Why I Became a Principal

I have been asked why I became an elementary school principal, by educators in the classroom and by prospective administrators curious about my position. Here are a few reasons off the top of my head:

1. I Didn’t Have to Leave the Classroom

When I began teaching, I fully intended to end my educational career as a teacher. That is, until my principal read aloud in my classroom. Watching him share his favorite literature with my students, interacting with them not as the authority figure but rather as a knowledgeable and caring adult, opened my eyes to the concept that a principal isn’t necessarily a suit sitting behind a desk. It was an “Ah ha” moment for me, probably similar to when students see their teacher at Wal-Mart and realize he or she doesn’t live at school. I am proud to say that I continue this practice of reading aloud to students on a regular basis.

2. I Had Some Great Principals

I am very fortunate to have had three terrific administrators to work for, as an intern, as a teacher, and as an assistant principal. All three had a unique way of leading, which helped me determine what kind of principal I wanted to be. What did they all had in common?

  • They put students first.
  • They made decisions based on what was best for student learning.
  • They didn’t lose their cool when problems came up.
  • They always had time to listen.
  • They were honest and forthright. I knew where I stood with them at all times.

I definitely was not the perfect staff member; I made several mistakes along the way toward my current position. However, they allowed me to deal with those situations and help reflect upon how I could have done things differently, rather than step in and try to prevent struggles. I was allowed to learn from my mistakes.

3. I Was a Good Teacher

One of my former administrators once asked me, “What type of teacher is most suited for the principalship?” I didn’t know, I said. “The best teacher in the building,” he replied. At first, I questioned this logic. Why would a great teacher step out of the classroom and give up the opportunity to make an impact on kids? As I found out, I continue to make a difference. I do this by falling back on what I know great teaching looks like. I use this knowledge to guide my staff on the path of constant growth.

I believe I was successful as a teacher, and I became better every year. This gives me the experience, validity and respect to observe in any classroom and determine the effectiveness of the instruction. If I wasn’t a good teacher, how could I ever possibly be an instructional leader in my school? If you are a teacher, I encourage you to find out what your principal did before his or her current position. You may be surprised. Most if not all administrators do not let their teaching licenses expire. Many continue to teach, even if it isn’t always in the classroom.

4. It Is a Challenge

I am not saying that teaching is any less challenging. It is just a different type of challenge. Instead of keeping 25 students focused on the activity for the day, I am expected to help that one student who doesn’t want to participate to turn it around and get back into class.

One of the first ways I experienced this new kind of challenge was when I participated in building and district committees. These activities gave me the opportunity to see what it was like to lead an initiative and work with teachers on buy-in for an upcoming change. I found that I enjoyed collaborating with adults in this capacity, even if it was sometimes a struggle. The success we achieved together validated the effort and made the process that much more rewarding.

5. It Is a Change

One colleague of mine described entering the principalship as taking on an entirely new profession. This is very true in many ways. For example, no longer are you beholden to the almighty school schedule. For the most part, I am able to allocate time that I feel best benefits my students and aligns with my building’s goals.

I started to feel the urge to venture out into new territory in the latter part of my teaching career. I was very happy in the classroom, don’t get me wrong.  At the same time I saw the opportunity to become a building administrator as a way to make a positive impact on student learning in a broader sense.  I am able to be a part of more learning endeavors and participate in the entire school experience with everyone in the building.

For current principals, what would you add to this list? For prospective principals, how are you learning more about this great profession? Please share in the comments.

Time to Breathe

Yesterday I wrote about a writing activity I have used with staff called List, Jot, Write Long. It helped us think about our beliefs about instruction, and move toward developing individual and team goals. This morning, I actually presented this information to my teachers during our all staff gathering. Here was the agenda:

I felt like I was as prepared as I could be. Or so I thought. I shared visual samples of what the Individual Professional Development Plan could look like. An example of a SMART goal was distributed as well as presented on the whiteboard. We confirmed the due date for these goals to be submitted to me (within a month).

As one might guess, the problem I ran into was changing too much at one time. I threw two new things at them today: 1) Connect your individual goals to a team goal, and 2) Do it in the context of a professional learning community. Expecting staff to make two shifts at one time is not realistic, especially when we have state assessments and other initiatives breathing down our backs.

If I think back to my days as a teacher, I knew not to differentiate more than one piece of my instruction. Otherwise I would potentially lose my students due to too many choices and lack of focus (Content + Process = Product). For example, I could differentiate the process I used to present the content through visual, auditory and kinesthetic means, but that meant my content and product needed to stay the same.

So why didn’t I follow what I knew to be best instruction? Maybe I am also feeling the pressure of getting information delivered without a lot of time and resources. Nevertheless, as I came back from our staff gathering I reflected on how it could have been better. I touched base with a few teachers and asked, “What are your thoughts after today?” The general consensus was that it was good information and they understood what is expected of them. It was just a matter of finding time to look over all the materials.

