The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

Where are you?

As leaders, it is vital that we are crystal clear with ourselves and those in our organization who we are and what we are about. Your core values shape how you make decisions and how you set your priorities. Articulating your clear answer to the question “who are you,” is a critical first step in any leadership journey.

Just as important is your ability to talk about your vision. Setting clear goals and making them known to every stakeholder in your organization is often the difference between success and failure for a leader. If you cannot answer the question “where are you (or where are we) going?” you will struggle to get support.

An often overlooked question is “where do you spend your time?” Our actions communicate more than our words, and must compliment the statements leaders make about their values and vision. As leaders, we have to reflect on the “where.”

If our core product is instruction, and your role is to guarantee quality, you have to be in classrooms where teaching and learning take place.

If you are about building relationships, be present in hallways and the school cafeteria, showing an interest in staff and students. This may mean leaving your phone behind and taking time away from email.

If you are driven to build a culture where every staff member matters, you have to make time to be throughout your building, and need to be intentional of not having a “typical” pattern when you move around.

Chances are, you are very aware of who you are and where you want to go. This week, take some time to focus on “the third leg of the leadership table,” where you spend your time. Your presence should match your priorities.

Stick with your game plan

Here in Michigan, we’ve had our share of winter. Record snow, coupled with dangerously low temperatures have made school days impossible. I’m confident many are like me and feeling stressed over the time lost, and wishing for a return to the comfortable “rhythm” of a school year. In these moments, when perceptions of “I am so behind” sets in, it’s typical to want to press harder or feel driven to work faster.

While we have to make up some ground, remember, fast work is often sloppy work. Remember the words of John Wooden, “be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Focus on planning quality educational experiences for your students. Make it clear that you are focused on quality and maintaining high expectations. One very strong lesson will always be better than taking two days of content and jamming them into one class period.

Fight the urge to work faster. Quality work takes time and patience.

A Lesson From My Mentor: Be Direct

One of my mentors is currently a successful building principal. In my experience work with and talking to him, my biggest takeaway is:

Be direct.

There are moments that call for poetry or for an inspirational call to action. However, most employee frustration comes from an overuse of charisma, and communication that is too vague. My mentor never fails to use simple language that is clear and candid. He knows how he feels, what his views are, and he truly believes in what he sees as good education. This knowledge of himself allows him to be open, honest, and to always “tell it like it is.”

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

A Lesson From My Mentor: Put People First

One of my mentors retired after a very successful career as a building administrator and continues to work with a state organization. From my experiences working with her, my biggest takeaway is:

Care about the people before focusing on the policy

So often, in the pressure of a given workday, we lose sight of the fact that we lead people. My mentor never failed to think about the feelings, needs, and emotions of others. This focus never stopped her from the hard decisions she was faced with, or the need to sometimes deliver bad news. However, her belief in “people first,” gave her a perspective on how to best deliver tough news, and always reminded her to praise and support the good work people were doing.

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

A Lesson From My Mentor: Focus on What is, not What you Wish was

One of my mentors is a central office administrator in a small school district. He has become an “education entrepreneur,” by building partnerships and reinventing his school district’s business model to keep their financial house in order. From my experiences talking with him, my biggest takeaway is:

When you look at the current state of affairs, focus on what is, not what you wish was.

My mentor accepted that in our current legislative environment, the only way to maintain the public school system he believes in is to compete. An example of a takeaway is a recent meeting when he talked about the benefits of a district partnership with a local university. He didn’t mention positive press coverage; he was pleased that the school had additional reading tutors from the university that would help learners in their system. His drive to compete is grounded in growing a public service.

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

A Lesson From My Mentor: It is Always the Right Time to do the Right Thing

One of my mentors is a successful building principal. From my experiences working with him, my biggest takeaway is:

It’s always the right time to do the right thing.

There are countless moments where it would be easy to ignore something that is happening in our school to avoid a conflict, or to tell a small white lie to avoid a confrontation. My mentor taught me, through actions, that our role is to speak up when something is not acceptable for our school. When you make an error, apologize. Above all, when your inner voice says “not ok,” it’s time to be honest and to take action.

