Gaining Altitude

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.  

Principals As First Responders, February 28, 2020

A year ago I wrote those words.  I shared how the stress of our jobs can be overwhelming and take a significant toll on our health.  In that post, I emphasized how we had the responsibility to seek out mental and emotional support so that we could lead better.  That was prior to the country shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I never in a million years could have imagined the year that would follow.  When I began my career as a principal, I was embarrassed to share the struggles I was having in my thought-life.  One positive that has come from this pandemic is the positive light that has been cast on the importance of taking care of one’s mental and emotional health.

When I sought help during my stressful first days as principal, my goal was to like my job better–to find peace with the tough situations I was bombarded with.  I had no idea that the incredible tools and techniques I would learn would IMPROVE the way I do my job.  In this post, I’ll be sharing one of the techniques I learned and how it helps me not just to deal effectively with situations as they came along, but truly LEAD through them.

The Situation: When someone shares a concern, or I am made an aware of an issue, it weighs heavily on me.  The sense of responsibility and need to fix it can be overwhelming at times.  Additionally, when I am faced with an issue that triggers me, perhaps because it angers me or is just emotionally-charged, I get thrown into fight or flight mode.  It’s a very uncomfortable place for me and one that I want out of.

The Problem:  Logical thought is replaced with emotional reaction.  When I am in this mode, if I act then I run the risk of making poor decisions in an attempt to get out of that place of discomfort.

The Tool:  Gain altitude...If I can stop and lead myself then I can more effectively lead others. The way I do this is by “gaining some altitude, ” which means some space to look down upon the situation from the eyes of someone else.   Some in Adaptive Leadership refer to this as “getting in the balcony.”  Instead of staying on the dance floor where you are in the midst of the action, it’s helpful to get above the fray at times, and get a little distance.

  • The How:  Climb into the Balcony…
    Notice becoming triggered.  I am learning to become aware of how I am feeling.
    Stop. I am learning to not react and just sit with my emotions.
    Remember.  I have to remind myself that my joy comes from fulfilling my purpose, not making people happy, or proving that I am right.
  • Look Down on the Dance Floor…
    Understand the situation and respond with intention.  I ask myself questions like, How can I act in this situation that keeps me on purpose?  How can I see this situation as an opportunity to show active listening and empathy?

The real work for me is climbing into the balcony.  Once I am up there, I can stop and breathe and act on purpose, but sometimes it’s hard to get off the dance floor.

Advancing Mission through Process

When we are planning and creating systems and structures together I want to be sure that I involve everyone, that I consider all angles, and that I make the most informed decision based on what is best for the students, rather than trying to “make people happy.” If you are a pleaser, like I am, you know the internal struggle is real as far as that is concerned. Of course, while being inclusive, I want to be decisive and efficient. I want everyone to feel like his or her voice is heard, but bottom line–the best interests of our students are put first. 

Believe me, this is a tricky process.  Lots of times this planning takes place in the spring.  I’ve heard some administrators call that time the “mean season.”  All the adults are stressed and tired just coming out of winter, on edge because end-of-the-year testing is coming up, and then we start talking about staffing, schedules, and CHANGE. SHEEWW..Emotions are high, people become anxious, territorial, in self preservation mode, and can even lash out at others.

Right now, I am in the midst of making plans for when an additional 60 plus students enter the building in another week. Now that I am going through the planning process for the FOURTH time this year, I have gained a couple of take-aways that will continue to guide my work through this process and so the NEXT TIME I make a new master schedule, class lists, and the like, I will be ready.

  • Assume positive intent in others. When we work on coordinating schedules or class lists, there is nothing to be gained by assuming a colleague is driven by selfish motivations. Even if the person’s past behavior would indicate that this person might be motivated by adult rather than student concerns, if I put myself in a positive or even neutral mindset regarding their decisions, my questioning will be clarifying and solution-focused in nature rather than accusatory. If I keep the focus on how the decision or suggestion helps or hurts children, I will better understand everyone’s perspectives, what they want or need, and help to build trust within the group.

