I've been in a few schools lately and every administrator, whether it be the principal or the assistant principal, was saying the same thing to me. “It's just a tough time. We're living in a reactive mode all the time.” That could have also been said last year, but they go on to say, “This is worse than last year. It's more difficult than last year. Everybody felt like they could get through the year, have a hard reset, and then come back and everything would be back to normal, but it's not.” In some ways with all of the politics, now it’s even harder. This is my Principal Pep Talk.
I was a principal for 17 years, but never during a pandemic. I can't say I know how it feels to be exactly where you are. I was an assistant principal during 9/11 and I was a principal when the Sandy Hook shooting happened. These two incidents are what I’m drawing from because both resulted in lasting effects on public education and the world that continue to echo. Inspired by a famous quote by St. Francis Assisi, Susan Ramirez-Bozza rephrased his words in the context of professional leadership, “Lead always, use words only when necessary.” This is one of those times where you're going to have to go at it alone (to an extent). Everybody's exhausted, everybody's frustrated, everybody's wanting things to get better, but they're just… not. You're the leader of the school and you're the leader of the community in many ways, so you're going to have to do it. You're going to have to do it the whole year. Some of you are going to have to dig deeper; some of you are going to have to find another gear to switch into; some of you are just going to be in new territory. If you're a brand new principal, you might not know any differently. You're walking into a tough year. If you've been a principal for at least three years, you know that the last two years have been anomalies. We always have tough years, but these times are very difficult.
I want to give you some ideas of what you have control over so you can gain and provide energy. For example, you control your visibility to others: being in the front when the doors are open, walking through classrooms, and giving your teachers hugs (high fives, whatever). You have the ability to be at drop-off or greet kids when they come off the bus. Time is scarce, I get that. Energy is scarce, I get that. Go plant your feet somewhere and be there… like all of you be there. “Fake it till you make it.” You may need to “fake it till you make it” at the foyer, the drop-off line, the pickup line, or the football game… try to be there physically as much as possible and mentally too if you can. I know it's tough, but that's one thing you have control over… visibility.
You have control over where you go when you have time. If you have time, you have control over which classrooms you visit, which kids you talk to, and which teachers you engage with. Let's say you don't have any time during the day (I get that too!) Grab Post-it notes, walk your hallways, and post notes on student work. If you can't fake it that day, let everybody get out of the building and then go do your thing. Get a dry erase marker and go write positive notes on the teachers’ desks after they've gone home. You have that ability and you have control over that. No, I don't want you working on the weekends. Did I? Yes, I worked on the weekends. There are times when you just have to. When your weeks are entirely booked, you sometimes have to get work done on the weekends. That's a great time to go get a dry erase marker and head to the classrooms. Calm down, relax, and see all the great things your kids are doing that you didn't get to see in the chaos of the school day. Write some notes with the dry erase markers: on teacher’s desks, on kids’ desks, windows, etc… Let your teachers know you're paying attention (this is key!)
You have control over what you say on the morning announcements (if you don't do the announcements, go do the announcements). Talk about the artwork that you saw on the Kindergarten walls, the great things a specific teacher has been doing, or the top five kids that showed growth on the assessment scores you analyzed. Take care of your staff. On Fridays, I would have soft drinks iced down and snacks available- that possibly requires getting to one of your local businesses for sponsorship. Wouldn't it be great for your staff to come in on Fridays and have an ice chest full of drinks, just to get them through? “Go grab some chips, crackers, homemade cookies from your PTA,” or whatever it may be. You coordinate everything, but that doesn't mean you have to be the one to do it.
You can have ideas while you're dealing with all of this instability and hand them off for execution by delegating them to someone else. Let someone else be your support system (“Army behind the scenes” is what I called my PTA). If you can, systemize any or all of this. Put it in your calendar that you're going to do whatever it is on a regular basis. Put it on your priority list to call someone to help you out. Systemize it, so that during the week you can switch back to the reactive mode you’ve had to use lately for survival (because that's just the way it has to be right now). Push your ideas out so those things can be taken care of for you.
There were times when I just didn’t think I could make it much longer, and then I had a conversation, read something, or watched a video that inspired me to JUST DO IT! My hope is that this post might help you through the tough time right now. Find me if you need to talk it out (I’m a great listener). Find me if you need more words of encouragement. Find me if you want to brainstorm ideas. I’ll be here for you.