Principals as First Responders

During my first year as a principal, I had a few student situations that required me to intervene daily with de-escalation or safe crisis management.  My administrative team consisted of me, myself, and I.  With no assistant principal or counselor that could help me, I had to be the first-responder every time a student safe crisis management situation arose.  It got to the point that whenever my walkie-talkie would crackle, I would tense up and my brain would shift into fight or flight.

This was NOT what I had envisioned my job would be like, and I could see no resolution, end to the daily battle, nor good that could come of what I was experiencing.  I felt like we weren’t helping the children and that there wasn’t a solution.  Not only did I have to deal with the situation at hand and all of the emotions associated with that each and every day, but I also had to battle the tension between having a set of expectations about becoming a principal and the disappointment I was feeling because my expectations did not match my reality.  I kept thinking, “This is what I wanted? What was I thinking?”

I did not handle my stress well that first year.  I was struggling with “hating” my job, but not wanting to look for something else because I would be letting others down and would ultimately be (in my mind) a failure.  I numbed my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety with food and wine.  I gained 30 pounds and knew I needed help with my mindset. I needed to find ways that I could be happy and healthy right where I was.  About halfway through that first year, I started seeing a therapist.   I find it hard to write about because I feel a sense of embarrassment about seeking help with my mental health.  Logically, I know I shouldn’t feel that way.  I wouldn’t judge someone else for seeking the same help, but I guess I STILL feel like I should be able to handle all of this on my own–that it is a sign of weakness to go to therapy.

As I get ready to end my third year, if I could give only one piece of advice to principals it would be to get over feeling like you should be able to “handle it all on your own” and work on your mental/emotional health.  Therapy was a game-changer for me.  It helped me to deal with the really tough situations happening then and gave me tools to more effectively deal with future situations.  Not only did my therapist help me with finding peace in my position, but also with understanding myself so that I could more effectively lead others.

Therapy may not be feasible for everyone, but I encourage you to find tools to help you increase your awareness of your thinking and behaviors and how they impact your leadership.  The Mastering Leadership Dynamics for Educational Leaders Academy from The BB&T Leadership is an AMAZING experience that will do just that.  I’ve been taking part in this life-changing experience this past year.  A core belief of the program is “Leaders who understand and manage themselves can more effectively lead others.”  This internal work has been KEY to improving my leadership.  Another great source is the Empowered Principal Podcast.  In this podcast, former principal turned life coach, Angela Kelly, shares tools and strategies for helping principals “navigate the demands of school leadership.” Her perspective is also based on self-understanding and applies this awareness to real-life school situations.

Whether you are dealing with emotionally-charged student situations, negative feedback from parents or teachers, or just bearing the burden of the worries of running a school, as a principal, you are a first responder.  You don’t just have every right to work on your mental and emotional health, but you have the responsibility to do it.  Get over any feelings of embarrassment or vulnerability and work on yourself so you can better show up for your people and lead your school more effectively.

Planning for Active Engagement

Regardless of the level of active engagement measured while students are in the classroom, those classrooms in which there is an expectation of student performance aligned to the standards achieve high levels of academic success.  Because of that, I have been focused on making sure classroom instruction  is aligned with the “right content” at the appropriate level before even touching active engagement.  

Once the appropriate foundation has been laid, however; it’s time to tackle students’ active engagement with the content.  I have found it to be quite challenging to scale practices that enhance student engagement across a school.    Some classrooms seem to just “have it” while others tend to be more passive.  No matter how many times it is suggested that teachers use a cooperative learning structures or a simple “turn and talk,” before having students raise their hands, it seems that many classrooms are resistant to changing whole group practices.

This is the challenge I face as I take on this initiative.  I decided to start by building on our teacher strengths in clarity of standards/content and rigor of instruction.  I created a planning checklist that I hope will help the teachers incorporate student engagement strategies as they plan their upcoming lessons.

We will be breaking this down this month through highlighting examples from classrooms in the staff blog, following up in our PLC team meetings, and through sharing results from walkthroughs at the end of the month.  I am hopeful that by emphasizing how the engagement strategies would fit within standards-based planning the teachers are already doing, we will be able to gain some traction on leveling up in student engagement throughout the school.  #levelup