We recently picked up a copy of Don Sternberg’s book, The Principal: Traversing the High-Wire with No Net Below. Rather than give you a lengthy introduction, we’re just going to jump right and share five of Sternberg’s “principles for principals.”
No job is ever too dirty
Effective leaders rarely ride in a golden chariot and “grunt work” isn’t a part of their vocabulary. No, they march with the rest of the platoon and aren’t afraid to track through the mud. Here’s an example to illustrate Sternberg’s point.
Let’s say that you’re walking down the hallway and notice a few pieces of stray scrap paper on the floor. The custodian is only a few feet away and is already sweeping, but you stop, pick up the papers, and toss them in the trash can. Why? Because it sends an explicit message to the custodian: No job is beneath you.
The same goes for when you grab a mop and clean up an overflowing toilet, or when you pick up one of the phones because your secretary can’t get to it. Think about what a student will feel like when you jump behind the counter, address him or her by name, and fill in when the office staff is behind.
Being a part of the team means earning your place on it first.
Leadership is messy business
Think of your school as your beach. Sometimes the sun shines, the water is calm and warm, and folks would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. Other times, the weather shifts, the waves become violent, and your beach erodes a bit. Perhaps this “erosion” is the result of a mistake or an error in your judgment. If it is, fess up. Folks usually respect someone who readily admits mistakes; however, they will despise someone who hides mistakes, or fails to take responsibility for them.
Leaders know when to admit mistakes, but they are also graceful when others mess up. Rather than putting energy into blame, leaders are more interested in what happened, what the other person was thinking, and most importantly, what they learned from the experience.
Principals aren’t afraid to show a little pearl
Education may be serious business, but there’s good reason to smile about it. Your attitude sets a precedent for the rest of the school, so when you walk into the office, scowl or give a half-hearted hello to the staff and students, count on it resonating—and not in a way you want it to.
A poor attitude is contagious: When teachers start to sign in for the day, they’re going to be greeted by the same staff that you scowled at, the same folks who are murmuring amongst themselves about you. That’s why author, principal and veteran educator Patricia Buoncristiani suggests that you park as far away from the entrance of the building as it will take you to walk off your case of the Monday blues. This is one of those obvious, but not-so-obvious pieces of advice we all need to take.
We must reframe the way we see challenges
Think about those students whose behavior really irks you. What sort of language do you use, whether publically or privately, to describe their behavior? Are they “stubborn,” “annoying,” and “lazy?” Or are they perhaps “challenging,” “energetic,” and “reluctant?”
Language often constructs the way we see the world—and the students who live in it. So when we use negative language to describe challenging behavior, we start to see students in a negative way. That’s not productive!
We must ensure that no one is on the periphery
We know that communication with our colleagues is essential to the general health and success of our schools, so we work hard to nurture relationships with our teachers, assistant principals, custodians, secretaries, students and on the list goes. But what about the employees who appear to be somewhere off in the periphery but are in fact big contributors to our schools’ success?
Take bus drivers for example: They are the first point of contact students have with the school every day. A bus driver who feels appreciated by leadership is far more likely to interact with students and also relay important information about safety and student behavior. Another thing to consider is that bus drivers spend much of their day out in the community (at diners and coffee shops) due to their unusual schedules. What they say and how they interact when they are out in the community reflects back on the school.
We always make it a point to honor our teachers during National Teacher Appreciation Day, but we know that trying to cram all of our appreciation into a single day can feel slightly disingenuous to teachers. Rather than wait for May to roll around again, we’d like to share 10 simple ways principals can recognize teachers throughout the year. These ideas have been adapted from Emily Houck’s book, 100 Ways to Recognize and Reward Your School Staff.
A Bit O’ Grape
Presenting a teacher with a bottle of wine may not be in your sweet spot, but you can still give a bit o’ grape without bringing alcohol onto campus.
How about a bottle of non-alcoholic, sparkling wine instead? We like to present “wine” to teachers and staff members who work tirelessly and never whine or complain. Since we’re suckers for word puns, we always like to attach a note to the bottle that says, “You are appreciated! Thank you for always working hard and never “wining.”
