How’m I Doin’? Learning To Be A Principal: Lesson #6

As I’ve written about before, when I started at Shaker Junior High School I did not walk into what could be characterized as a “welcoming” environment. While a majority of the staff members were professional and personable, the school’s society was dominated by a small group of veteran staff members. This small group wielded a disproportionate amount of influence over what was and was not accepted in the school, what practices were followed, how the school was even administered. Or at least they acted that way and most of the other staff members didn’t challenge the status quo. Such a climate was very different from what I had experienced previously and my early years were marked by repeated skirmishes with the vocal few.

While my early years at the junior high were difficult, they also provided me with experiences that were invaluable. I had strong support from my assistant superintendent and superintendent, which was crucial to my developing a legitimate influence over the development of the junior high, but the conflicts were trying. It would have been easy to take the path of least resistance and go with the flow, but that’s not what I was hired to do, nor is it my makeup anyway. I periodically describe different battles that were undertaken to point out learning experiences for me. I had a lot of them, and here’s one more.

It was in the spring of my second year as principal. The year had been pretty much like my first year; things moving along, working to institute some needed changes to our programs despite resistance from the self-appointed bosses, making progress here and there. I was walking around, stopping in classes, talking to staff, a normal morning of activities when I was stopped by the most vocal of the resistors. It was a short conversation; he informed me that the staff had decided they were going to evaluate me that year. A survey was going to be distributed to staff, they would be completed, collected and collated. The results would be shared with me. He even gave me a copy of the evaluation survey that had been developed for this.

I told him that I found the idea interesting, and that I didn’t believe it was the responsibility of the staff to evaluate me, that instead it was a job for my boss to complete. He, of course, was unmoved by my response and indicated it would be distributed to staff in a week or so.

I had mixed reactions to be honest. On the one hand I had no problem asking staff members for some input about my job performance, but that’s different from the staff thinking that they, as a whole, would be writing my evaluation. And another consideration was that the implications for such an action as well, faculty evaluating principals, went beyond the walls of the junior high. As usual, I contacted Pete McManus, Assistant Superintendent, for his advice. He had two things to say; first, not to worry about it, they would address it with the teachers association. But, secondly and more importantly, he said I should consider putting out my own survey to staff soliciting feedback.

That was great advice. It actually would accomplish a few of things. It demonstrated that I wanted to hear staff members’ feedback about the job I did that year. Doing so showed the faith I had in the professionalism and perspectives of staff members. It also deflated the vocal few’s initiative and intent, basically undermining their attempt to intimidate me by having staff evaluate me. It also would possibly give me some legitimate feedback, perhaps provide some ideas that would benefit me as a principal. Lastly it gives the disgruntled the opportunity to gripe. You just need to be prepared to read some things that aren’t nice, fair, or accurate. But it was such good advice.

So I did. I announced to staff at a faculty meeting that I was doing this and, a good idea extended, suggested that all teachers do the same. All of us can benefit from the perspective of those we supervise, so they should survey kids and parents. I’m not sure how many did what I modeled.

And I have done the same thing every year since. Many of the years I actually don’t receive many completed surveys, but what I have received has tended to be positive. Last year was my best response year; the survey was developed and administered via Survey Monkey, completely online, results tabulated instantly. I did the same type of survey this year and again received a good number of responses. And I have the same thoughts about doing so now that I had when I began the practice 25 years ago. It is good practice in so many respects. Everybody should have the confidence to give their students, staff, whoever, the chance to voice their thoughts about the characteristics of the job they’re doing.

And that is probably only my perspective.

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I’m Old Enough To Be…

I clearly remember a conversation I had during my first year of teaching. It was my lunch period and I was eating in the cafeteria with some other teachers. We didn’t have a separate staff lunch room. We did have a staff lounge, but this was 1976 and smoking was allowed in designated areas in schools (the staff room being one of them). I never hung out in the staff room, due to the negativism that just hung in the air along with the smoke from the several staff members who lit up every chance they could. One actually preferred a pipe (which I didn’t mind), but I digress.

