Several years ago I was part of a group discussion where a building principal shared that he had been called to the superintendent’s office. You could tell by the tone in his voice that he was a bit nervous about why his superintendent had requested the meeting. He shared that it wasn’t the first time he had been called in to have “a talk.” This got me thinking about how often we behave in similar ways (both intentionally and unintentionally) as building and district leaders when it comes to managing conversations and our decisions, and the negative impact this can have on the overall culture of any organization. Please know I share these with you because, at one time or another, I have acted in the manner I describe below, even though my intentions were to want to be better, not only for members of my school community, but for my growth as a leader. As I grew and matured into the role of a building principal, I did my best to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them, knowing full well I would fall short at times. As a building or district leader, here are a few things you might want to consider stopping today. Let’s begin by addressing one important step: STOP:
- Calling staff to your office without offering some explanation of what the meeting will entail. This causes a person’s anxiety level to increase because from the moment they receive notice, their mind will begin to swirl with possibilities of what the meeting is about. And in most cases, people will think the worse.
- Making excuses when you fail to follow up. Understand that when you don’t get back to people in a timely fashion it gives others the impression that you are not organized or in some instances, that their needs are not important to you.
- Holding faculty meetings for the sake of just holding them. Unless you have a specific purpose to bring your team together, consider passing on the meeting and showing them how much you value their time by giving it back to them.
- Talking negatively about your staff to other staff. Speaking negatively about others actually says more about you than it does about the people you are singling out. Besides, you are kidding yourself if you think that won’t get back to those who you are gossiping about.
- Allowing the adults in your school to bully other staff. This is one of the biggest issues facing school improvement initiatives today. We cannot cultivate a high-performing learning environment in our schools if staff is intimidating their own colleagues through their words or actions. This type of negative behavior should never be tolerated and must be addressed.
- Using the word “they” when” referring to other members of your school community, especially when things are not going well or we are not happy about an outcome. Focus more on “we” when celebrating something positive or trying to work through any significant challenge.
- Making assumptions. It is never a good idea to go into a conversation or a situation believing you know more than you actually do. This has all the potential to create trust issues so avoid doing so at all costs. If you want to know what the issue or dilemma is really about, simply ask before you respond.
- Getting frustrated when you think people are not following your directions to your level of expectation. Begin by asking yourself if you provided enough clarity. In other words, were your directions as clear as they could have been? If not, own it, regroup, and try again, this time focusing on more specifics of what you want.
- Expecting everything to go as planned. Working in schools can sometimes be unpredictable because the variables (students and teachers) are always changing. How you conduct yourself in these moments will either inspire or deflate your team.
- Responding to harsh and not-so-complimentary emails you receive with an email of your own. Recognize that these moments of frustration, blame or accusatory language expressed in written form by others who are not happy is often more about other external factors and has nothing to do with you. So don’t assume or make it about you (see #7). Pick up the phone and call the person and ask, “What can I do to ease your frustration or disappointment?”
- Asking your staff for feedback and then not doing anything with the feedback. If your staff gets frustrated because they don’t think you did anything with the feedback and you think you did, then reflect on how you could have communicated more effectively so they would know the progress you were making with the information they provided you. By taking action and communicating your progress, you will get people to be more invested and honest in their feedback because they believe that something positive is going to come from it.
- Trying to manage and lead the school all by yourself. You cannot sustain this pace and do it effectively for any length of time. If you try, it will come at a heavy price—your health or your family. Both options are a losing deal for you.
There isn’t a day that goes by in the work of a school or district leader that is free of challenges. The never-ending stream of problems and challenges that flows across our paths during the course of an entire school year can leave even the most positive and passionate leaders feeling exhausted and depleted. It is easy to get sucked into the daily trivialities that drain our energy and overwhelm us with a laundry list of things to do. So, what can you do to provide yourself with a little relief in order to stay fresh and energized in hopes of offering some of that positive energy to others? Maybe we are thinking about it all wrong. Rather than ask what we can start doing, perhaps a better question would be to ask, “What should I stop doing?” What thoughts do you have? I would love to hear about them.