The early hours of the day are important. I film the morning announcements in my office, send the link to the teachers, and walk outside toward the playground. I’m facing east, and the sun is peaking over the mountains. Light beams across the sky until the sun shows its full roundness. Water collects from the sprinklers on the grass, and these pools will fascinate the students. They’ll surround the tiny ponds until a yard aide says they must be careful or they’ll ruin their new shoes, and the children will laugh as they scatter.

The campus is brand new, and it’s these moments before students and adults arrive that I can think about what I’ve learned opening Highgate Elementary School as a principal. Below are twelve of those reflections. Of course, the year has just began. There will be triumphs and hard lessons learned, but there are already takeaways I can share that might be helpful to future leaders at brand new school sites.

1. Understand the implications of a blank slate.

As you can imagine, a new school is completely empty. Schools in existence for a year or more have historical knowledge embedded within them. When you’re a new principal at these established schools, you can spend your first year learning the answers to questions such as: Which gates are used for arrival and dismissal? How do parents approach the school? Where are the best places for them to park? How will the kindergarten students leave the cafeteria? Who will walk with them? What locations should the supervision aides monitor in the morning and afternoon?

And those are just logistics. At a new school you must develop answers to the above questions, but the blank slate includes so much more: supplies that haven’t yet arrived (thanks, COVID). Incomplete kindergarten cumulative files. Teams that must get to know each other and build trust. Parents with important questions. Students who have never stepped foot on the campus. Instructional systems that need to be implemented, executed, and monitored.

A blank slate is difficult because paralysis can set in. When you can do anything, where should you begin? What’s the best first step? Whose questions should be answered first? Which system is most important to establish right off the bat?

On the flip side, a blank slate means there are no bad habits. The culture hasn’t been built, so there’s neither a pre-established positive or negative culture. It’s all up to you and the team you’ve assembled.

2. You may have to work two jobs.

For a new school to open properly in the fall, the principal must at least be hired the previous January. Work for the new school begins immediately, but that doesn’t mean you cease leading your current school. The new school requires communication, a mascot, furniture orders, supply orders, hiring, etc. At the same time, the principal must take care of the responsibilities at the current school. This includes moving forward with the vision, supporting students and staff, putting out fires, and implementing directives that are received (instructionally and COVID-related).

This is part of the deal. Unless you’re given a year to open the new campus without school site leadership responsibilities–which is rare–you’re doing two jobs. You have to be ok with this.

3. Build a team by determining who will work well together.

The hiring of teachers and staff members must begin immediately. Since you’re still leading your current school site, the temptation will be to rush through interviews and cobble a team together because of the other responsibilities you’re facing–especially if the pandemic is still raging. This must be avoided at all costs.

The team you build will create the culture and ultimately determine what students will experience on the new campus. This hiring phase is the most critical, but it can easily be treated as perfunctory if you’re not careful.

Most importantly, you must hire people who will work well as a team. I’ve interviewed approximately 150 people for the new school, and there have been amazing candidates. It’s easy to determine who’s good; what’s hard is determining who will work well with each other. You’ll have to say “no” to great candidates–people you’ll hopefully work with in the future–because they unfortunately don’t fit well with the teams that are forming. Saying “no” to good people is difficult; it may be the most difficult part of opening a new school.

4. Don’t let anything distract you from establishing a strong culture and purpose.

Once the team is assembled, you’ll receive directives and be expected to lead instructionally. There will inevitably be stumbling blocks while establishing an edifying culture. Expectations will be thrust upon you, and the pressure to perform will build. You’ll feel like this must be implemented… and that. It wouldn’t be a school without this program, and the teachers must receive professional development for this strategy. The to-do list will quickly grow, and if you’re not careful, you’ll shift from leading to managing as you delegate, train, and share the burden of your stress.

At a new school, the culture–which is fragile and has not yet been established–will suffer if this happens. Even though people will tell you to spend time developing the culture, there will be precious little time. You must also contend with COVID, which makes meeting in person difficult as you keep people physically safe while at the same time building relationships. This isn’t an easy task.

It’s also important to establish the school’s purpose and tie everything back to that purpose. At Highgate Elementary School, the purpose is “Empowering all learners.” We’re careful to make sure that whatever we commit to empowers our learners: children and adults. This means students owning their learning and teachers building collective efficacy are high on our priority list.