Set your alarm early so you can get to school before your most appreciated teacher. Cover the teacher’s desk with balloons by either taping them to the surface of the desk or filling them with helium and taping the ribbon down. Attach notes to the balloons that highlight specific things you appreciate about the teacher.
The Brush Off
If you live in a part of the country where it snows, the brush off will work. Prepare tickets in advance that say, “You have been brushed by a member of Student Council.” On days when it snows during school hours, send a dozen students out to the teacher parking lot to brush off windshields and leave a note under the wipers.
The Wash Down
This is an alternative for those of you that live in places that get snow. As with the brush off, grab a dozen students and send them out to the teacher parking lot to wash cars!
At each faculty meeting, hold a lottery drawing for a "free" two-hour break during which time you will cover a teacher's class. Let the winner know that s/he can use this ticket at any time, but must set the time a week in advance.
Order business cards for every staff member. What your teachers and staff members do for our children and society is critical and should be treated as such! Teachers deserve to have their own business cards.
No Work Talk
Hold a faculty and staff “meeting” where teachers cannot discuss anything related to work—no education talk, no student talk, no talk about grading. Anyone who breaks the rule has to donate $1.00 to a charity fund. This works well if you go to a local restaurant or coffee shop, too.
Clean out those files
Consider giving this reward to a teacher who really needs a break. This will give him or her a chance to come up for air. Here’s how it works:
Give a “Clean Out Your Files Day” to a deserving teacher. The teacher will still be “working,” so s/he isn’t counted as absent, but because you secured a substitute teacher that day, the teacher will be free to do something s/he has always wanted to do, but never had the time. This might be as simple as organizing a filing cabinet or preparing a lesson plan s/he’s always wanted to teach, but never had time to.
This is slightly cheesy, but we’re not above it. Buy a package of Swedish Fish and attach a note that says one of the following:
- We’re hooked on your great attitude
- Your dedication is “fin-tastic”
- Your team commitment makes a big splash
- Your attention to detail is clear to “sea”
- You dive into every task with enthusiasm
- Your efforts make a whale of a difference
Put Your Feet Up
Cover the class or classes of a teacher and give him or her the afternoon off. Make sure the teacher goes and does something fun or relaxing and doesn’t go do school work!
This is as simple as they come. Have cards made up with the word “Bravo” on the front and nothing written on the inside. When you see something that deserves recognition, write a brief description on the inside with a note of thanks and place it in the teacher or staff member’s mailbox.
Photo credit: Carolyn_Sewell / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Effective time management can basically be boiled down to two principles: 1) Take care of what’s important, ignore things that aren’t; 2) urgent things are only important things that were not taken care of when they should have been.
Generally speaking, this is true. And while it sounds good on paper, it’s not likely to get you any closer to negotiating that endless to-do list you’ve got on your hands.
There are countless ways principals can make better use of their time, but we’d like to share five of our favorite tips from Jane Sigford, author of The Effective School Leader's Guide to Management.
Carve out quiet time
One way to do this is to come in an hour before most teachers arrive or stay for an hour after school. One of the quietest hours is the second hour after teachers have gone home. While you have no guarantee that parents and teachers won’t stop by, it’s certainly less likely.
A note for early-risers: Should you decide to come in an hour before school, you may find that other early-rising teachers are also there and may stop by your office for a casual conversation or to talk about school-related issues. If it is uncommon for your office door to be closed during the day, people will quickly learn that a closed office door means that you need privacy.
Be visible and get work done at the same time
Not everyone understands what principals do—and they’re never going to if you hole up in an office all day. One way to make yourself visible and get work done is by taking your office with you. If you need access to email, bring along a laptop and set up shop in the library. Is there a study hall going on somewhere in the school? Grab a seat in the back of the room and get some work done there. Try rotating your “satellite office” every day. Doing this not only gets you out of the office, it also gives you the opportunity to speak with faculty and students.
Don’t drown in a sea of mail
We get mail from a variety of sources, but I’m going to talk about the three that can really eat up your time.
