What Does it Take? 5 Key Elements to Being a School Principal

images.jpgI love to read books and learn about leadership.  I REALLY love to read and learn about leadership in education. For a long time, I’ve thought long and hard about what key characteristics one must have to be a successful principal. About a decade into this work, I’m starting to put my thoughts into words. After not thinking about it for a while, I was recently asked at a conference, “what is your opinion on what it takes to be a great principal?” That got my mind working again. By writing this, I’m not speaking to any level of effectiveness I have or haven’t attained but instead a better idea of what it takes. I have a long ways to go to where I hope to be as a principal. I’m sure these thoughts will continue to evolve, but I sometimes think about turning them into a book or short article at some point. I hope to expand the information on each of these in the future, but here is my first draft.

1. Be a good person – Think about whatever characteristics you want that are needed for one to be a quality human being. Show integrity, be kind, give grace, be dependable, always honest, respect others, display great work ethic, etc. It all starts with being a good person. I have never met a great principal who was also not a great person. Sounds simple, I know, but that’s where it all starts. People will follow great people.

2. Believe in yourself – You will make hard decisions. You will be on an island at times. You will be questioned.  You will question yourself. You will make mistakes, some bigger than others. People in this position will need to be resilient as adversity is part of the job. our team will need to see you believe in yourself, what you do, and why you do it. But more than anything else, you will need to have that inner confidence and belief in who you are and what you do.

3. Inspire others to be better than even they imagined This is my X-factor element. Being able to identify and differentiate what each of your staff members need, then working to provide that, will be a never-ending journey. You have to know when to motivate, cheerlead, direct, inspire, and redirect. The ability to support and guide staff members to be their absolute best is a vital element to be a successful principal.

4. Love on kids – Your interactions with adults matters, it matters a lot. But there is nothing greater you do than impact kids. It’s why you get into the profession, to begin with. The ability to impact 100’s of kids on a daily basis is the greatest opportunity we have. I believe this is something you have or you don’t and you can see it instantly when you see a principal interact with kids.

5. Be Humble – Let’s be honest, I could’ve picked 20 elements. This one might not make the top 10 for many others, but it’s firmly in my top 5. While you have to have a belief in yourself, it’s about the team, the team, the team. Quotes like, “the smartest person in the room is the room” are ones that illustrate what being humble means. Being humble means you listen, really listen, to others. It means you are open-minded and seek to understand the perspectives of others. Being humble allows you to help grow your team to the best it can possibly be.

I know some very talented educators read my posts. I’d love to hear what you think about my 5 key elements or others you’d include.

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20 Personal Thoughts on Education and Leadership

For the last 10 months, I’ve enjoyed some great exchanges with educators based on my  “not so deep,” #SimpleMessage, thoughts I’ve posted on Twitter most Friday mornings. I have no shortage of opinions on either of those topics and enjoy sharing my perspective with others. Their responses and thinking have greatly impacted me and allowed me to continue to grow in this profession. download.jpg

Here are 20 of those thoughts. Feel free to read the rest on Twitter @secorsig.

1. April 13, 2018Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. As elementary educators, we need to put students in positions of academic adversity where they have to show intellectual persistence. We can’t send them to secondary ed w/out having encountered those challenges

2. April 20, 2018Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. If someone walks up and asks you what you can improve upon in your job and you can’t make a list for them, you’ve stopped growing and you just don’t know it yet. And, “work too hard” doesn’t count

3. April 27, 2018 Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. To achieve their highest potential, every educator needs someone in their district who believes you can be greater than even you ever imagined. Are you that person for someone else in your district?