I appreciate that my staff is so honest with me. It shows that we have a good level of trust, that they know I am looking out for their best interests and vice versa. Around the same time, the former principal at my school stopped by to drop off some documents. Always willing to lend an ear, he listened to my concerns about all this information being delivered to staff without enough time to truly integrate it with integrity. His response: Give them more time.

Brilliant! And why didn’t I think of that? Maybe because I was too mired in the conflict itself and needed another perspective. At any rate, I developed a plan that extended the due dates as well as bring in subs to give grade level teams substantial time to collaborate. When I sent out the new plan, staff responded immediately with “Thank you!” and “I appreciate you understanding”.  The fact that my teachers didn’t say much until I asked them speaks volumes about their character and their willingness to follow their principal into new territory despite their uncertainties.

I think any public educator can make the claim that we are being inundated with initiatives like we have never seen before. I don’t believe this to be hyberbole; has their ever been a time before the present when standards (CCSS), teacher evaluations (value-added) and instruction (RtI) are all being overhauled at the same time? We as leaders need to recognize this, for our staff and ourselves, before leading change. All of these initiatives are truly secondary to the energy and well-being of the educators who work with our students every day. In spite of whatever comes our way, we need to build in time to breathe so we don’t become overwhelmed or forget why we entered this profession in the first place.

The Power of a PLN

If anyone you know out there questions the usefulness of Twitter, or may not appreciate how powerful it is to have a Professional Learning Network (PLN), please share this post with them.

Since I joined Twitter last October, I have found my learning to grow exponentially. I credit Curt Rees (@WiscPrincipal), Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) and Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker) for getting me started when they spoke at my state’s administrator conference. With each new person I follow, I have another source of fresh ideas to use in my school and with my staff. And with each new follower, my network of support has increased at least ten fold. Literally. If they retweet a post I have written or a question I have to their followers, my group of potential colleagues has increased beyond what I can measure. Exponential, right?

Case in point: This morning I wrote a rough schedule for a course I would like to teach this school year for district staff, titled “The Connected Educator”. Wanting some feedback on my progress, I sent out this tweet and attached screenshot:

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Here is a sampling of the response I received, my replies back not included:

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Is there any other tool or group out there that can provide this kind of quick and reliable learning support? If so, I haven’t found it yet.

Now that I have consulted members of my PLN, I have drastically changed how I am going to facilitate this course. For example, instead of teaching a list of technology tools, I am going to share with participants how and why I use these tools to create a better learning environment for students. In addition, Kathy Cassidy (@kathycassidy) astutely pointed out that the title of my proposed course is also the title of a book written by Sheryl NussbaumBeach (@snbeach). I now have a possible text to reference in my instruction and learning.

For the person that still wonders what all the fuss is about regarding Twitter and PLNs, this example should serve as a notice, that every day they neglect to use these powerful tools for learning is a day they may have failed to grow as much as they could.

Guest Post: “We’ve Got the Greener Grass”

What’s the answer to America’s educational woes? Two Harvard PhDs suggest that American public schools are the answer to Japan’s economic woes, that American schools are the gold standard when it comes to graduating innovators and risk takers. I edited the dissertations of these two Japanese scholars ten years ago. Both argued that Japan couldn’t extricate itself from ten years of recession, then known as the Lost Decade, because its school system didn’t produce the creative class that America’s schools did. Since then, there’s been another ten consecutive years of recession. These scholars noted that America enters and exits recessions. They attributed the exits to America’s creativity and they credited America’s schools for engendering that creativity.

There was a recent article in the New Yorker where Chinese people wondered why China hasn’t been an innovator for thousands of years. They recognized that China is quite clever in copying Western inventions, but bemoaned the lack of homegrown innovation. I urge you to look at the list of things invented in America at Wikipedia. It’s a staggering list. The Egyptians beat us to paper because they were around four thousand years ago and we weren’t, but the vast majority of the things that constitute modern living were first made in America. If those two Harvard PhDs are right, then America’s push to standardized testing and standardized schools could eventually be our economic undoing.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of people who collectively oversee millions of American workers. One is an M.I.T. PhD graduate who works at I.B.M.

“Whom do you hire?” I asked.

“I’m not real concerned with GPAs,” she replied. “I look for people who can recover from failure since 95% of what we do at I.B.M. is fail.”

I’ve had other corporate executives tell me that they too don’t chase those with high GPAs, for they’ve learned that many of them are grade chasers, avoiding the tough courses and the possibility of failure for the luster of a number. These executives told me that they look for someone who took the tough courses. If a candidate earned something other than an A, but took another hard course, that person is that much more attractive.

Executives also tell me that they need people who can collaborate, that “the systems and challenges are so complex that no one is brilliant enough to work alone anymore.”

So, if we’re to prepare our students for the professional challenges that await them, rather than chase higher test scores, we should continue to nurture creativity and provide opportunities to collaborate and fail. “Fail” might seem harsh, but failure sets up the opportunity to rebound from failure.

