WHAT I’VE LEARNED AFTER ONE YEAR AS A PRINCIPAL

Last spring is when it all began–before the words self-quarantining and social distancing became commonly used within our vocabularies. Springtime in Bakersfield is when fans are kept on throughout the night, and a light blanket is all that’s required while sleeping.

It was on one of those nights I awoke around 2:00 A.M. My heart was racing and my stomach was churning, which surprised me even though the reason for why I felt this way wasn’t a mystery. I left my bed, walked to the living room, and sat on the couch telling myself to chill. I stared at the fireplace. My breathing was fast until it settled into a comfortable rhythm. “In through the nose, out through the mouth,” I whispered, having been coached well by various meditation apps. This helped calm my pounding heart, but my mind wouldn’t stop.

What did I get myself into?

How did I think I could do this?

I have no idea where to start.

I have so much to learn.

This last statement was discomforting, but it also framed what I had to begin doing.

I needed to learn how to be a principal, and I had to begin now.

This episode of raw nerves occurred the night after my principalship was announced. Those first few days after the announcement were hard because of my worrying, and my main concern was how much there was to learn.

Reading is important for becoming an effective leader, and I tore through books. I also cornered veteran principals and asked many questions, which was helpful. The truth, however, is books and conversations are merely companions to what’s really important: hard-earned experience.

I’ve had little time to reflect during this school year, but COVID-19 took a stick of dynamite and launched it into my hectic schedule, temporarily disrupting many responsibilities, which resulted in an unexpected respite.* I’ve seized this opportunity to share seven things I’ve learned as a principal this past school year. Granted, I’ve learned a lot more than seven things, but what I’m offering are non-technical items. They’re lessons for which I’m grateful.

I can’t promise groundbreaking insight. Maybe you’ll read the following items and think, I already knew all of that. It’s also possible this post won’t be helpful because you’ll have to learn on your own. As stated previously, hard-earned experience is the best teacher.

But maybe–just maybe–what I’m about to share will be of help.

1. That which hinders your task is your task.

I have one main to-do list, and it never runs out. It’s a constant race just to keep the list manageable.

My email inbox is another to-do list, which is true for all of us. Every time another message appears, it requires a response. Some email messages can be dealt with quickly, while others take a while.

There are also phone calls, district mail envelopes, and admin meetings–all of which require attention, and most importantly, time.

In a perfect world I could just start checking off the list. “OK, I’ll knock out some of my to-dos and clear my inbox after which I’ll call back those parents, go through the mail, and then drive to my meeting at the district office.”

That’s a nice plan, but there’s a problem: all my tasks will undoubtedly be hindered by what someone brings me, which means those items won’t be accomplished. The issue brought before me, whatever it is, has just become my task.

I know what some readers are thinking: Prioritize! Add this new task to your list! It’ll all get done, just do the most important thing first.

That’s true, and it very well is the case that whatever someone brings me should be put on the backburner. However, it’s also true they wouldn’t have come to their principal if they didn’t need help right now. A student is tearing up a room. An angry parent just entered the office. Johnny is lost somewhere on campus. A person needs to be coached, counseled, or uplifted in some way. A disagreement has to be smoothed over.

The job of a principal is to be a problem solver, and this is often accomplished by ignoring premeditated to-do lists, confronting the current reality, and realizing, as Sanford Meisner once said, “That which hinders your task is your task.”

2. It doesn’t matter who’s right at first, it matters that the best choice is made for students.

The most common advice shared with me before I became a principal was, “At the end of the day, do whatever’s best for students.” This adage is no doubt true, but oftentimes it’s hard to determine what’s best for students–especially when people have different opinions.

As a principal, it’s important to have strong opinions, weakly held. This idea helps me not only make decisions with incomplete information, but it also opens my mind to other opinions. Although it’s nice to feel like the sage who knows what’s best all the time, in reality it’s impossible, and that’s why it’s important to be familiar with what David Cote stated: “It is more important to be right at the end of the meeting than the beginning.”

You can go into a meeting, or even just a conversation, with strong opinions–that’s totally fine. Your mind, however, must be agile enough to drop preconceived convictions and side with a different opinion that’s better. To do what’s best for students is to engage in something you may not 1) understand, 2) be aware of, and/or 3) agree with–at least at first.

Holding strong opinions while being open to changing your mind is the only surefire way to support students. It’s OK to be wrong or not know a solution at the beginning of the meeting. What’s unacceptable is sticking to your first idea when evidence proves you were wrong.

3. Keep it simple–but not too simple.

Things get complicated quickly when discussing how best to teach kids. This is evident when trying to reach a consensus. Every grade level is different, and each student is unique. Combine this with curriculum, consultants, varying levels of expertise and experience, and systems can become complicated.

We must strive for simplicity, and in doing so, remember what Bill Graham said: “Make the complicated simple and the simple powerful.” As a principal, it’s my job to bring clarity to teachers. At the same time, even though breaking down complex strategies, systems, and ideas is important, these components shouldn’t be made too simple. It’s a balancing act. There are times when people should struggle through the difficulty of a complex task, and there are opportunities when leaders can make something easier to digest by simplifying.