- Snail mail: Have your secretary sort postal mail into three categories: important (mail that needs to be read right away), this week’s mail (which needs to be read within the week), and whenever mail (which can be read whenever). Once your secretary knows you and your system, you’ll be able to trust him or her to dump everything else—the catalogues, the magazine solicitations—into the recycling bin without you even looking at it.
- Email can also eat up an incredible amount of time. Keep your communications to-the-point. Your teachers are busy, too. They don’t have the time or inclination to read wordy, philosophical passages, no matter how eloquent they are.
You should also take advantages of your email tools: highlight emails that need your immediate attention as opposed to those that can sit in the inbox for a little while. Here’s another idea: Log out of your email, disable instant notifications, and only check your account at specific times throughout the day.
- Voice mail: Rather than listening to your voice messages as they come in, set aside specific times throughout the day—in the morning, at lunch, after school—to check them. The world moves quickly, people are impatient and used to getting instant responses, but resist that false sense of urgency telling you to drop everything and pick up the phone every time you get a message.
Use your Friday afternoons wisely
Friday afternoons are a good time to take care of “dreaded deeds” and those odds and ends you’ve neglected over the last four days. Tackle them after lunch and while you do it, think about how good you’re going to feel wiping the slate clean before you close up shop for the weekend. You thinking, “Yeah, right. I can’t get everything done before I leave on Friday.” That’s probably true. You’ll never, ever get everything done. Most principals don’t. Just do enough so that you can go into Monday and the next week with a clear head.
If you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t need it
This is my mantra every spring when I go down into the basement and see all of the clutter I’ve accumulated since last April. If I don’t know what it is, it goes in the trash. The same goes for my office. I have a habit of accumulating stacks of old magazine clippings, articles and random printouts, but I can’t even tell you what’s in the pile without rifling through it. Here’s my rule: If I don’t know what’s in the stack, it goes in the recycling bin.
I don’t remember where I read it, but I happened upon an amusing Zsa Zsa Gabor quote a few years ago and I still remember it: “I call everyone 'Darling' because I can't remember their names." Like Zsa Zsa, I struggle with my students’ names and for the first week of class and have to work extra hard to commit them to memory. If you’re like me, check out these seven strategies courtesy of the folks over at Edutopia.
It won’t be long before the school doors open and the hallways are buzzing with chatter and the bustle of life again. Before that happens, though, we’d like to share a few tips to help principals prepare their hearts and minds for opening day!
Take the edge off those “dreaded deeds”
Surely you have some last-minute paper work or “dreaded deeds” that still need attending to. Chances are that your colleagues are in the same boat. Rather than grind through this stuff on your own, meet with a fellow educator at your local coffee shop and plow through your workload together. You may mostly sit in silence as you both work through your stack of to-dos, but having an ally present may take the edge off of those tasks that you don’t really feel like doing.
Recruit Student Workers
Are there any maintenance projects, last-minute paint jobs, or bulletin boards that need freshening up? Enlist some of your students. Many of them would be more than happy to exchange their time for free pizza and pop. Recruiting students will not only allow you to cross items off your checklist faster, but it will also give you an opportunity to get a head start on getting to know your students better.
Use Social Media to Generate Excitement
There might not have been much activity to document over the last month and a half, but now that your teachers are starting to prep their rooms, you have an opportunity to capture them in action. Snap photos or 30-second videos and post them to your school’s social media page. This will give students a preview of things to come and may help you generate excitement for the upcoming school year.
Write a Personalized Welcome-Back Letter to Every Teacher and Staff Member
We’re looking forward to welcoming students and teachers in person once the school year officially kicks off in a few weeks, but we always like to get the ball rolling early by sending out a personalized “Welcome Back” letter to every teacher and staff member. There isn’t a formula and there aren’t any official rules for drafting a Welcome Back letter. Just be you.
Reflect and Prepare Your Mind
No matter how long you’ve been doing this, odds are that you’re experiencing a healthy mixture of excitement and anxiety right now. To prepare your heart and mind for the upcoming school year, make a concerted effort to set aside time for reflection. You can certainly do this without writing anything down, but journaling will force you to stop and commit yourself to one thing.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been collecting inspiring and quotable quotes that relate to education. This week, I browsed my list and grabbed 5 more of my favorites.