4. May 11, 2018 Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. “Teacher Appreciation Week” is a time to recognize people in the greatest profession in the world. But make this the icing on the cake. Do all you can to make those teachers feel valued n appreciated all yr long

5. May 18, 2018Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. Educators, stop blaming parents. It’s tired, weak, and lame. What good does it do? Control what you can control. Work toward solutions. Stop pointing the finger. Figure out what you can fix and support

6. May 25, 2018Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. I’m not a fan of public summer countdowns in classrooms or school offices. Don’t send the message that you can’t wait for it to be over. Got one in private, different story. Send the right message, a positive one

7. June 1, 2018My Friday thought. The workplace and our world are requiring us to develop a different type of thinker and person to meet the demands of today’s society. Our educational system grades/evaluates us using a rubric that doesn’t match that ask.Tough spot for schools

8. June 29, 2018My Friday thought. We ask all kinds of questions when interviewing prospective educators for jobs. I think two very important things get overlooked, often at the principal and central office level. How humble is that person? How well do they listen? #SimpleMessage

9. July 6, 2018Here’s my not so deep, surface level, Friday thought. We live in a world that assumes and almost pushes us to, take another step of professional advancement. While there are times when that is the right move, sometimes you are right where you are supposed to be SimpleMessage

10. August 10, 2018 Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought. I think a balanced calendar is what’s best for kids. I’m not sure that’s debatable. But if a district isn’t doing that, a free and comprehensive summer programming option for all students, including transportation, is necessary

12. September 7, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: Principals, never say “my school.” Don’t say “my students” or “my building.” It’s ALWAYS “our.” Use “we” instead of “I.” That school was there long before you and will be there long after you are gone #SimpleMessage
13. September 14, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: Relevant, relevant, relevant. When looking to plan PD its the #1 thing I consider. How relevant and impactful is what we are learning to their daily work with students? Excited to learn with the Jamestown team this afternoon #SimpleMessage
14. September 21, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: Don’t glorify “busy.” We all get the same amount of hours and minutes in each day, week, month, and year. We all make choices about how we spend those. Everyone is busy. How are you prioritizing your time? It’s your choice #SimpleMessage
15. October 12, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: Think about the amount of time spent in elementary schools getting kids to line up straight and quiet to walk down the hall. Ever been to a middle school or high school? Does that look the same? Is that time spent worth it? #JustAQuestion
16. October 19, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: My first superintendent told me that the district didn’t pay me my salary to supervise lunch. If I did that every day, I’d miss so much teaching and learning. He said stop in the cafeteria to build relationships, not supervise
17. October 26, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: One of the most important jobs a principal has is keeping their finger on the emotional status of their team. I’m always trying to figure out how individuals, small/large groups are doing and what I can do to provide support
18. November 16, 2018Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: Be sure to praise things that a student can control. Stay away from “you’re smart” and “you’re cute.” Emphasize things students can control, like their work ethic, passion, effort, grit, resiliency after a mistake n kindness #SimpleMessage
19. January 11, 2019 Here’s my not so deep, Friday thought: When looking at interventions for students who need support, I am skeptical of the learning impact from a technology-based system. I’ll side on those students receiving instruction from a human educator trained to deliver it

Why Do Words of Affirmation Mean so Much to Me as a Principal?

I read a blog post last week where the blogger said it was a form of therapy for her to write her blog.  This might be a little bit of that for me.

I also know that sometimes we ask questions there are no answers for.  That might be the case for me here.  

I know that flushing things out in the writing process can add clarity to thinking.  Maybe that will come by the time I get to the end of this piece.

Today was Boss’s Day.  Our staff knows me very well.  I found outside my office IMG_6247.jpgdoor a great surprise of vitamin water, a convenience store gift card, and protein bars.  Those are some of my favorite things.  There was also a pile of cards with all types of comments, thoughts, appreciation, gratitude, and words of affirmation.  When I started to read their words and cry as I normally do (must admit I like a good cry), I looked around and noticed something.  I have saved all the notes from this same day last year.  I have cards saved on top of my shelf from as long as 4 years ago spanning a couple of different school districts.  It dawned on me that I read those things, frequently, almost daily.  Come to think of it, I have an email folder titled “happy” where I’ve saved emails that I go back and read occasionally.  They make me smile due to past moments of pride or joy.  Do I have a problem?  Or have I just uncovered something in these moments of reflection?

