get back here”. He slowly walked back in the room wondering why I called out for him! The kids were nuts telling him the lights just went off for no reason! I QUICKLY corrected the kids telling them what really happened. They thought it was the funniest thing ever.
~ Classroom Teacher ___________________________________________________________

Categories
Leadership Journey

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.

____________________________________________________________

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

____________________________________________________________

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.

Categories
Leadership Journey

Becoming Principal (Part 4)

As you find yourself in situations where you don’t know what to expect, it can be easy to simply let life happen to you, to roll with the punches and react when things happen. “After all,” you may ask, “How can I prepare for the unexpected?” And the answer is that you can’t. Not really. It is a waste of time to go down the rabbit hole of “what if” scenarios. But what you can do is listen to people, ask lots of questions, and find time for yourself to do a lot of reflection so that you are fresh for every new day. There is no way you can prepare for every single unknown. But you can build up a vast background knowledge and keep your core values at the forefront of your mind so that you are ready to make the right decisions for kids and for teachers when the time comes.
______________________________________________________________

I think part of what you did was to be a good listener to those who had a gripe about the former principal. I never heard you say a negative word about the former principal, but she did leave you a mess in the area of relationships. Many people had a distrust for others, and we did not fully work as a team. You were kind to everyone who went into your office to complain, even those former employees who never worked for you and came back to complain.

~ Classroom Teacher

______________________________________________________________

It would have been really easy to jump on the bandwagon of negative thoughts; really simple to join in and “be a part of the team” because I wanted to fit in, wanted people to like me, wanted to gain their respect. Especially when you’re the new kid on the block. And this may work at the beginning; you may earn some brownie points at the outset. In the long run, however, you will only end up damaging relationships and cause doubt to creep into people’s minds. They will begin to wonder if you agree with everything, or if there is anything you actually take a stand on.

And this is where your core values come in handy. As mentioned, it is important that you keep them at the forefront of your mind, ready to fall back on with every decision you make. But first, it helps if you actually know what those values are. I mean, really know them. So good, in fact, that if someone were to come up to you right now and ask what you stand for, what you believe in, what your Core Values are, you should have no problem rattling them off AND being able to come up with evidence for each of them, taken from examples of decisions you’ve made.

I did not know what my Core Values were back when I was first offered the job at Murphy Elementary. I knew what I loved, what I was passionate about and cared deeply for, but had never really even thought about formulating those into a set of Core Values, not to mention think about how they applied to my thoughts and decisions and daily life. That was the real work. And it was about to be tested.

I came to discover, that first year, that our school district had been taken over by the State Board of Education for mismanagement of funds. We were “in the Red,” and so the State came in and wiped out the entire district office. They brought in a couple of renowned businessmen to try and bring the district back to financial health. I didn’t worry about this too much. I just set my mind to focusing on the job they had brought me in to do – run a school and focus on the academic achievement of students. I liked the CEO, CEdO, and CFO well enough, but it did take some getting used to. After all, most district officials have titles, like “Superintendent” and “Assistant Superintendent.” These guys were serious, tough, and business-minded, but they still took the time with me every time I had a question or needed help with anything.

I remember Dennis Rockwall, the CEO, bringing me in to his office after I had completed my first year and telling me that I should do some presentations or write a book around the topic of school culture. I assured him that I still had a lot to learn and maybe someday that would be in my future. He looked me in the eye and told me that I should seriously consider it, grasped me by the shoulder, and told me he thought my first year was a success. I didn’t know what else to do but thank him. And agree with him, of course. There was no way you didn’t agree with a man like Dennis Rockwall.

But to understand why he thought my first year could be considered a success, we need to go back to the first day of that year, the first week, the first month. We need to dig around a little bit, draw up some memories, understand what happened, understand where the school was at when I walked in the door to begin my first year at W.J. Murphy Elementary School.
______________________________________________________________
I had been a teacher in the building for about 22 years at that point, I had worked for 3 other principals by that time and had NEVER felt the way I did working for this principal. I felt threatened, harassed on a daily basis, feared communication, as many other staff did, with certain staff members. There was no trust. Staff walked around just doing their job and going home. We were always a very cohesive staff that had been ripped apart by very negative behaviors. 
~ Classroom Teacher
______________________________________________________________

There were many things I didn’t know or understand that first year,
but I very soon got the sense that people were divided.
School started at the very end of August,
and by the time the middle of July rolled around,
the building began to feel like a school again;
teachers and other staff started coming back to work in their rooms.
Decorations began going up,
empty bulletin boards came to life,
name tags were filled out and placed on children’s desks.

And teachers began to seek me out.

I had many closed door conversations during those first few weeks before school actually began, before my first-ever faculty meeting, and before kids roamed the halls. There was a palpable feeling in the air – a strange combination of doubt, fear, anxiety and excitement. The more I listened to staff members, the more I wondered about my decision. I knew that what they were telling me was the truth, and I also knew that truth could be someone’s perception. There are usually at least two sides to every story. However, the ripped up office chair I was met with when I entered my office for the first time that summer (clearly done by someone’s own hand), and the consistency in people’s stories – the pain in their voices, the hope they still clung to – led me to only one decision.