So I was enjoying lunch, amidst the full cafeteria, talking with Thea Wolfe. Thea was probably in her fifties at that time, but she was rather unique. She dressed “exotically”, for lack of a better descriptor, and I would put her appearance in a class with the stereotypical gypsy. We were talking about something, can’t remember the exact topic, but it had to do with kids, teaching, and programs. I said something that really hit a note with Thea, and her reaction was “You are so young, such a baby when it comes to teaching.”

Well, I certainly knew I was a first year teacher, certainly quite a bit younger than Thea, but to have someone point out that my being younger set me aside in some manner and put me in a different category made me stop and think. I mean, I just saw myself as a teacher.

Fast forward 25 years to a conversation I had with Tom Venezio, at the time our Supervisor for Technology. (The district’s technology instructional program, he was not the district’s guru on infrastructure, hardware, software, etc.) We also were having a discussion about instruction, particularly recently hired teachers, what this one or that one brought to the job. We were talking about how these teachers reacted to us, interacted with us, responded to suggestions, maintained personable demeanors, etc. In relation to these newer hires he said at one point, “Remember, Russ, they see you as their father.”

That comment struck me as much as Thea’s had, but roles had reversed. Tom and I are of the same age, so he already understood this point, to be honest I had never considered it. He didn’t mean, of course, that they actually considered me their father, he meant that, at least age-wise, I was in the same category to them as their parents. They look at me as having the same perspectives, habits, and other characteristics.

This was another “ah-ha” moment for me. I had never stopped to consider how I was perceived, not professionally, rather it was almost personally, by my younger staff members, which constituted a majority of my staff. And it was a point of view worthy of consideration and which showed up shortly after with a different occurrence.

Several of the faculty formed a co-ed softball team to play in a summer league. I have always been athletic, active in any school activities and played hoops with colleagues regularly; it’s been pretty clear that I enjoy sports and I’m pretty good at them. But I wasn’t asked to be part of the team and that hurt. Several of the team members were the same guys I played basketball with throughout the school year. I think a couple knew that I played baseball all four years of college. But I wasn’t asked to be a part of their softball team.

I had to process this, and my experiences with age perspectives were invaluable. I definitely was their boss, maybe that was the main consideration, but I didn’t think so. It didn’t prevent them from being quite competitive with me playing hoops, no one had a problem initiating physical contact, or getting upset with me, or anything else that happens in games. We didn’t have a problem going out together after our annual benefit game. I don’t think they treated me differently because I was their boss at all. No, I think I was excluded because of our age differences. I think I was viewed as being from another generation and that I just didn’t “fit” with their idea of a summer softball league teammate.

It was another learning experience for me. I spent a good amount of time pondering my disappointment and why I wasn’t asked. I have to say I understand where they were coming from. It wasn’t easy initially, but we all have to keep in mind how we are perceived by colleagues. This means beyond how we are perceived in our professional roles. That aspect is certainly more important for sure, but keep in mind that you are viewed through other lenses as well. Be realistic, know that you’re seen as a person other than a professional colleague and know that that perception will influence your interactions with your colleagues. Knowing this will prove beneficial for you… and for your staff.

And that is my perspective.

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Know When To Hold ‘Em…

When you think of schools and educators, what would you list as the most important tasks for administrators? Is it ensuring that teachers who are hired have a strong academic background in their field? Is it maintaining an appropriate climate, one in which students know the rules and there is follow-through when rules are broken? Is it working to support teaching and learning by facilitating the acquisition of textbooks, hardware, software, and other needed in-class resources to enhance the instructional process? Is it publicizing all of the many good things your school, students, teachers accomplish so that the community understands the quality of the school and staff? Is it simply to do whatever is needed to help further the school and the district’s mission?