    These question starters may be helpful: How did you decide…? Why do you think this is the case? What impact do you think…”
  • Remember people can not process and problem solve if they are caught off guard and/or fearful. If I propose something new or different I need to remember that just the simple act of receiving information about an impending change will trigger some people. If they immediately come back with a comment, question, or rebuttal, it’s not necessarily because they oppose the change. I need to not get defensive. I need use active listening and hold space for people until they are able to express their emotions.

When making decisions that alter what each person’s daily work life will look like, I have learned that the process is as important as the product. I can’t control how many co-vid cases we have or how people will react to each situation, but I can control the process. By being intentional, I hope to supporting my mission–

To use my positivity and enthusiasm to support a collaborative environment of continuous growth and improvement where students want to learn and staff want to teach.

Grief and Hope

This year the Easter message is even more profound to me.  This morning our Priest talked about how both grief and hope are present in the Easter story.  We can’t have the Easter story without the grief.  We can’t have the resurrection without the sacrifice.  I feel both grief and hope in our current circumstances; sometimes at the same time, sometimes one more than the other.  I am realizing that like fully appreciating the Easter story, acknowledging the pain, the worry, the grief, and the fear is just as important as and a precursor to leaning into the hope.

I was reminded the other day of the importance of this concept when I heard the story of Jim Stockdale told in Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  He endured suffering and torture for seven years and came out of the prison camp “even stronger than he went in.” He said the secret to his survival was that he confronted the “brutal facts” of his situation.  He never wavered in his faith that he not only would survive, but would prevail and come out stronger.

By contrast, Stockdale said it was the optimists that didn’t make it out.  The prisoners that would optimistically say things like, “we will get out of here by Christmas” were the ones who didn’t survive, because Christmas would come and go and they would succumb to the depression of unmet expectations and ultimately die.

What does this mean for me and my leadership during the pandemic?  I need to confront the brutal facts of this situation.  Instead of optimistically saying, “we will be out by…” or “our students won’t fall behind” or even “this too will pass.” I need to lean into the challenges and grief my students, staff and I are feeling, and the challenges we will all face upon return to school. Only then can I pair it all with the faith that not only will we overcome this, but we will prevail.



Distance Leading Week 2

Invest now, so we will thrive later!  See this situation as an opportunity!  This sounded really good at first.  I was pumped the first week, but the reality of the situation had not hit me.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but I guess I saw this pandemic situation just as a short term challenge to be overcome.  I suppose I figured we would have a couple of weeks where we educators could recharge, use the time away to learn more to make us better at what we do, and then come back more tech savvy and ready to see our kids again. Wow. I definitely was in denial.

Personally, I thought this time would be a fantastic opportunity for me to hone my skills.  I thought I would have tons of time to learn, grow, and reflect–a type of sabbatical.  Our kids would be okay, our teachers would thrive, and we would come out stronger as a result…like I said, the reality had not hit me.  Now I find that if I’m not careful I can become consumed with worry–worry for our students, staff, my own family, and all those who are touched by the illness.

Last week I realized that I needed to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  I had to recognize it for what it is, grieve the losses we are experiencing, but not stay there.  School has changed.  Distance Learning means Distance Leading, so now I am trying to figure out what that really means for me.  What does being a good leader look like when you are leading from afar? How can I structure my days to make that happen?

This week I’ll be working hard on fine-tuning my focus, goals, rituals, and routines.  I know focus and discipline are important, especially when trying to be productive when working at home.  The challenge will come when balancing being responsive to staff and families with productivity on work projects AND taking advantage of spontaneous learning opportunities.  I’ve got my schedule set, now I’ll just take it one day at a time.



Leading from a Distance Week 1

The situation we are facing with the Corona Virus is devastating.  I can’t imagine what it is like for those who have been laid off or whose income has been cut. I’m worried about the most vulnerable getting sick.  I am worried about my students who count on school to get their most basic needs met and for connection to loving adults.  My heart aches for the disappointment students are feeling due to missing out on school and sporting events, activities with friends, and social connection.  There’s a lot to worry and feel sad about, but I have a choice.  I can talk about how awful it is and lament about everything our students will be losing, or I can focus on what I can control–the use of the time I have been given.