Culture can’t be built without communication. Clarity needs to be established for the staff, and it’s also extremely important that communication occurs with the future students and families right away. Providing students with a voice in choosing the mascot, colors, and purpose statement of the school is extremely important. This will foster early buy-in and help everyone become excited to be part of opening a campus.

5. Supplies are difficult–doubly so because of the pandemic.

COVID has been devastating for many reasons, and one of those is the supply chain. It’s late September, and there are still supplies that haven’t arrived, but that didn’t mean we postponed the start date of school. The teachers are invested in doing a good job, so they’ve begun Donors Choose projects, Amazon Wish Lists, thought outside the box, and spent their own money to furnish classrooms and ensure students have what they need.

Because this is the first year of the school, there aren’t supplies remaining from previous years in the workroom. There are no extra dry erase markers or construction paper. Reams of paper aren’t stashed away, and you’ll pray the toner that comes with the new copy machine lasts long enough for the next shipment of toner to arrive.

Being a non-Title I school, you’ll have to contend with a budget that’s on the smaller side. Teachers from Title I schools will wonder why you’re being stingy, and teachers from schools that had a laissez faire approach to supplies will wonder why you’re such a Scrooge. They’ll become frustrated, but they may not say anything, which is why the next reflection is so important.

6. If there’s no conflict, someone’s voice isn’t being heard.

This sentiment was said to me years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. As a principal, I’ve repeated it multiple times because I believe it to be true.

When things are quiet, that’s when I’m most worried as a principal. Oftentimes, when leaders aren’t hearing complaints, they believe they’re doing a good job, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Quiet can mean something is stewing. That’s why it’s important to build relationships and seek out people’s true feelings to know what they’re actually thinking.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but I operate under the assumption that everyone is disgruntled about something, and it’s my job to stay positive and solve problems. If I’m wrong and people are happy, then I can be pleasantly surprised. If I’m right and people are indeed upset about something, then I’m mentally prepared to deal with the issues at hand, which leads me to the next lesson.

7. Take care of students by taking care of your staff.

Often I hear leaders say we need to be in this profession for the students and not the adults. It is without question that student learning is the priority and why we exist as an organization. I would just add that it’s a false dichotomy to say you have to be either for students or adults. Principals are not in the classroom on a regular basis. Because of this, we don’t have the same effect on students as teachers do. It’s the teachers and support staff who spend the most time with students, and so it makes sense (to me, at least) that a principal who takes care of the school’s employees is taking care of the students. This ties back to four of the previous items I’ve shared: focus on the team, establish a strong culture and purpose, work on getting people the resources they need, and welcome healthy conflict. If you accomplish these things, you’re on your way to supporting the adults on campus who work the closest with students.

8. Say “yes” more than “no.”

Start with yes. This should be the default mindset. If you’re opening a new school, it’s important to not squash ideas. If people want something, try to find a win/win situation. If you can’t give people what they want, it’s important they know why and let them express their frustration. Sometimes staff members will feel more comfortable going to a grade level lead, academic coach, or assistant principal with a concern. This is totally fine, and when you hear concerns secondhand, it’s important to address the need.

9. Say “no” more than “yes.”

You need to start with yes when it comes to people, but you must start with no when it comes to new initiatives. Steve Jobs famously said there should be a thousand no’s for every yes. As a leader, it’s so easy to say “yes” to items that should receive a no. I try to keep things simple, and I fortunately am surrounded by people who tell me when we need to scale back, or they remind me to not get us involved in something that will take too much time and stress the system. When people tell you what they think, that means they’re empowered, and that’s a good thing.

Saying “no” helps you skate to where the puck is going as opposed to where it is. All school site leaders know state and district directions change, so it’s important to stay light on your feet and not bog teachers down with tasks when the landscape shifts.

10. You have to live there for a while before you can make certain decisions.

It’s important to accurately determine what you’ll need at the new school site as soon as possible, but when you’re still a principal at one school, and you’re trying your best to fill the classrooms and the office at the new school with furniture, your forecasting isn’t going to be perfect. Even though you have the blueprints and know the sizes of the rooms, you don’t know precisely the best way to furnish each room; especially when it comes to such things as: number of file cabinets, where people will eventually want the furniture, the best places to house technology, where to put copiers, and more. It might be good to have a few different lists: a preliminary list of items you’ll know you’ll need, a second list for items that will be purchased once you’re functioning on campus, and a third (smaller) list for all other items that are necessary.