All of these are certainly important in helping schools become effective learning centers. But no one of them is what I consider to be the most important task of administrators. No one of them is at the core of all schools and is so essential to good schools. There is a responsibility that all others are built off of and that is the basis for what we do.

When I am asked to present at a college class, or at a workshop or conference, or even when engaged in everyday conversations, eventually the topic of resources for schools arises. I am often asked what I consider to be the most important resource that Shaker JHS possesses. The answer is clear; our faculty. This is a no-brainer. Everything we do, everything we depend on getting done, everything we provide, anything at all related to us completing our mission is dependent upon our staff. We wouldn’t have the results we do, we wouldn’t provide the programs we have, we wouldn’t enjoy the reputation we have without the high quality staff members who work here.

So, what’s our most important task as administrators? Hiring, no question…and with that, the even more important decision to sever relationships with people who don’t fit into your philosophy, mindset, expectations, or ethos. You need to look at hiring as an opportunity to begin a partnership with a professional who will further the objectives of our school for many years. Openings are indeed opportunities, sometimes to replace a person who’s difficult to replace, but other times to upgrade, to positively impact instructional practices, climate, or even a department’s approaches. Every opening is an opportunity to improve your school.

I wish hiring was an exact science… but it is not. There is always guesswork that goes into selecting someone who could be with you for thirty years. Sometimes you hire well, but people change with time; the person you have today is not the person you hired. That happens in every school. But, you should be able to look at your body of work over time and say “We hired well.” It’s easy to assess: good hires become good colleagues and good teachers.

Which leads to the connected process of getting rid of people who aren’t good hires. Sometimes this is easy to see and to do. I’ve had situations in which within a couple of months you know the person isn’t a good fit for your school. The difficult part is to address it. It’s not easy to tell someone that they are not being asked back, that they need to look for another job. The timing of when to have this discussion is also worthy of thought. Believe me, it becomes easier to do with some experience, but a fairly inexperienced administrator has to recognize the disconnect and correct the problem. Remember, creating the opening is key, it provides an opportunity to try again.

Other times the quality of “fit” isn’t so obvious. In these cases I refer to a wise colleague of mine whose mantra was “when in doubt, don’t keep.” That sounds a tad blunt, after all, if you’re not sure shouldn’t you give the benefit of the doubt and some extra time to see? No, you shouldn’t. Compare this situation with one where you know you’ve hired well. It’s obvious, isn’t it? So, good fits don’t grow into positions, they demonstrate their fit early on and it’s never a question. You need to be willing to put up with some short- term turnover for the bigger picture, a better staff.

Have I always lived by this credo? In all honesty I have not. It hasn’t occurred often, but I admit that I have been guilty of keeping a question mark a couple of times. Although keeping these people has mostly worked out, looking back I chastise myself for not listening to the voice saying “move on”. And that’s partially why you’ll never have a staff that’s exactly to your liking. For sure, some hires over time will change from who they were when hired, which can’t be foreseen. But other times you take chances (which at the time you believe are good) that may or may not work out as well as anticipated. My advice: if you feel you’re taking a chance with someone, don’t do it. Look for someone else. It’s easier to bear the short-term angst of those staff members who are upset that a person they liked was not retained than to live for 20+ years with a staff member who does not meet the needs or mission of the school. (And who reminds you of this deficiency from time to time!) Based on my experience, your school will be better off for your decision.

And, that’s my perspective.

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Personal Versus Positional Respect

I recently ran into a former colleague, someone who had retired from the junior high a few years back. I asked him the usual questions and then specifically asked if he missed his job. He said he did not miss his job, but he did miss the people he worked with. He missed the day-to-day interactions, the discussions, the professional dialogue, the stories, fun conversations, all of the aspects of human relationships. This was not the first time I had heard this from a retired former colleague; his sentiments are typically what I have heard.

