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Leading with Grace and Poise: 5 Principles for Principals


principalsWe 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.

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