11. Aesthetics matter.

Clip art, comic sans, and images made in Google Slides have their places, but the branding of a school is important, which includes the mascot, logo, colors, typeface, online presence, spirit wear, and more. It’s important to collect feedback from the future students, families, and staff, and you must employ professional help in order to create vector files and high resolution images, which will be helpful in the future for a variety of reasons.

12. As much as possible, turn off work when you step through the front door of your home in the evening.

Life is short. Health is fragile. Good times don’t last long enough. Building a new school is thrilling at times, but if you’re still leading another school while opening the new school, you have to protect yourself and ensure you have time with your family and friends. Even if you’re not doing double duty, opening a new school is stressful. You must prioritize your health, which includes exercise, eating well, and attending health appointments–something principals skip far too often.

Your health is the most important thing you have. If you’re not healthy, then you can’t help others.

In conclusion

I’m thankful I have a part in the genesis of something that will outlast me and affect the lives of students for decades to come. Opening Highgate Elementary School has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m so thankful for the hardworking team I’m a part of that empowers all learners.

I’ve written two previous posts about being a principal: What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal and What I’ve Learned As a Principal After One Year of COVID.


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.


Below are the books I read in 2020. Just like previous annual lists I’ve shared (2018 and 2019), I haven’t included books I didn’t finish due either to time restraints or because they were boring. I believe it’s important to discard a book if it bores you, and I did that a handful of times over the past twelve months. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to finish 25 books.

This was an interesting year–both in terms of the state of the world and what I read. I finished one of my all-time favorite American novels, which was a wonderful experience, but I admit my interests resulted in a random 2020 list.

The titles have been placed in reverse chronological order, so the first book listed is the last book I read for the year. I hope there’s a book waiting for you that enriches your life and inspires you to face the New Year with knowledge in your head and hope in your heart.

1. The Great Mental Models Volume 2: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology by Riannon Beaubien and Shane Parrish.

Super interesting and accessible. I found it fascinating to reflect upon how we can take scientific principles and apply them to everyday life.

2. Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry

Intense, unsentimental, heartbreaking, meaningful… Larry McMurtry plays for keeps. Streets of Laredo is the fourth book in the Lonesome Dove series but the second one written; McMurtry wrote this after Lonesome Dove, and then he published two prequels. I’ll have to read those next.

3. The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders: Leading for Engagement and Impact in Any Setting by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Dominique B. Smith, and John Hattie.

My big takeaway from these distance learning books being published by the Visible Learning folks: teacher clarity is of the upmost importance in both in-person and remote teaching.

4. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness by Eric Jorgenson.

Wonderful. I read this book very quickly. Naval Ravikant’s thoughts are important, and I’m finding it wise to listen to him.

5. Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

This contained interesting information regarding the early Stoics, but I have to admit I found it boring. I think this will be more rewarding as a reference when I want to look up specific philosophers later.

6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

A masterpiece. The Godfather, The Brothers Karamazov, and Blood Meridian come to mind when I think of masterpieces; Lonesome Dove holds its own with these titles. The characters stick with you long after you’ve finished, and there are scenes that occur about 400 pages into the novel that truly shocked me. I love this book.

7. So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport.

This was just as good as the first time I read it. So Good They Cant Ignore You is perfect if you’re pondering one of the two following questions. 1) What’s my passion? and 2) Why am I not promoting within my organization?

8. The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock.

Again, here’s another book I reread. Rereading books is not a common practice of mine–although I think it should be. As I get older, I’m valuing the books that have already enriched my life, and I’m finding it important to revisit them. I reread The Devil All the Time because the Netflix movie was released. The movie’s good, but the novel’s better.

9. The Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12: Teaching for Engagement and Impact in Any Setting by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie.

This was the number one resource for how I approached this year as we prepared for distance learning.

10. The PBIS Tier Two Handbook: A Practical Approach to Implementing Targeted Interventions by Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan and John E. Hannigan.

This was helpful for one main reason—it prompted me to begin a Tier Two Sub Team, which morphed into an MTSS Leadership Team.

11. The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown by Catherine Burns.

These stories were a nice way to wind down in the evening before going to sleep.

12. The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts by Rhiannon Beaubien and Shane Parrish.

If you’re not familiar with mental models and how they can improve your decision making, then there’s a lot of value in reading this book.

13. Gung Ho! by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles.

I read this with a fellow principal who recommended it. It’s a light read with an interesting take on turning an organization around.

