I was inspired to write this post after reading Traci Logue's (@fearless_teach) blog about lessons from her first year as an Assistant Principal (5 Important Things From My First Year as an AP). I have just completed my second year as an AP. It was a great year of growth and not quite the vertical learning curve of Year One. Below are several of the lessons I've learned in these two years. Hopefully, these will be helpful to readers, especially those starting the journey known as school leadership.
I cannot stress enough the importance of listening. Not just listening so that you can respond, but listening for understanding. Listening to hear what the other person is saying and empathizing with them, even if you don't agree. This includes all stakeholders. Parents, teachers, other administrators, students, paras, community members. When people know that you are willing to listen, they become open to talking about what is truly important to them. To listen effectively, you may have to tell people that you can't listen at that moment. Instead, set up a time when you can be totally free to hear what they have to say. If they really need to be heard, the person will not only honor that request, but be thankful that you were willing to give them the time to speak.
2. Ask questions.
If you don't know something, ask. If something doesn't make sense, ask. If you are unclear, ask. Questions help us understand and clarify. They ensure that everyone is on the same page. They also keep us out of trouble. When you have a question about anything, ask it. It is better to ask early and often than to finish a task only to hear "That's not what I meant."
3. Know your people. Know your people. Know your people.
Every person on your staff is important. They each contribute to the effectiveness of the school. If they don't, they shouldn't be there. Get to know each and every person. Know what their job is, what they are passionate about, what they do well (and what they don't.) Find out about their families. Know their interests. Get to know them as individuals. This takes time and effort, but the relationships that develop are worth the work. Remember the saying, "People don't care what you know until they know that you care." Show you care by developing relationships as you get to know your staff.
4. Get into the building.
While this may seem like a no-brainer, it is often hard to achieve. Meetings, directives from Central Office, parent calls, student issues, and more can all stand in the way of getting into classrooms. At the end of the day, it is easy to look up and realize that you haven't stepped out of your office all day. I have found that scheduling time every day for visiting classrooms helps ensure that this occurs. Then, stick to that schedule. For those interruptions that will occur, leave a script with the office staff that reads something like this: Mr. Quarles is in the building working with students. Can I take a message and have him call you back when he returns?
5. Love your kids and let them know it.
Kids need to know that someone loves them and cares about them without condition. Be that person. Greet them at the door every day. Learn their names and use them. Find out what they are interested in. Engage them in conversation. Eat with them (and not just on special occasions). Smile. When they are in trouble, let them know that, despite their mistake, they will have another chance. Forget past transgressions. When appropriate, hug them. Talk to them outside of school. In every way possible, let them know that you love them and will not give up on them. Ever.
6. Be open to suggestions.
I don't know about you, but I know I don't know it all. There are many areas I am lacking in. I need the input of others to be effective. Early this year, I had a teacher approach me and, with some trepidation, suggest that I change something I was doing. I thanked her and promptly made the adjustment. It was then that I realized that it is sometimes difficult for people to make suggestions, especially to those in leadership positions. For that reason, I need to be especially open to both soliciting ideas and listening to the input of others. This doesn't mean that I have to follow every proposal, just that I need to be open to listening. Which leads to the next lesson.....
7. Never stop learning.
To be a leader, it is imperative that you be a learner. The two go hand in hand. Each day, be prepared to learn something new, whether from other people, from reading, from social media, from mistakes, or from a multitude of other sources. And, be prepared to share that learning. When we regularly share our learning, it will keep the knowledge alive and may inspire others to grow as learners as well.
8. Confront problems quickly
If there is one lesson I've had to learn the hard way, it is that problems don't go away by themselves. Instead, they grow and form a life of their own. The only way to get rid of a problem is to confront it, bring it to light, and then deal with it. The longer we wait to do this, the larger the problem tends to become. While this is rarely easy, it is imperative for the health of the school and the relationships that exist there.
9. Identify your struggling students (and build positive relationships with them).
One of my roles this year was student management. In a nutshell, I was the disciplinarian. When a student made a poor choice that could not be dealt with effectively in the classroom, they were sent to me. It didn't take long to identify the students who I would be seeing quite often. Following the advice of another leader, I decided to stop waiting for these students to come to me and instead, go to them. I started meeting with them on a regular basis. This might mean a short walk every few days, talking with them before school, joining their class for recess, playing a game with them in P.E., or whatever else it took to build a relationship. Many of these kids just needed someone to show that they cared and to help them learn what acceptable behavior looked like.
10. Ride a bus. In fact, ride many buses.
One afternoon, after dealing with multiple referrals from a particular bus, I called transportation to find out what was going on. They told me this bus had a sub driver that week and he was having trouble with the kids. I blurted out in frustration, "Why don't I just ride it home?" Thus, a trend was born. For the rest of the year, I made it a habit to ride different buses, especially those that were sending me multiple referrals. When I told my principal my plans, she said, "You sure are dedicated." But, I don't think this should be about dedication. It should, instead, be a part of the administrator's role. What I learned on those bus rides opened my eyes to much of what I saw occurring at school. For example, many of the kids who were struggling with behavior at school were also riding the same buses together each day. They were feeding off of each other and then bringing it into the school. I also got to see the neighborhoods where my students lived. I went to some areas of town that I didn't know existed. It also allowed me to see to the amount of time some students were spending on school buses each day. One 2nd grader got on the bus at 2:45 pm and didn't get dropped off at home until 4:15. In the morning, this same child boarded the bus at 6:15 am. Could this be contributing to his behavior problems in class? Riding buses also helped me build relationships with students who always seemed to be amazed that a principal would ride with them. It also built better communication with the drivers who knew I was willing to take the time to help them do their jobs more effectively. While riding buses was not in the official "job description," it turned out to be a very important part of the work.