No matter what it took,
I would stand by my people.
These were now my people.
I would do my best by them.

Categories
Leadership Journey

Becoming Principal (Part 3)

MY OFFICIAL START DATE WAS JULY 1st, BUT I’M PRETTY SURE I was in that building the very first chance I could get. I was a hot mess, really – filled with anticipation, excitement, dread and fear – but mostly I was just humbled and feeling very blessed to have gotten this opportunity to serve as principal. I had a lot to learn, and I knew that; in fact, I had been saying it since the very beginning and as I mentioned, I even said it to the interview team at that first meeting together: “I don’t know much about elementary school, but what I do know is that I have an extreme passion for seeing people exceed expectations, and an unmatched love for wanting what’s best for my kids.”

1st Year Principal Desk

This must have struck a chord with the people in that interview room, because somewhere around the middle of July, as I’m sitting in my new office and trying not to panic because the first week is coming soon and there’s nothing I can do to slow things down, my phone rings. I think it may be the first time it had rung and I hadn’t prepared for how I would answer it. What was my greeting? I was the principal now… I had to have an official greeting, didn’t I? I picked it up and said, “Hello?”

On the other end was a vaguely familiar-sounding voice. It turned out to be the Mayor, asking me if I was settling in and wanting to know if I could meet her for lunch one day this week. 
Lunch?
With the Mayor?
Who was I?
I don’t have lunch with Mayors!
I don’t even know what I’m doing!
This whole thing could turn into a major disaster!

“Yes, Mayor. Of course I can have lunch with you. What day works for you?”

I met her at a local restaurant, the name of which escapes me at this time. I couldn’t wait to talk to her, to see what she had to say, to get insight about the community, and to hear from her about the role she played as part of the interview community for elementary principal. It was to be a one hour lunch, as she had many other appointments that day, and I expressed to her how thankful I was to have a chance to sit down with her.

“Jeff,” she started out, “I want you to understand the gravity of this position, the need for a leader like you in this community and in this particular school.”

“Thank you, Mayor. I don’t quite understand why I was chosen, especially after I made it clear to the team that I was definitely not the most qualified. I’m thrilled, don’t get me wrong, but why me?”
“Please, Jeff, call me Ila. You were selected strictly based on the fact that you were the most genuine, real, caring and passionate person we interviewed out of the candidates we called in. Over 50 people applied.”

I was stunned, to say the least. I don’t remember any of the conversation beyond that point.  I don’t remember what I had for lunch, and I think I even got lost on the way back to the school. The one thing I do remember, though, was the almost pleading look in her eyes, the very definite waver in her voice when she described her passion for the school, for the community, for the people and for the children of W.J. Murphy Elementary School. She told me that they needed me. She told me that they needed me in an almost desperate way.

They needed me.
Me.

This was really a first lesson in understanding the power of expectation; even more than that, however, the raw desire that people have to want to feel valued, to feel loved, to know that they are a part of something larger than themselves. I didn’t know how I would bring this experience to them, but I felt the weight of it bearing down upon me like never before. In fact, the only other time I have felt anything like it was when I became a parent. Holding your child in your arms for the first time, a sensation comes over you – it is a need to protect, a need to succeed, to not let her down, to not disappoint. And the pain of knowing that you will, at times, regardless of how hard you try.

I hadn’t even spent a day in front of kids or teachers, and already I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.

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Leadership Journey

Becoming Principal (Part 2)

THERE IS NO TRAINING FOR WHAT TO EXPECT YOUR FIRST YEAR AS PRINCIPAL, BUT I THINK THAT’S ON PURPOSE.

Once the school year prior to my first official principal role was complete, except for a couple of introductory meetings, I was pretty much left to myself as I officially began the transition to my new school district. I found myself spending a lot of time in my new office, taking walks around the school, starting (trying) to figure things out.

There was only one strange event that occurred during the final weeks of the previous school year, when the assistant superintendent – his name was Stan – in charge of my hiring brought me to the building while school was still in session. It was late May. He wanted to introduce me to the teachers and walk me around the building for a tour. The final stop of that building tour was the main office… where the outgoing principal was cleaning out her office.

Stan thought it would be a good idea for the two of us to sit down and talk about the school, kind of a “transition meeting.”
To prepare me. The one thing he didn’t tell me was that it was not her decision to leave. Talk about awkward. Needless to say, she was not happy to see me and I tried to get out of there as soon as I could. There was no need in making her any more uncomfortable than she already was. I actually started to feel bad for being the new principal!

Remember when I said there was no real preparation for your first year on the job? Well, this was one leadership lesson I learned rather quickly – never put anyone in a position that is going to make them feel awkward and unprepared,and then leave them for the wolves, so to speak. Because that’s what it felt like – for me and for her. I don’t think anyone should have allowed this principal to have to sit down across from me. She had been asked to leave, for crying out loud! She didn’t want to see my happy, smiling face.  I was excited to have my first principal job!  I wanted to be happy, and she was, understandably so, not; it was not very fair of them to put her in that position.