I started to think about offices or workspaces of others I know.  They don’t always have those things hanging around.  Why do I seem to NEED them when others don’t?  I’ve IMG_6245.jpgnever seen myself as lacking in self-esteem or confidence so I truly don’t think that is the reason.  In other aspects of my life, that outward showing of appreciation doesn’t seem as necessary as it does at school.  To go even further, it didn’t seem as impactful to me in my role as a teacher as it does now as a principal.

It’s an odd reflection to have on Boss’s Day (I prefer Leader’s Day).  I don’t think it makes me better or worse in my role than anyone else.  Maybe just different.  How different?  I’m not sure.  I certainly need to do some more thinking on why those words of affirmation have such a big impact on me.  But I must admit, those words brought a lot of smiles to my face today!

 

 

It’s Just a T-Shirt

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We recently ordered over 800 “Jamestown Pride” shirts for our staff and students.  Big deal, right?  Lots of schools order shirts.  What makes these shirts so special?  Well, let me use these shirts to illustrate a little about what really happens in a school that most people will never see.

Many of us in the public school system have used the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”  There are so many things that happen behind the scenes to make a school successful.  Many people work daily to positively impact the lives of students.  They don’t do it for any credit or recognition, but because it’s the type of people they are.  I often think articles of clothing have a story behind them.  Here is the story behind these t-shirts, which I really think, is a story about all the people impacting our school system.

Chapter 1 – Shirts cost money.  In our case, the money comes from a PTA fundraiser.  The beginning of the “Jamestown Pride” shirts actually started during the 2017 walkathon when we raised over $25,000.  Those funds are only successfully raised when there is a partnership and trust between the school, PTA, and parents.  When those pieces exist, like they do here at Jamestown, we can run one big fundraiser a year.  Building that trust takes great PTA volunteers who really develop a shared vision collaboratively with the school.  It also takes a community that holds public education in high regard and parents that show commitment to our school district over and over.

Chapter 2 – Once that money is raised, school starts and the steps towards getting the shirts to kids by the first Friday in October begins.  Our students returning from our student leadership team are in charge of coming up with the design.  Those student leaders collaborate to develop a design that epitomizes who we are as a school.  That process took a few meetings, students doing work outside of school, and sacrificing recess time.  Once the design was ready to be reviewed, members of the PTA, our two administrative assistants, and the administrative team gave the final input and send the artwork to the company.  Our partnership with that local business employee and how he understands the needs of our school is an important step in making the turnaround time happen.

Chapter 3 – The next task is getting sizes for the over 800 students and staff members of Jamestown.  Our two administrative assistants started the first week of school, creating google docs and communicating with parents.  They talk with kids, email and call parents and check-in with teachers.  They take pride in getting every single size right, for every single person.  Teachers jump right in to make sure to help with sizes that we don’t get right away. 

Chapter 4The shirt order is finally turned in and a few weeks later they arrive back at school.  Once they are here, a large sorting party must occur to make sure the 800 shirts are delivered to staff and students between our two schools.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, PTA members, and other staff members volunteer their time to make sure shirts are sorted and delivered.

Chapter 5 – On Friday, those 800 bright yellow shirts will be on full display.  There will be school spirit, colors, and community pride flowing everywhere.  Everyone will notice the shirts, some might even comment on them, but many of us will know all the people in our school system that work together to make these shirts a reality

PTA volunteers, our community, parents, student leaders, local business employees, administrative assistants, teachers, and paraprofessionals.  This example is about a simple t-shirt, nothing life altering.  But in every school building, on every school day, examples like this take place.  The next time you see some of those people, thank them for all they do for kids.  So many people are committed to making a positive impact on the lives of young people, which is just another reason that this is truly the greatest profession in the world.

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What I Learned From 67 Home Visits

Education is a profession built on relationships.  The better we create relationships with our students and families, the better we will be in supporting them.

Moving to a new school district (Hudsonville) put me in a spot where I didn’t know as many names, faces, and stories as I did after 18 years in Cedar Springs.  A couple months ago I decided to try something I’ve never done before to address that.  I sent a welcome video to all the parents of our soon to be 3rd-graders.  In that video, I offered to visit them at their home in August prior to the first day of school.  I shared that my purpose was simply to get to know them, talk with them, and start a relationship prior to open house.