If you’re wondering why more leaders don’t do this effectively, I’ll tell you why: it’s extremely hard.

4. Care for people even when they’re mad.

Spend one day as principal, and you’ll discover sometimes people get angry.

Often anger comes from a place of pain. When people yell, threaten, and accuse, they are reacting to emotions that may have nothing to do with you. That’s not to say they aren’t mad at you, because sometimes they will be. I’m referring to the common occurrence of someone overreacting to the situation. In those instances, it’s best to assume they are hurting and need to be cared for. This is easier said than done, but it’s important if you’re going to operate within the field of educational leadership. This quote by Krista Tippett sums it up best: “Anger is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public.”

When you hear gossip or negative things said about you, you must care about the people who are being negative. What they’re saying is most likely coming from a place of frustration and possibly pain–even if they’re just being mean. If you’re working hard and making sure you’re right at the end of the meeting (see above), you can rest in the knowledge that caring for others and remaining optimistic is the best course of action.

5. Being a principal is the most painful position on campus.

Number five isn’t popular. People want to hear how amazing being an educational leader is–and it is. Sometimes. Not all the time. Some days, it’s extremely painful.

I’ve been presented with this reality often the past year, but it wasn’t until I read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Motive that I realized the principalship has to be the most painful job. There’s no way to escape this fact. The principal is the one who makes the tough decisions. The principal has to think of the budget and sometimes say “no,” to good ideas. The principal has to deal with people who are upset but may not have all the facts. And oftentimes, the principal can’t divulge all the facts.

“Painful” is the best way to describe it. But then again, what did I expect? If I allow a scorpion to rest on my hand, can I blame it for stinging me? Of course being the leader at a school site will be painful–it’s the name of the game. So why do it?

Because it’s needed. It’s important. Someone has to lead and stay positive. Not in a false, optimistic sense of the word, but more in line with the Stockdale Paradox–unwavering faith in success while at the same time confronting the brutal facts.

There’s nothing easy about this. The best thing you can do is what another principal once told me: “Walk into the fire. It’ll be fine.” Yes, walking into the fire is important, and I’d add you must stand within the flames even when everything inside is telling you to get the hell out.

This crystallized in my mind while I read the following excerpt from Trillion Dollar Coach. The book is about Silicon Valley business coach Bill Campell, but the following excerpt is about Bill Walsh, former coach of the 49ers. At the end, you’ll find the balm for the fire.

Love is part of what makes a great team great. Yes, this was a natural part of Bill’s personality—he was way more ebullient than most of us! But it was also something he likely learned from football. Steve Young, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, spoke of team love at a conference honoring Bill in September 2017. “Great coaches look beyond,” Steve said. “[49ers coach Bill Walsh] would get the team together every year and say, ‘Hey, guys, we’re going to integrate this team.’ There were all these little cliques—the safeties hang together, guys from different schools, socioeconomic backgrounds, geography, language, religion. He says, ‘I’m going to break all of those . . .’ “He wanted us to get integrated with each other so when you’re at Lambeau Field, down by four, with a minute and a half left and it’s third-and-ten, it’s sleeting, you’re soaking wet and the wind is blowing and eighty thousand people are screaming at you. Human nature is saying get me out of here, I just want to get to the bus, get this over with. “Now you’re in the huddle and it’s that moment. Everyone looks at each other and it’s like, we are integrated, we have a reason, we have a depth, we have a love for each other, a respect . . . “Why did the 49ers do so great from 1981 to 1998? It’s because we had a love for each other.”

Love. That’s the answer for surviving the pain. Love for the students. Love for the staff. Love for the parents. Teamwork is what will help you endure those moments when your brain is screaming at you to run.

Love may not be all you need to be a successful principal, but it’s a critical antidote for the pain.

6. Sometimes what you do well isn’t needed for the job.

Everyone’s good at something. If you’re lucky, you’re good at a few things. When what you’re good at coincides with the task at hand, it’s a wonderful feeling. When you’re in the flow state and everything slows down like you’re Neo in The Matrix, things are looking pretty good. I actually can’t think of a better professional state in which to be.

That’s why it feels horrible when faced with the fact that what you’re good at isn’t what’s needed for the job. You could feel like a fraud. You could feel subpar. You could quit. You could blame others or get angry. You could get jealous. Worst of all, you could stick to only what you know.

Oftentimes we think what we’re good at is the most important thing. So if our expertise is all about technology, edtech trumps all. If our passion is English Language Development, academic conversations are the focus. If we understand the science underlying early literacy, we’re champions of phonemic awareness and all else pales. If we’re knowledgeable about systems, all that matters is the structures we build.

These are good things; the problem arises when we’re good at one or two of these items and we neglect the rest. Even worse, it’s a shame when leaders are good at one of these topics and make the whole organization focus only on that.

