Pit Bulls and Fallen Trees: A Message to Principals
It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving break. As a busy elementary school principal, I spent the previous four days resting, relaxing, and gearing up for the mad dash to winter break. I renewed my efforts to have a laser-like focus on teaching and learning, effective collaborative practices, and strengthening efforts to beef up our PLC at Work processes.
Just as that first Monday morning bell rang, I was summoned to the front of the school. There was a big white pit bull on the loose without a collar, right as students were disembarking from the bus. I quickly summoned my team together, and we figured out an impromptu plan to corral the kids safely into the building while simultaneously figuring out how to deal with the lost dog.
Later that same Monday, a strong thunderstorm pushed through the area. Some of the area lost power, and a big tree in a nearby neighborhood near the school was knocked down. The tree blocked one of the major roads getting to our school. The buses couldn’t get to school, traffic was gridlocked, and we once again needed to scramble to figure out our next steps. We handled both crises effectively and appropriately, but it took time, focus, and energy in order to do so.
Does this sound familiar? Despite our best intentions, sometimes things happen that are beyond our control. When it happens, it can take a principal’s eye off of teaching and learning and onto other important things—first and foremost, safety and health of students and staff. And we do this unapologetically—safety has to be the number one priority.
The question is, how do you make sure that the exception doesn’t become the norm? Every day, there are things happening in a school that could easily derail a principal’s schedule. Therefore, it’s important to build strategies and habits that keep the principal focused on the activities that have the strongest impact on student learning.
As a principal, PLC at Work associate, and former central office leader, I have picked up some insights for how to keep “the main thing” the main thing. I’ve learned through watching strong role models and making plenty of my own mistakes. Here are six tips for staying focused on student learning, even in times of high stress:
- Schedule yourself to attend team collaborative times. I have all team collaboration times scheduled as a recurring appointment on my calendar. This reminds me not to schedule other meetings during that time. Moreover, by observing how and what the team collaborates about, it ensures time to coach teams on the PLC at Work process. As a principal, I am far more likely to attend a meeting if it’s on my calendar.
- Build a strong team around you. Even as a solo administrator, it is important to be able to rely on folks around you to help in a crisis. Lean on your trusted support staff and teacher leaders to take important roles during a crisis. Build the capacity of people in your school to lead, especially in areas in which they are comfortable.
- Mindfulness. I cannot even begin to share how much taking a mindfulness moment during the day has helped me. During a time of high stress or anxiety, take a few moments to close your office door, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Use an app such as Calm or Headspace if that helps you. Even 5 minutes of meditation can keep you calmer, allow you to become more grounded, and improve your focus and thinking.
Focus on teams, not individuals. We already know that there isn’t enough time in the day to provide staff with the coaching, feedback, and attention they deserve or need. We also know that sustainable school improvement doesn’t happen by focusing on one teacher in need of support. If you have limited time, focus on coaching a team rather than one teacher. With effective feedback, this coaching may be able to impact 100 students, rather than an individual classroom of 25.
- Gradual release. Each collaborative team in your building is unique. Each team has different styles, habits, personalities and quirks. Use your time strategically—be more involved with those teams that require the most coaching, and gradually release the support you are giving to those teams whose positive practices that impact student achievement are routine.
- Focus on results not activities. Let the data do the talking. As you monitor common formative assessment results, use that information to help you craft better questions. What strategies had the most powerful impact on teaching and learning? What interventions were the most timely and effective that helped students meet proficiency?
As we begin 2020, let’s aim to stick to what we know works. Yes, loose pit bulls and fallen trees will happen again. So, let’s plan for the unexpected, but stay focused on the practices that have the most powerful impact on student learning.