I had done some home visits as a teacher, but never to a large group as a principal.  Our school is an upper elementary that houses grades 3-5, so I started with 3rd-graders, as they would be new to our school.  Later in the summer, I also extended that offer to students of new download.jpgfamilies to our district.  I wish I could say it was a well-organized and tactical approach, but it wasn’t.  I simply sent out a google doc to all 100+ families and they signed up with on a day and time (between 4-9 pm), their child’s name, parent names, and address.  67 people signed up and I made 67 home visits in a 2+ week stretch.

Here’s a little summary of 5 main things I discovered.

1. People were very appreciative that I made the visit

Over and over again I was thanked for taking the time to stop at their house.  Some were shocked, others surprised, but universally appreciative.  I hope this has set the tone that our school is willing to go above and beyond to develop a relationship with their family.  Most 8-11-year-old kids still think their principal is cool!  That was fun to hear.  We have a lot of school of choice students and their parents make long drives to get their kids to our school every day.  That was humbling.    

2. I learned some things about kids I may not have learned in their 3 years at our school.

One of the things I asked each and every student was, “tell me something about yourself that not a lot of people know or is special/unique about you.”  The things they said and items they showed me gave me a perspective into their lives that I might have otherwise not gained.  I’ll never forget the one student who showed me the birthmark of a heart on her hand and told me her mom says, “it’s a kiss from God.”  I will remember the student who showed me an inactive grenade from WWII and how it led to our discussion about his love for history.  I would’ve never guess one student could put her tongue to her nose, a kid fessed up to farting a lot, and we have a couple of future chefs in the group.  I now have specific conversation topics for so many kids as they begin school.

3. Parents shared with me questions about our school and ways we might be able to grow in their eyes.

I asked each parent:

– What is something our school system is doing well that you’d like us to continue?

– What questions, worries, or concerns do you have about this upcoming year?

– What is something you’d appreciate more of, or differently, from our school system?

I’ve asked those questions before in my office, classroom, or hallway.  But when I asked it to them in their living room, I believe I got more honesty and transparency.  That gave me great insight into what is important to some families and not as much to others.

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4. I learned the stories of so many families.

We are getting a lot of 3rd-graders who are the oldest child in their family.  That speaks to the number of youngsters we have all around Jamestown!  We have so many families who have been in their homes for less than 3 years.  That directly reflects in us being one of the largest growing townships in the state of Michigan.  I know about some challenges families have had, many of their celebrations, and more about where their family is in the journey of life at this time.  Knowing those stories will help us to develop trust, collaboration, and bonds with so many of them.

5. ALL parents want their child to succeed in school.

As educators, sometimes we make the mistake and form assumptions about parents based on small pieces of information.  We think because they don’t help with homework, they don’t care or because they don’t show up for conferences, the school carnival, or the walkathon, they don’t want their child to be successful.  That’s simply not true.  I walked into homes of every socioeconomic status you could imagine and every single one of them cared deeply about the success of their child at school.  I admit that they are armed with different tools, skills, and strategies to support their child at school, but they all care.

Yes, I drove around in circles for a couple weeks.  I got lost a few times.  People noticed me and wondered why I kept driving thru their neighborhood.  I was pretty tired when I hit the pillow those nights (having July off doesn’t prep you well for 14 hour days).  But, to be honest, I’m really excited to do this again next year!  I have ideas on how to find my way into homes that didn’t signup this year.  I am going to leave something about our school with each family when I stop.  It’s just one step along the way of trying to live up to the phrase, “If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t.” 

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If You Are Going to Be Unlike Any Other School, You Have to Be Willing to Do Things Other Schools Won’t

I’m sure you’ve read variations of this quote before. As we head into the 2018-2019 school year, this quote came to me, has stuck in my mind, and isn’t going away.

“If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t”

It’s not about competition. It’s not about being “better” than another school, as I’m not sure how you measure “better” anyway.