So here’s what I’ve learned: I must get really good at as many things as possible, help people improve in those areas, and remember what I’m good at may not be the most important thing at a given time. In those instances, it’s best to find someone who is gifted at solving the problem.

Which leads me to number seven.

7. The learning never stops.

Within the crucible of the principalship, it’s easy to simply survive–especially as a new principal. You must build relationships, plan and attend meetings, provide professional development, meet various deadlines, address student discipline, take care of parent phone calls… and that just scratches the surface when there aren’t ransomware viruses or pandemics to contend with.

It’s important to remember a principal is first and foremost an instructional leader. That’s easy to say and hard to do. It takes a great deal of focus, compartmentalizing, and prioritizing in order to be an effective instructional leader and also take care of the fires that must be put out. Because of this, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming good at just a few things and then remaining good at only those things. While that may work for a year (or two… or three), weaknesses will begin to negatively affect the organization. The job is simply too big and important for a person to be good at only a few things. Instead, a principal must be good at many things: early literacy, math instruction, leading meetings, managing people, building teams, technology, social media, having hard conversations, attending to a budget, public speaking, 90 Day Plan, SPSA, SSC, NGSS, PBIS, AVID, LCAP, PD, CAASPP, ELPAC… and many more acronyms.

It’s important to realize a principal will never “arrive.” This acknowledgement is freeing and sobering at the same time. It’s OK to not be perfect, but it’s not OK to give up. As Abigail Adams stated, learning must be “sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.” That sounds so tiring, so you need a purpose–not just passion–in order to not stop.**

I’ve learned so much within the field of education, and it’s humbling to see how far I still have to go. It’s even more humbling to realize the journey will never end. I do comfort myself with knowing I don’t have to be perfect to help others. I can still provide feedback and coaching without being the all-knowing guru I wish I was. The following excerpt from The Education of a Coach, a book about Bill Belichick, captures this idea well.

The NFL was filled with coaches with weak arms themselves, who could see things quickly on the field but who were doomed to work with quarterbacks who had great arms, but whose ability to read the defense was less impressive.

Belichick can’t throw like Tom Brady, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t help Brady become better. Similarly, I’ll never be able to teach students specific skills as well as some teachers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t provide them with helpful support and feedback. It also means I need to keep refining my craft because I can always be a better instructor and leader.

And that’s life, my friends: striving to be a little better each day and remembering the competition is only with yourself.

There’s actually one more lesson.

Sorry, this makes eight items. Or, if you prefer, consider this a bonus.

Working from 6:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. on weekdays, working on your computer before bed (approximately two hours per night), and going into work on the weekend for four hours isn’t sustainable–especially if you want to have the energy to connect with students, teachers, and families and perform the daily high energy activities required of a principal.

More importantly, family trumps all. This means trips to the park are essential. Bike rides are essential. Jumping on the trampoline, drawing, playing board games, joking, talking, connecting, and being present (physical and mentally) with the ones you love are essential.

Of course there are times work life will take up a larger percentage of time than family life, but the pendulum has to swing the other way and rest there for a while. Your family and close friends are the ones who will be there for you. They love you for who you are, and more importantly, they’re the ones who need you. You could become the most influential leader in the whole world, but who will you be thinking about when it’s all said and done? What will your regrets be?

In conclusion…

The nights are warming up again, the current school year is coming to a close, and I still have a lot to learn as a principal. However, am I sleeping better at night?

Yes. Yes I am.

*Before COVID-19, on average I arrived to work at 6:15 A.M. and left around 6:00 P.M. every weekday, and I would go in on Saturday or Sunday for at least four hours. Of course, I would work at home, too. During COVID-19, my schedule has become less intense.

**I’ve been a proponent of purpose over passion for a while now. I recommend clicking here if this controversial idea interests you. (To be honest, I haven’t met a person who agrees with me.)

10 thoughts on “WHAT I’VE LEARNED AFTER ONE YEAR AS A PRINCIPAL

  1. Well said, Steve. I am so proud of you, and I’ve never doubted your talent, knowledge, or purpose!

  2. Steve,
    Great job! I loved reading this! I have always said that being a principal is an unbelievably tough job that can only be understood by those who have actually worked as one. Your article brilliantly supported my belief.

    GungHo my friend!

  3. Year one is almost done and it has been like no other! What a well composed article and an awesome and reflective read. You were spot on with so many things. Luckily, for me, this is a journey I am proud to be taking with my friend. Here’s to many more together. Well Done Sir!

  4. Steve,
    This has been one of my most rewarding and confirming reads in many years. You’re only a first year principal once, but you certainly articulated our journey like a seasoned pro.
    Well done!

    1. Thanks so much, Matt. I’ve learned a lot this year–and there’s still a lot more to learn! I’m glad we have such a great group of principals to support each other.

  5. These are great insights and really speak to the importance of being a reflective leader. Taking the time to capture your feelings, thoughts and experiences is a well served priority. We all admire and value your leadership. Thanks for the great work you are doing!

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