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

A Lesson From My Mentor: Focus on Yourself and What You Can Control

One of my mentors was a successful building administrator before moving on to work with his own leadership development program. From my experiences talking with him, my biggest takeaway is:

Focus on yourself and what you can control.

I’m always honored when the line “stay in your lane” is associated with me. The inspiration for my motto comes from one of my mentors, who encourages me to stay focused on my work and what I am doing for our learners. Whenever I am growing frustrated with legislative mandates or requirements that don’t seem to make a lot of sense, he reminds me to stay centered on our school.

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

A Lesson From My Mentor: Listen. Then Listen. Then Listen Some More

One of my mentors became an administrator at a young age and continued to climb the career ladder to a central office position in a large school district. From my experiences in taking with and working with him, my biggest takeaway is:

Listen. Then listen. Then listen some more.

My mentor once told me “no administrator has ever been too visible.” He’s right, but after further review of what he is doing with that visibility, it’s clear he strives to learn as much as he can about what is happening in classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias by asking questions and genuinely listening to everyone he comes in contact with. His genuine listening involves focusing on the person he is talking with, summarizing what he has heard, asking any clarifying questions he may have, then offering a response. His interactions may take longer than some in our profession, but he has more information than most.

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

A Lesson From My Mentor: Set the target, then pursue the target

I’m fortunate to have a mentor who is now in his 40th year of his career, most of them spent as a building administrator. From my experiences talking with and observing him in his role, my biggest takeaway is:

Set targets, and then pursue those targets with laserlike focus.

My mentor took on a leadership role 4 years ago in a system that was large and suffered some disorganization. His first order of business was to get leaders and representatives from every building together to have a facilitator ask key questions, and to listen to the perspective of those in the room. Based on what he heard, and in his own direct way, he set clear targets for student achievement, finances, human resources, and community relations. Since that time, he devotes his working hours to achieving those objectives.

Note: This post is one in a series about key leadership lessons I have learned from my mentors. As I took time over the holidays to reflect on my work, the key relationships I have built and those who have made time to help me in my leadership journey were central to so much of what I do as a principal. My goal in publishing these lessons is to share my own reflections, celebrate my mentors (who will remain anonymous), and to encourage readers to thank their own mentors, or find new people to help them in their own professional journey. By no means am I a finished product, to those who mentor me, I thank you and ask that you continue to help me grow.

See the Tree

There are times when we need to take a big picture view, or, in other words “see the forest.” However, there are important instances where we need to stop and see the tree right in front of us. As is often the case, we need balance, because sometimes, seeing the tree can lead to helping the forest.

Often, when confronted with a problem, we step back and see it is a systemic issue. Often, we’re right about our assessment, that the problem before us is bigger than simply the problem before us. Just as often, waiting for a systemic solution does not lead to a resolution for the issue we’re facing.

What if, by staying in our lane and focusing on what we can control, we solved an immediate problem and provided a model for what could be a systemic solution?

An article I recently read crystallized my thinking about this. Nick DiNunzio is a senior citizen living in Detroit. Crime has reduced the number of trick or treaters in his neighborhood. Mr. DiNunzio took some steps to solve the problem before him, focusing on what he could control.  By purchasing candy, fixing porch lights, and spreading the word that children in his neighborhood would be safe if they chose to dress up and go out on Halloween, he “stayed in his lane” and developed a solution for the people right in front of him.

Without question, the problem Mr. DiNunzio faced (crime in an urban area) is systemic. Had he waited for a systemic solution, the people right in front of him (children in his neighborhood) would have missed out on an experience kids should enjoy. Instead, he stayed in his lane and focused on what he could control, finding a solution for the problem in front of him. By “seeing the tree,” Mr. DiNunzio may also offer a systemic solution (people taking control of their neighborhoods to create a positive experience). His story is inspirational because it is an example of what can be done. He could have said “crime is a problem,” written letters, spoken out, and held meetings. Instead, he took action, and made something positive happen.

There are problems you face in your school or in your classroom. Instead of saying “this is a district or school wide issue,” what if we took full command of what we could control and found solutions? How would our work be more meaningful if instead of saying “it’s a big picture problem” we were able to say “it’s a big picture problem, but here’s what I tried that worked in my classroom or school?” In our work, we need to balance the big picture with the people right in front of us. Stay in your lane.

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