It doesn’t matter what business or organization you work in, relationships are generally the key to being productive, enjoying your job, and often crucial to the success of tasks or initiatives. All of us come to rely on the relationships we have at work for making our jobs less like jobs and more like a communal commitment. It’s a “we’re in this together attitude” which necessitates having colleagues to feel “together” with.

When you look back in time (if you are like me) you tend to remember the good times more so than the down times. I don’t think I’m atypical in this regard. I think most of us, actually it’s probably human nature, tend to remember the positives and deemphasize the negatives. This is certainly true when remembering an earlier time and/or place. I recollect the good aspects, the people I enjoyed, the positives in my life at that time, the negatives don’t usually spring to mind first thing.

So consider the people you currently work with, or interact with mostly. You probably (like me) think of the ones you enjoy, which I believe are also the ones you respect. I’ve written previously about having colleagues who you don’t trust, because you can’t believe them. I would say that not trusting someone means that you also don’t respect the person personally. It’s difficult if not downright impossible to respect someone you don’t trust.

So how do you carry on a professional relationship with someone you don’t trust? I wrote before that one thing I do is to not believe the person, you verify independently what you’re told. Some people may be comfortable confronting the mistruths head on; I am not one of those people. I just conduct myself professionally with the person, but I don’t believe what I’m told.

I do this, and all of us have to do this at some point or another, because there are two types of respect. One, the important and necessary type, is respect for the position. The other is respect for the person.

We need to respect the positions, after all they exist for legitimate reasons and often in many ways the responsibilities and areas of influence of these positions are crucial to you doing your job. The position is necessary. You owe the position your professionalism, regardless of who’s in it. And that means treating the person who’s in the position professionally as well, whether you respect the person or not. In fact, you don’t even need to like the person who’s in the position, let alone respect him/her. Liking or respecting someone has nothing to do with treating him or her respectfully and professionally; you do that (sometimes only) because of the position he/she occupies. The position is what necessarily merits the respect; whether or not the person deserves the same or any respect will be determined entirely by how he/she conducts him/herself.

I am very respectful of positions; my downside is that I’m not very good at masking my lack of personal respect, if that is the case. I need to be more aware of this and do a better job of keeping my personal feelings under wraps, to not easily reveal my feelings via language, facial expressions, body language, etc., as my sometimes obvious lack of respect can be wrongfully interpreted as being focused on the position. If my feelings for the person truly have no bearing on how I view the position, as I write and believe, then they have no business being obvious, as they should not impact my “relationship” with the position. I’m going to work on this…

And that is my perspective.