It is about growing. It is about better serving the needs of our students, staff, and families. It most certainly is about changing things in education that keep up with the needs of today’s society. Some of it comes down to what you are willing to sacrifice, what risks will you take, and getting a team of people to do that together. Our students, staff, and families don’t deserve ordinary. They deserve extraordinary. To achieve extraordinary status you have to perform extraordinary acts.

I’m sometimes asked about what our school theme is for the year. People want to know what is the pitch, marketing slogan, brand, that we will work towards.

This year, it’s not necessarily a theme, but more of a mindset. Maybe even a challenge. 

“If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t”

That’s the challenge. I issue it to you, to me, to educators everywhere. As you plan, look into the school year and think about that statement.  Look at it from a school perspective, as a principal, a teacher, a teaching team, a grade level, a department. What things are you doing that others aren’t?  What would be on YOUR list? Next, what impact is that having on students, families, staff? How can you continue to provide it and even improve it? From there, how can you grow your list? When you look back on the school year, what will be on that list? What was added this year? Your list may contain some things that you have done before combined with some that are completely new.  

I’ve always been enamored with chasing greatness. I’ve read, studied, thought, and perseverated on what it takes to be great in so many walks of life. One of the ways to make progress in that pursuit is to do things that others simply won’t do.  I’m certain of that. As this school year begins, that’s where my focus lies. 

“If you are going to be unlike any other school, you have to be willing to do things other schools won’t”

Two Practices I Encourage You to Change in Your Elementary School

Changing traditional thinking and practices in our school system isn’t always easy.  In my 20 years in elementary education, I’ve stumbled across two practices that I think would help students and staff if they were changed.

For some background, I worked for 10 years in a PreK-1st-grade building, four years in a 2nd-3rd-grade building, four years in a 4th-5th building, and the last two in a building that houses students in grades 3rd-5th. The first of these two things is more suited to upper elementary while the second I believe applies to all elementary schools.

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 1. Traditional practicePlacing a student on a class list and leaving them in that class for the next nine months no matter what. I know that we all have great practices in place when developing class lists. So much time, effort, and thought goes into creating balanced class lists. We code students based on behavior, academics, and other needs. We consider personality matches between student and teacher. Hours and hours of thought and our very best work goes into class lists. Having said that, is it really possible we bat 100% on those predictions? Is it possible there might be a better match for a student than the one we hypothesized in the spring? We certainly know that a new mix of kids can lead to students displaying different behaviors than the previous year. That doesn’t even take into account move in students and how they impact the classroom dynamic.

1. My thinkingBe willing to make changes! Just because you put a student’s name next to a teacher’s name last May shouldn’t mean the student HAS TO stay in that classroom for nine months. We sometimes fear the impact on the student and the stigma of moving classrooms. When doing so, we underestimate the resilience of kids. We underestimate that the fresh start might be exactly what THEY want. One possibility is to transparently share with parents that your school will be looking at class lists in October and again at the holiday break to see if adjustments need to be made. What stops you from having a student spend 1/4 of the year in each of the four classrooms in the grade if change is a positive for them? In my experience, exploring a move only applies to 5-10% of students in any given grade. But if we can improve the school year for a handful of children, isn’t it worth it?  In my experience, when we have been able to get the student, parent, current teacher, and new teacher all on board with the move, we have had really positive results.

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2. Traditional practiceKeeping teachers in the same grade level even if the chemistry within the grade level isn’t great. I get that we aren’t big on change in education. I know the merits of learning a curriculum inside and out and how that positively impacts the instruction delivered. There was a time where teachers could shut their door and teach. That time is over. Collaboration is better and more frequent than at any time in the history of education. Because of that, the chemistry, collaboration, and working relationship within a grade level must be better than it’s ever been.

2. My thinking Be willing to move your staff around to find the right mix. First and foremost, I’m not talking about moving teachers against their wishes. I’m not talking about moving ineffective or minimally effective teachers. I’m talking about teachers who could be even better when on a team that fits their needs. I think the business world has this right.  People are moved to new desks, different teams, various departments, relatively often. We can learn from that. I encourage principals to look at the strengths of their individuals, the mix of their teams, and be willing to make changes that will allow grade levels to be better than they’ve ever been before. 

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