5 Inspiring and Thought-Provoking Quotes for Educators
Last week, I reluctantly picked up a copy of Frank Sennett’s book, 101 Stunts for Principals to Inspire Student Achievement. Before I say anything else, I should probably clarify what Sennett means by “stunts” and give a few examples of how principals can use them to “inspire student achievement.”
- Alan Cook, a California grade school principal has “eaten bugs, sprawled on a mound of rotten eggs, and spent the day atop a 60-foot construction cherry picker to reward the academic achievements of his students”
- Mark Soss, principal of Roaring Brook Elementary in Chappaqua, New York, shaved off his 30-year old beard after 650 students kept their pledge to give up TV for reading
- Janet Franklin, principal of Beaumont Elementary in Knoxville, Tennessee, donned a hot dog suit and encouraged students who had exceeded coupon-book sales to decorate her costume with condiments
- Ron Hanson, a teacher in Bellingham, Washington, exchanged pies in the face with principal Brad Jernberg after students read on their own time for at least 20 minutes every day for a month
These sound gimmicky, don’t they? Especially when we take into account what well-respected scholars like Alfie Kohn, Richard Curwin, and a slew of others have to say about rewards-based systems of motivation: They don’t really work. Moreover, they actually negatively impact our students’ intrinsic motivation.
With that said, I admire these principals for taking risks and setting aside the serious business of learning to embrace comedy and laugh with students.
I guess I have a couple of questions then: How do you feel about using “stunts” to inspire academic achievement? Have you ever used “stunts?” If so, what were the results?
As a side note, I want to mention that the photo you see in the upper right-hand corner is actually my 10th grade biology teacher, Mr. Gunther—and the leopard-collared shirt and glasses he is wearing for this yearbook photo are mine! Although we were never overtly rewarded for Mr. Gunther’s “stunts,” I will say that his antics always amused us, lightened up the stuffy atmosphere of our school, and, in some strange way, cemented relationships between him and us.
“Principalship” entails many things, but at its core, it is—and has always been—about building trusting relationships. We may balance the budget and successfully maintain the building; we may ensure that teachers have the necessary resources and all the professional development opportunities in the world…but if we fail to build trusting relationships, what good are balanced budgets, “SMART” classrooms, one-for-one programs, and squeaky clean amenities?
Relationships breathe life into a curriculum that would otherwise be static; relationships also create a safe space for open discourse, and encourage exploration, confidence and respect. Most of us believe this and while we do our best to nurture strong relationships with teachers, it’s easy to get lost in the hum of daily activity and the increasing demands of our profession.
We’ve been reading Elain McEwan-Adkins’s book, How to Deal With Teachers Who Are Angry, Troubled, Exhausted, or Just Plain Confused. The entire book is worth a read, but one section in particular has stuck with us. Below you’ll find a collection of what McEwan-Adkins called “The Teacher’s List of Needs.” We hope you find it as compelling and thought-provoking as we do.
All teachers need to:
- Know that their principals will deal with their problems directly and privately.
- Be given credit for their ideas, creativity, hard work, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities (privately, publicly, orally, and in writing).
- Know that their principals will not jump to conclusions or make hasty decisions, particularly when their welfare is under consideration.
- Have principals who are available and listen to them.
- Have reasons and explanations given when problems occur, requests cannot be fulfilled, or promises are broken.
- Have all of the information and facts put on the table and be kept apprised of what is happening in their schools.
- Know that when possible and where appropriate, when decisions are made that affect them, they will be given opportunities for input and discussion.
- Feel their principals are fair and will not show favoritism to an individual or group.
- Be assured that principals will keep open minds when they advance ideas or make suggestions for change.
- Be a part of the team when parent and student problems are under discussion, problems are being solved, or plans are being developed.
- Feel supported in their disciplinary decisions with students.
- Know that their principals will admit mistakes, sincerely apologize when wrong, and then move forward.
- Be confident that their principals will send parents to them first if there are questions or concerns about what they are doing in their classrooms.
- Be able to bring problems and concerns regarding their principals’ performance to the forefront and, that such problems and concerns will be addressed honestly, immediately, and positively.