In whatever circumstances I find myself when dealing with other people, I always try and remember that I don’t know what they are going through.  I treat people as I want to be treated, like they are the only ones in the room.  People want and deserve to feel valued.  It is the only one thing we really have control over, and it is our responsibility, as good human beings, to make sure when someone is in our presence, that they have our full attention.  As cliche as this sounds, it is true and sound advice.
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She (my best friend) makes me feel very happy and if you didn’t make me feel so safe then I wouldn’t have introduced myself and I wouldn’t have met her. I want to thank you for all that you’ve done for me when I was in elementary, you made it feel like home when where I lived didn’t exactly feel like it. I went through a lot when I was younger and every morning when I woke up I was looking forward to going to school because I saw you every single day, even if you didn’t see me. Thank you for being the best school dad that anyone will and has ever had.

~ Student

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Categories
Leadership Journey

Becoming Principal (Part 1)

BECOMING TAKES TIME. It takes patience, and it takes the cultivation of one’s mind and body and soul. It cannot be sought out. It happens naturally. Like becoming a parent. You can work at it once it happens, but to Become is a bit of a mystery in itself.

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I did not see myself Becoming Principal.

I did not want it,
I did not have any aspirations towards it,
I certainly did not seek it out.
At least,
Not at first.

And when it happened, when I physically received the title of Principal, I did not embrace it, did not fully grasp what it meant. It wasn’t until sometime later that I fully began to understand the gravity of what it meant to Become Principal. It was transformational. It was… spiritual. This is the story of Becoming Principal and the school and people from that school – the parents, the staff and faculty, the community, and the children… the beautiful, life-giving children – who walked with me during those years of my Becoming.

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Heading into my first-ever interview for principal, my heart was pounding and, truthfully, I was not holding out much hope. It wasn’t that I didn’t have confidence in myself or my abilities (well, maybe it was a lIttle of that), but I just didn’t have the experience. There was no way they were going to hire me. What could I bring to the table? What did I have – a middle school assistant principal with a few years of prior teaching experience – over someone else who would likely have years of experience?

I gripped the door handle and walked up to the receptionist in what appeared to be the basement cubicles of the district office. Upon introducing myself, she politely asked me to have a seat and told me they would be with me momentarily. I sat down in a leather waiting room chair and picked up a brochure containing highlights about the district. Before I had the chance to leaf through and refresh my thoughts on what I already knew – I had spent many hours preparing for this interview – a man in a dark suit and bright colored necktie came out of a side room and swept toward me with hand extended and a big smile ready. It was time.

I stand at the podium, full of emotion and not knowing how I will get through this speech. I do not want to leave. My guests tonight are those kids and parents I have served over the past two years, but many I have known for the last ten because of my time in the district. But it is more than that. It is leaving a place I have poured blood, sweat, tears… my life, into. This will hurt. I clear my throat and begin. I am ready.

I take my place at the head of the table – I assume this place is for me, no one actually tells me which seat is mine – and wait for the interview moderator to commence. Introductions begin and I attempt to focus in on who is who as they go around the table: a teacher, a principal, another teacher, a parent… we continue like this until we get to the seat directly across from mine. To each person, I respond that it is nice to meet them and that I’m happy to be here. The person directly across from me introduces herself as the Mayor of the village.

The Mayor.

I remember thinking that this was an odd place for a Mayor to be – the interview table for an elementary principal; this must be quite an important position for them to fill. My chances just got slimmer.

We continue around the table after I greet the Mayor, until we get back to me. I introduce myself and immediately follow with the disclaimer I had prepared:

“I have no idea about elementary school, except that I went to one a number of years ago. I don’t know anything about 1st grade, about teaching kids to read, or about a typical day in an elementary school.”

This was met with some laughter around the table; laughter I wouldn’t understand until after my first year on the job: there was no such thing as a typical day in an elementary school.

I don’t remember much else from the interview that day. I also don’t remember what day it actually was but I know it was getting late in the school year, because what I do recall is sitting in my office when I got the call offering me the job of principal of W.J Murphy Elementary School. I was working as a middle school assistant principal at the time. A week had gone by and I hadn’t heard anything since the interview, so I was definitely feeling that they were going to go with someone else, that they couldn’t possibly have faith in the answers I had provided them during the interview. I mean, I felt like it had gone okay, but there was no way to know for sure what they were looking for in their next principal. Until now.

I remember calling my wife and telling her that she was now speaking with an elementary principal!

She asked me where that was.

I had to remind her that it was the interview I had gone on a week ago. She didn’t really remember at first because she didn’t want to get her hopes up, so she had let it slip her mind.

“Well,” I told her, “I guess it’s time to start studying up on what it means to be principal.” She laughed nervously, but we both knew it was true. I didn’t know the first thing.