2 Things That Really Matter When Leading Your School, District, or Organization This Year

If your life as a school leader is like mine, we are in a swirl of change, especially as we prepare to enter a new school year.
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If your life as a school leader is like mine, we are in a swirl of change, especially as we prepare to enter a new school year.

At the end of the day, we can set up all the policies and procedures we want; our schools or organizations still may not be successful. All the goals, strategic plans, visions, and missions we establish are meaningless and will not spur success if the people do not feel what they are doing is meaningful and worthwhile, and they do not feel valued. I like this quote from Margaret Wheatley's book Find Our Way: Leadership for Uncertain Times.

"During this period of random unpredictable change, any organization that distances itself from its employees and refuses to cultivate meaningful relationships with them is destined to fail. Those organizations who will succeed are those that evoke our greatest human capacities---our need to be in good relationships, and our desire to contribute something beyond ourselves. These qualities cannot be evoked through procedures and policies. They are only available in organizations where people feel trusted and welcome, and where people know that their work matters."

If your life as a school leader is like mine, we are in a swirl of change, especially as we prepare to enter a new school year. Try as we might to plan for every contingency, you can bet things will not go as we planned; that's the only certainty about the future. As Wheatley reminds us, what we can do is make sure to connect with those in our school or district; that does not mean connecting from the perspective of supervisor to subordinate either. It means genuinely having conversations with others about the things that do matter to them. In this, we show them that we care. We must pay attention to the relationships.

In the swirl of change we find ourselves in, we can't shield people from the wind gusts and driving rain. We can't create some rule or policy that will hold back the floods. What we can do are two things. 

First, we can be human and work on "cultivating meaningful and authentic relationships." As a school level principal, I am guilty of getting so lost in the swirl and blast of change that I forget that it is people with whom I work. We need each other more than we need anything else in those times. We need our schools and districts to be the places where people feel trusted and welcome. If everyone has hidden agendas and only displays their inauthentic selves, there can't be an atmosphere of trust and respect.

Second, we need to make sure our staff know they are engaged in work that matters. I think that's one thing testing and accountability folks really struggle with. They can't quite understand why teachers and educators don't see that goal of "raising test scores" as meaningful. I didn't become a teacher to raise students' test scores. I also taught long enough to know tests can't measure all learning. In fact, tests often can't measure the most meaningful learning. We need to make sure that our purposes are higher than making sure our End of Course test scores increase, or whether our graduation cohort rate is higher. Those who find that such things are most meaningful are perhaps short-sighted. If we pay attention to shaping students' minds, these things take care of themselves, or don't seem quite as important. Often, what is most meaningful to me is when a student comes back and tells me about her life.

Yesterday, I experienced firsthand why teaching and education is meaningful to me. I was in the line at the grocery store in my neighborhood, preparing to check out. I was placing items on the conveyor when a former student of mine I will call Amber (Not her real name) came up and excitedly started telling me about her 100 on her latest college paper. She was beside herself as she hugged me, and she said it was because she had such a "great English teacher" referring to me. Of course, we all enjoy it when former students do such things, and I am no different. We all like to hear stories about the success of our former students. But this story has much more to it; more "data" than Amber's score on her paper, or her assessment of me as an English teacher. There's also the fact that I know this young lady has had to endure quite a bit diversity and works hard at this store. She has a young child. With all this going on, she decided to go back to a local community college to earn her degree. Despite circumstances, she is thriving and perhaps using something of what we learned together ten or fifteen years ago. You can bet that "something" was not the content found on a standardized test. This former student reminded me once again that I am involved in something greater than myself. My work mattered to someone else.

This post is in some ways more a challenge to myself to remember what really matters this coming year. It is reminder that chances are, I am going to find myself and my staff in that swirl of change again this year. What is important is that I remember we have each other and that we are engaged in a purpose that really matters.

cross posted at the21stcenturyprincipal.blogspot.com

J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.



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