- Know that their principals value their personal lives and, when appropriate and possible, will take them into consideration when making requests.
Photo credit: Chris-Håvard Berge / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Although we’re looking forward to welcoming students and teachers in person once the school year officially kicks off in a few weeks, we always like to get the ball rolling early by sending out a “Welcome Back” letter at the beginning of August. There isn’t a formula and there aren’t any official rules for drafting a Welcome Back letter, but if you’re having trouble getting started, these tips may come in handy.
Talk about your summer
We always like to begin by talking briefly about where we’ve been, who we’ve spent time with, and what we’ve learned over the summer. Did you travel anywhere, attend any conferences, plant a garden, coach little league, read any good books? Talk about it. You don’t have to compromise your privacy, but if you want to build trust, you should give your readers a peek inside your life.
Talk about last year’s success
We take great pride in all that our students and teachers have accomplished and have no qualms about getting our brag on! Approach your letter like the president would his State of the Union address: highlight last year’s milestones, share a few of your favorite memories, and set the stage for the next part of your letter where you set new goals and outline how you will reach them.
Set goals for this school year and outline how you will reach them
Our schools are always in the process of “becoming.” Take a moment to bask in your school’s accomplishments, but continue to look forward.
Use this section to set new goals and outline steps for achieving them. And don’t forget to elicit feedback from parents! You may know their children, but you’ll never know them as well as their parents do. Remind parents that your office door is open and that you welcome their perspective and feedback.
Brag on your teachers and staff
Before you close your letter, talk a little about your teachers and staff. What have they been up to this summer? What are their plans for the upcoming year? This may seem overwhelming if you have a large staff, but you don’t have to overdo it; a sentence or two about each staff member will be plenty. If you have any new additions to the team, this is a perfect opportunity to introduce them.
Your main priority in this section is to remind your readers that your staff is constantly growing, learning, and planning for the forthcoming school year.
Did we leave anything out? If you have suggestions for writing a back-to-school letter, please feel free to share your ideas!
A good principal must be many things, but first and foremost, s/he must be an effective communicator. Language is powerful; when we use it the right way, our words can instruct, inspire and strengthen our relationships with students, parents and teachers. Conversely, when we misuse language, we can stifle and even derail relationships. To help you have better conversations, we’d like to share a few communication tips from Robert Ramsey’s book, How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well With Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public.
There’s a thin line between teaching and pontificating; when we cross it, kids tune out.
There are a few reasons why adults should think twice before throwing around the latest teen colloquialisms: First, adults sound ridiculous and disingenuous when they try to sound like their students. Second, “slanguage” is in constant flux, so chances are that what you think means one thing actually means another. Third, trying to sound hip doesn’t work. We are adults and should speak as such.
Jargon is flip-side of “slanguage.” Most of us have quite a few years on our students. We’ve had more time to read, listen and experience language than they have. As a result, some of us make the mistake of flaunting our vocabulary, using big words and phrases that alienate and belittle students.
Beating around the bush
Our culture uses a lot of double-talk: We say one thing out of politeness (“No, let me pay for it” or “You really shouldn’t have gotten me that”) but actually mean the opposite. Younger students don’t understand these nuances. Avoid them and just say what you mean.
Profanity usually gets a chuckle out of students and has shock value, but accomplishes little beyond that.
Using vague language
Very often what looks like student resistance is actually confusion about our vague requests. Consider the difference between the following:
- “Will you try harder to pay attention in class?”
- “During class, I want you to keep your head off the desk, keep your eyes open and on me, and have all of your materials out on the desk.”
You’ll notice how the former not only lacks specific instructions, but does not give the student a clear picture of what you expect from him or her. Always give your students concrete steps for making the investment.
Telling students that they are “really smart”
We’ve all encountered students who, no matter what we do, refuse to apply themselves. We know that they’re perfectly capable of meeting (and exceeding) our expectations, so we pull them aside and say, “Joe, I know you’re smart and you can do well. All you have to do is apply yourself.” When we do this, certainly our hearts are in the right place, but telling students they are smart actually lowers their motivation and achievement.