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Nope, That’s Not True

As a teenager I clearly remember reading all about the Watergate break in, following the details of it as they were reported, eagerly wondering where it would lead. I remember the press conferences where one high ranking public official after another, up to and including the President, swore it was an isolated event, they had no knowledge of or involvement in it, carried out by overzealous minions. (Not the Despicable Me minions, they’re just too easy to like.)
We all know how it ended. Richard Nixon resigned after the evidence clearly implicated him in the crimes that were committed. He was aware of the planning for the break in, gave his approval for it, and knew what was going to happen and why. And through it all, he and all of his henchmen denied any knowledge of and involvement in any and all aspects of it. Nixon was arrogant; he felt that he was above the law and couldn’t be attached to what took place. He was wrong.
Other names of similar actions, and denials, can easily be found. Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, A Rod, Lance Armstrong, the list goes on and on. All of these well-known public figures committed some act, not all illegal, that lead to their downfall. But of more concern, at least to me, was that the first reaction of each one to the accusation leveled at him was denial, and it all cases it was a vigorous, heartfelt denial. You were almost sold on their good heartedness, wondering as well who their enemies were who would level such slanderous mistruths. Yet each was guilty of what was reported, no question of that at all. Some of their guilt even extended to actions that went beyond the initial claims.
I don’t know about you, but I have a bigger problem with these guys lying to cover up their misdeeds than I do with their actual misdeeds. Not to excuse what they did (they were wrong, no question) but each more than compounded their misdeeds by then lying. The lying, and swearing to their lies, made their sins all the more serious in my mind. Each had the arrogance to swear that what was being written/said about him was incorrect, that each had rivals who would lie out of jealousy or spite just to bring him down.
Those of us who are involved in education realize that we are public figures, on a vastly smaller scene than the men included previously, but that we have responsibilities with our “public.” One of those responsibilities is to be honest and, more importantly, when we make a mistake to admit it. I think that often, we in schools know that we deal in a lot of confidential information and that a parent won’t be able to ascertain whether or not we made a mistake. We could cover it up pretty easily. But we shouldn’t.
First, if we made a mistake we need to correct it. Someone most likely is not being treated fairly if we made a mistake. (For example, a miscalculation in a grade.) So the situation needs to be rectified. That’s an ethical must to me. Secondly, we’re human, and we will make mistakes. Usually the mistakes were not intentional. But a mistake is just that, a mistake. We have all made them and will continue to make them, we all have had to rectify them, we have all learned from them. But owning up to a mistake and fixing it goes a long way toward building positive relationships with each other and with our community. Admitting to a mistake and correcting it shows integrity, honesty, and a belief in “doing the right thing.” Isn’t that how we want people we work with to view us? Covering up a mistake sends those same people very different messages, statements about ourselves that we don’t want. In any such instance there will be at least one other person who will know about the mistake and that you’re lying about it. You may be able to scam the majority, but you can’t everyone.
Admitting to mistakes, and correcting them, truly is the best policy. And that’s my perspective.

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Not Just One Way To Think

I had a conversation with my mom a few years back, I don’t remember the exact topic we were discussing, but I do remember that Al Sharpton was somehow involved, with the topic, not our conversation. Most people, especially New Yorkers, are familiar with Al Sharpton as he seems to insert himself into situations that get a good share of publicity. He’s based in New York City, I believe he was involved in politics at one time, and he may also be an ordained minister. I can’t be sure of all that he has done or been involved with, but I do know that he seeks out publicity. He can be seen fairly often in the media providing his perspectives on any number of topics. (I wonder if he has a blog?)

Back to my story, during my conversation with my mom I mentioned Al Sharpton’s thoughts on our topic, as we were discussing something that had been in the news recently. Well, my mom had no use for anything Al Sharpton had to say, regardless of the topic, he was a blowhard, a publicity hound and had very specific points of view. Sharpton is African-American and often espouses views that are slanted negatively toward whites. So, my mom wanted nothing to do with anything he had to say.

I argued that he had a point worth considering, which, not surprisingly, she disagreed with. She indicated that the we all would be much better off if we didn’t have to listen to or see the Al Sharptons of the world.

I disagreed, saying that the world, and each of us, need the Al Sharptons of the world. We need to hear differing points of view, opinions, and perspectives. The Sharptons are actually good for us.

My mom didn’t understand how I could say such a thing, she surely didn’t need to hear from him or anyone like him.

I persisted, arguing that it is only through differences of opinion and perspective that we can truly understand our own thoughts. It is the differing viewpoints that should make us question our own thoughts, to help us determine if our opinions hold up to scrutiny, to help us see whether or not our own thoughts make sense, if what we believe is defensible. Without exposure to other ways of looking at or considering a topic, we can never be sure if we are being totally rational with our own opinions.

While my conversation with my mom was a personal interaction, I believe the sentiment I expressed in reference to my professional life as well.   There is not only one way to look at practices, approaches, guidelines, etc. You need to have differing perspectives expressed. Your colleagues need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, knowing that they will be heard seriously. People, all of us, need to get out of the mindset that there is only one way to think or to act. “Because we’ve always done it that way” is not a philosophy to live by. Schools, any organization actually, will only improve if alternate methods of action and manners of thinking are considered seriously.