14. The Quick and Easy Guide to Winning No Limit Texas Hold’em by David Harris Griffith.

I shouldn’t be sharing this book because you’ll know my poker strategy. Or maybe I jettisoned the book’s advice and created my own way of playing… You’ll just have to play me to find out.

15. Robert’s Rules: Quick Start Guide – The Simplified Beginner’s Guide to Robert’s Rules of Order by ClydeBank Business.

I wouldn’t recommend this, but that’s because I probably needed more of an intermediate reference book.

16. Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy by Mo Gawdat.

The unimaginable happened when Mo Gawdat lost his son due to an error during surgery. This book shares his thought process for how to find happiness in an unforgiving world.

17. Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different by Chuck Palahniuk.

This was a delightful book. If I were to boil down the advice from all the books I’ve read on writing, the commonalities are to write simply, clearly, and because you enjoy it. Do not write stories to make money or be famous. And above all else, don’t be boring.

18. How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice by Robert Pondiscio.

I found Pondiscio’s exploration of Success Academy very interesting. Love them or hate them, the charter schools in this book get good test results. The conflict arises regarding how a person answers this question: What are the results schools should be seeking?

19. The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities by Patrick Lencioni.

Some people should be leaders and some people shouldn’t—that’s the message of this book. Leading isn’t easy, and it’s important for a person to quickly recognize whether leadership is the right path. Just because it isn’t now doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future.

20. Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead by Jim Mattis.

Jim Mattis is an impressive American, and this book is a fascinating look into Mattis’ career and recent history.

21. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World by Admiral William H. McRaven.

This is a quick and fun read. I like the idea of accomplishing small things every day that eventually add up to big changes in the long run.

22. The Outsider by Stephen King.

A great beginning, a pretty good middle, and a clunky ending. This can be said for many King novels. Overall I liked it, and the TV series is worth watching as well.

23. 10 Success Factors for Literacy Intervention: Getting Results with MTSS in Elementary Schools by Susan Hall.

This book is what I needed to fill my knowledge gaps regarding literacy intervention.

24. The PBIS Tier One Handbook: A Practical Approach to Implementing the Champion Model by Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan and Linda Hauser.

Helpful but not groundbreaking. For me, the most important takeaway was understanding the components of Tier One so a school can successfully scale to Tier Two and Three.

25. The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger.

I technically read this book in 2019, but I finished it so closely to 2020 that I didn’t add it to my end-of-the-year list then, so I’ll add it now. I really liked this book. It’s important to take the opportunity to look into the lives of successful people; especially when they’re the ones sharing their thoughts and advice in an autobiography. Iger was able to accomplish some amazing things, and ushering in Disney+ when he did pretty much saved the company from what could have been a catastrophic 2020.

That’s it! Thanks so much for visiting the site. Here’s to great reading in 2021!


The following story was written during a recent weeklong training with the University of Virginia Partnership for Leaders in Education.

My first night out of the police academy my Field Training Officer and I arrested two teenagers for theft. After talking with the kids’ guardian on the phone at the station, we decided to drive them home instead of booking them. The guardian who met us in the front yard was mother to one of the boys and aunt to the other. She had just gotten off her night shift, and she was tired. She expressed her frustration and how she’d exhausted all the resources at her disposal for keeping her son and nephew off the street at night while she worked. As we drove away, I remember her standing alone on the front lawn. 

I’d been having doubts about being a police officer since the academy, but it was that moment I decided I didn’t want to be in law enforcement anymore. I wanted to be on the other side of a young person’s choice. In other words, I wanted to be there before the mistake. I wanted to help. So seven months after that night, I entered the field of education. 

It has been over fifteen years since my days as a police officer, and I’ve come to realize in order to help students achieve their potential, they must be given what they need to be successful. This includes physical safety, emotional support, access to appropriate curriculum, and quality instruction that engages students in their own learning. 

Those two junior high boys from fifteen years ago were in my classes all nine years while I taught 7th and 8th graders. They had different names and backgrounds, but their stories were similar, and I hope I helped them improve their trajectory through life. I see those students at Loudon Elementary where I’m currently principal. I see the innocent faces of children who have their whole lives ahead of them. They’re standing at the beginning of a long corridor, and every door is open. Those children deserve adults who will hold the doors so every opportunity is possible. If a door shuts, we must hand the student the key and tell her she can do it. She’s got this. The world is yours. Bust it open. Make it better.

I want to meet that mother raising those children. I want to see her on her front lawn and tell her she should be proud. Her children have arrived.


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.)