Lastly, the PhD at IBM, a woman who oversees 800 employees and has hired scores of them, said that if she had to choose between hiring a software engineer with a full focus on software engineering and a software engineer with an art minor, all other factors being equal, she’d hire the engineer with the art minor. “That engineer is more likely to consider a problem from a different perspective.”

Looking across the Pacific, the grass of higher test scores seems greener to America’s politicians who determine pedagogical policy. However, the view from Asia is one of a lush and creative America, one that extricates itself from recession again and again through the verve of its creative graduates, and one that has leveraged diverse education into world class innovation.

Katie McKy might just be the most booked children’s book author for school visits in the upper Midwest. She visits about 100 schools a year and has taught and entertained more than 300,000 children in the last decade. She also writes for many business magazines and so has had the opportunity to have CEOs, VPs, and COOs go off the record and truly say what they like and don’t like about America’s graduates. Read about Katie at http://www.katiemcky.com.

Howe Principal: Pet Rescuer

As I walked through the school hallway toward a board workshop (Topic: Teacher Handbook), two ladies waved at me through glass doors. Stepping outside, they directed my attention to the two stray Calico cats wandering around their legs. Being a cold winter’s night in Wisconsin, they stated, “We don’t want them freezing to death tonight, or getting hit by a car.” Agreeing with this statement, I instructed the two ladies to call the police. “We don’t have a phone or their number”, they replied. Fortunately, I have that number memorized from my previous stint as a junior high assistant principal, so I called dispatch on my cell. I got transferred to the humane society. The guy on call stated they were short staffed and couldn’t come out to pick the cats up, but would you be willing to contain them and bring them to the facility?

After some deliberating, I agreed to find a way to get the cats to the shelter. I had a plan. We herded the two strays toward the front door of the central office. While my two new friends kittensat by the front door outside, I confiscated an old paper box and filled it with shredded paper from the document shredder in the copy room. (There is still a mess of shreddings on the floor.) When I came out the front door and presented my makeshift kennel, one of the cats got inside the lobby of the district office. After repeated “Here Kitty”s, the three of us managed to get the cats in the box with the stuffing. One of the cats did not like it’s new shelter and continued to jump out of the box. I blame the ladies’ holding techniques for the repeated escapes – see picture:

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After chasing down the second cat, we quickly stuffed the box of cats in the back of my Prius. I drew the grocery shade over the box and shut the trunk. As I got into my car, the ladies thanked me for all the help. I made a point to let them know I was a principal at the elementary school down the street – never a bad moment for positive PR! The cats didn’t make a peep as I drove to the humane society for drop off. When I arrived, the man I previously spoke with had me fill out a form for delivering the cats – I took a picture of this for documentation, in case my superintendent wonders why I was late for the board meeting 😉

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Driving around the building to “Cat Intake”, I popped open the back. Forgetting that one of the cats was an escape artist, I failed to catch it as it bolted out of the car and into the parking lot. I took the tamer of the two to the holding center, then persuaded the runaway to come inside where it was warm:

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What is the point of this post? I am not sure, but I should add “Cat Whisperer” to my Twitter profile. I guess this event was helpful to put things in perspective, that no matter what happened in the board workshop, it probably wasn’t as important as helping two cats on a Wisconsin winter night.

Christmas Cards for Teachers’ Parents

My first reaction to hearing Todd Whitaker (@toddwhitaker) propose that principals should send photos of staff working with kids to the staff members’ parents was, “Who has time for that?” After actually sending out these photos and reflecting on the feedback I received, I now think, “That time was well spent.”

After attending the administrator conference where I heard this idea, I started using Twitter to collaborate with colleagues (thanks go to @PrincipalJ and @WiscPrincipal for presenting about this useful tool). I asked other principals online if they had done this, or what they thought about the idea. Many had not tried it, but most thought it was worthy of my time.

With help taking candid pictures of staff members in action, uploading them to an online printer and collecting staff members’ parents’ addresses, this project did not take as much time as I feared. In fact, my biggest concern was how the teachers and aides plus their family members would react to the principal sending out Christmas cards with photos to them. I did not know who they were, nor did they know me.

The feedback could not have been more positive. During break, I received four emails from staff and one email from a parent of a teacher, all thanking me for taking the time to recognize their efforts. I even had a grandparent of one of my teachers stop me after church, thanking me for sending the photo of their granddaughter to their son.

When I got back to school after the New Year’s, several staff members stopped me in the hallway to thank me personally for the card and photo. One of my teachers has a sister who teaches in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin). She said her sister gave the card and photo to her principal, requesting that he do the same thing next year. I also had two parents of teachers write me a personal thank you card. One parent’s message was especially touching; this teacher’s mother stated she was feeling lonely during the holiday season, until my card showed up in the mail. Seeing her daughter working with students made her day.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone a little in order to share my appreciation for my staff with the people who care about them the most. My only concern now is: Do I do this every year? Will it become trite or expected? Any comments or questions you may have would be appreciated.