Last spring I wrote a post entitled What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal. Now that I’ve finished my second year, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect upon what I’ve learned as a principal during the “COVID Year.”

1. You’ve got to take care of your health first.

This is intuitive yet easy to ignore. Exercise, eating well, and adequate sleep are required to perform as a leader. If these items are pushed to the side, the result could range from lowered performance to significant health issues. It’s a cliché to state that you can’t help others until you help yourself, but it’s true.

The slow-carb diet, assembling a gym in my garage, Apple Fitness+, running outside, and tracking my sleep on my Apple Watch have all contributed to a healthier lifestyle for me this past year. My plan is to use the Calm app more often this summer and into next school year.

Also, now that I’m 40, when it comes to losing weight I’ve learned that diet trumps exercise. My time is better spent prepping for a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner rather than working out (if time is a factor).

2. The students want to see you.

When students returned to in-person instruction, I began doing morning announcements via Loom as opposed to over the loudspeaker, and I was shocked by the response. I thought that sending a link to teachers every morning to share with their classes would quickly get old for everyone, but students have overwhelmingly provided positive feedback. Even though they were learning remotely for a large portion of the year, they now feel connected to me in a way that wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t watching the announcements every morning.

3. Winning is the best way to improve an organization’s morale.

I’ve known this since my high school sports days, but I’ve come to greatly appreciate this truth over the past school year. An organization that experiences clear wins is going to function better than an organization that doesn’t. The best way, and possibly only way, to improve a culture is to reflect upon successes.

So schools should celebrate student growth on formative assessments. They should celebrate students’ behavior growth. They should recognize all the positive things their hard work is reaping. And if you can’t identify any wins, then the job of the team is to get a quick win right away so momentum can begin and morale can improve.

4. Humor solves or exacerbates problems.

My attempts at humor often result in lame dad jokes, but I have found some success injecting humor into situations that desperately need it. Saying a pun, even a well-timed and clever pun, will induce groans and eye rolls, but it can reset a conversation and bring levity to meetings that are either in-person or via Zoom.

Of course, this can backfire. Too many jokes, or coming across carefree while everyone else is in crisis, is a surefire way to kill culture. You’re walking a tightrope when using humor as a tool, which means it can work spectacularly or fail miserably.

5. Clarity is critical.

Learning progressions, learning intentions, success criteria… I’m learning about these important components of teacher clarity, and I’m realizing how important they are for student achievement. We want to be clear so students can own their learning–that’s the ultimate goal. Likewise, administrators must provide clear messages to team members. This means there is coherence and alignment in not just what is communicated, but also in what teachers are expected to accomplish.

6. COVID made everyone edtech experts.

Teachers learned so much over the past school year. Folks who rarely checked email began uploading assignments to Google Classroom and Canvas, communicating digitally with students and families, and replying to emails. I used to be in educational technology, and I worked hard to help teachers adopt digital tools and blended learning strategies. The pandemic forced all of us to adapt, and there’s nothing else in recent memory that spurred the same amount of professional growth within the field of education. Necessity truly is the mother of invention… and learning.

7. You will not make everyone happy.

People are divided. It’s a safe bet that whatever decision you make in our current climate is going to thrill half the people and upset the other half.

As leaders, our job is to understand that nothing is easy. Everything worth doing takes hard work–oftentimes painful work. And as we know, it’s during the hard times that we need solid leadership the most.

8. Family trumps all.

I wrote “family trumps all” at the end of last year’s post What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal, and I’ve relearned the importance of prioritizing one’s family. Here are some statements I think about regularly.

Life is short.

Life goes by way too fast.

Things disappear sooner than you think they will.

If everyone took care of their own family, the world would be a better place.

If you stopped working right now, your organization would continue. The wheel would continue turning. It’s important to remember this because oftentimes leaders mistakenly believe that everything would fall apart if they disappeared. This is definitely not the case, and we must remember why for two reasons: 1) It will keep us humble, and 2) It will help us keep our priorities straight.

In conclusion…

This has been a hard year, and to be honest, I don’t see the road getting easier anytime soon. That’s ok. There have always been difficult times, and it’s our duty to get out of bed every morning and try to make the world a better place.

Next year I’m opening a new school, so during the spring or early summer of 2022, I’ll write another post about what I learned throughout the process. Stay tuned.


  1. Great read, Stephen! I appreciate you and wish we were able to work together more. Happy summer!

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