This doesn’t mean that an alternate approach to a specific issue is necessarily the best, I’m not saying that. But I am saying that different perspectives need to be taken seriously, they need to be discussed, mulled over, looked at discriminately, analyzed for their efficacy. And, if after scrutiny an alternate perspective or approach makes sense, the organization has an obligation to pursue it.

I’m sure I didn’t convince my mom of the world’s need for Al Sharpton and others like him, but it’s my true belief. This school will never improve if we depend only on my thoughts, ideas, and priorities. Indeed, it has improved over the years primarily because of the collective wisdom of our faculty and staff, particularly those colleagues who have willingly shared their ideas, ideas that just made sense for us. I am humbled at times by the ideas and commitment to improvement that my colleagues possess and exhibit. Indeed, I count on it.

And that is my experienced perspective.

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The Value Of Knowledge

There was a supervisor in charge of the tech department of a mid-sized company who was experiencing a problem with the new mainframe they had recently acquired that handled all of the paper business of the firm. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong so he called the tech support hotline and requested service. The woman who showed up to help listened intently to his description of the problem, nodded her head, and took a screwdriver out of her toolbox.

“This should only take a minute,” she said. She stepped behind the mainframe, took off the cover, and using her screwdriver turned a specific screw about a half-turn.
“Give it a try,” she stated confidently.

The supervisor hit the switches and the mainframe came to life. He ran a couple of quick diagnostic tests and declared that it was working well.

“Thanks, that didn’t seem like much, can you give me a bill?” The tech wrote quickly and presented him with a bill for $550.

The supervisor was chagrined. “Wow, that’s a lot for such a short amount of time. Can you itemize this?” A little more writing and he was presented with the following:
Service Call: $50
Knowing how far to turn the screw: $500

How often do we undervalue knowledge? And I’m not restricting myself to book knowledge. We depend on people with very specific expertise on a daily basis, so much so that we take it for granted. We rely on it without realizing it.

Is book knowledge important and to be valued? Absolutely. Being someone who is very experienced in the world of educating and being educated, I know firsthand how book learning helps the vast majority of people who go that route. It is, in fact, essential to be educated well to pursue your goals, or more often, to open the doors to allow you to pursue your goals. Especially being someone who is well down the book learning road, I need to remind myself to appreciate the many types of expertise and learning that are out there.

My dad was a good example. He spent 24 years of his adult life as a machinist at Alcoa Aluminum in Massena, NY. (Unfortunately, it was at Alcoa that he was exposed to the asbestos fibers that eventually would kill him.) As a machinist at Alcoa few people noticed what he did, his contributions to society were minimal, he was a tiny cog in an industrial giant. But he was skilled; he learned a craft that many don’t even know exists. Machinists are crucial to most industry, probably not as much now as pre-nineties due to the technological advances that we all see. His talents were crucial to the on-going operation of Alcoa, as it was he and other machinists who kept the machines running and production going.

Later in his life he chose to switch careers. He wanted to teach, and he used his skills as a building block to do just that. He did his book learning and earned certification as a teacher of machine trades, and he taught these skills to high school students via the area BOCES. He taught a lot of kids a trade, learning that translated into jobs….jobs that we all depend on at one time or another whether we realize it or not.

We experience the work that craftsmen do daily and usually don’t even know how they impacted us. Their jobs are often done out of sight, but we reap the benefits in so many ways. Think of the various services, machines, appliances, and conveniences you interact with on a daily basis. They work due to the expertise and efforts of a knowledgeable person. Again, I’m not trying to undervalue the book learning that we all benefit from. That learning is as necessary for our well-being as are the trades. We just all need to stop and appreciate the wide range of learning that exists in each of our worlds.

I’m not good at jobs needed to be done around the house. I don’t have the interest, will not buy the tools, and certainly don’t have much experience (and even less expertise). I call someone who can fix what needs to be fixed. I call someone with the learning needed to do the job. And I pay what he/she says I owe, never asking for an itemized bill, as I realize they know how far to turn the screw.

And that’s my perspective.

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