The first week I was bombarded with information and resources.  I was on information overload.  In addition to dealing with and responding to the realities of the situation and trying to communicate constantly changing information to my community,  I felt like I needed to be a step ahead and analyze and problem-solve this new reality of distance learning and how it would look at my school.  I had to organize both the logistics of what was happening in the present and what might happen in the weeks to come.  One of my first tasks was to sort through all the resources coming at me for distance learning.  I had to figure out a way to both organize and house access to the materials, and make them accessible to the staff and to the school community.  I used my school and staff blog pages as the hubs for the resources and then used social media and school communication channels to share them.  I also had to unsubscribe to a bunch of companies who apparently launched email campaigns to let principals know of their resources they were offering free during this time.  This management took most of the week, but was important for me in order to position myself better mentally moving forward.

As I went throughout last week, not only did I have to take on the roles of sorter and sifter as I went through the resources, deciding what we could use and what would work for our school, but I also had to do that with the Professional Development Opportunities that were coming my way.  Many of the leaders I follow were offering free webinars and mastermind opportunities.   I had this nagging anxiety that plagued me…much like Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) that some face when looking at social media.  I didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities.  I signed up for what I could and quickly deleted what seemed less important for this time.

As I enter into the second week, I don’t feel as overwhelmed by what is coming at me, but I feel a pressure to do well with what I have been given.  I am very fortunate to have a career in which my income won’t be affected by the shutdown of school and businesses and therefore, I feel that I owe it to my community to make something good come out of a bad situation.   I plan to apply the strategies I use to manage my time during school to “Distance Leading.” I will set my “Big Three” Most Important Things to focus on each week then build my calendar with routines that support and connect to my “Big Three.”  I know if I see this time as an opportunity for our school instead of a setback, not only will I be in a better state of mind to lead my school during this crisis, but we may emerge stronger.




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


Applying Craig Groeschel’s Six Steps to Your Best Year of Leadership to School Leadership

Prestep:  Before thinking about what you want to do in the new year, start with who you want to become…

I began listening to Craig Groeschel’s Leadership Podcast this year on my 30-minute drive to school.  By far, it is my favorite “work” podcast, even more so than the school leadership podcasts I listen to.  The advice Groeschel gives is simple, smart, and practical and the presentation of the podcast gives you deep, yet digestible bits of information with immediate opportunities for reflection and application.

Groeschel introduced the Six Steps to Your Best Year of Leadership in his leadership podcast in January as we entered into a new calendar year.  For those of us in schools, this time of year is a great time to start thinking about planting seeds and developing roots for next year.  When I begin thinking ahead to the next school year in February and March I get excited and energized.  Pulling out this positive energy is sometimes difficult during these cold and dreary days when you are tired and just want spring to come.  I find some future planning brings a little warmth and sunshine to my days.

Before he dives into his six steps, Groeschel encourages the listener to think about who he or she wants to become.  To do this, I brainstormed all the traits I want to have a school leader.  This became my “To Be” list.

To be

Daily, instead of measuring the success of my day based on the completion of my “To do” list, I changed the focus to my “To Be” List.  I start each morning going through my schedule and reflect on these traits as I envision my day.  I set up my day for success by identifying how I want to show up for meetings and activities and thinking about what I need to do to show up like that.  (I read or heard this idea somewhere and wish I could remember where so I could credit the source.)


At the end of the day, I reflect on how the day went, listing my wins and thinking about what I could have done to make things better.  This simple shift in thinking has made me more present for people and has helped me focus on the people and tasks in front of me rather than worrying about the to-do list.  It also has helped me focus better during my office work times when I am dedicating my attention and energy to the to-do list.   It has also helped me react better when faced with stressful situations or when unexpected situations arise.  This simple practice has been one of the most valuable rituals I have taken on this year.

Beginning a Schoolwide High Expectations Initiative

In the last 11 years in my work as a curriculum and assessment coach, as an assistant principal and now as a principal, I have had the opportunity to be in a lot of classrooms.  I’ve seen instruction from teachers who consistently achieve incredible growth and high achievement from their students year after year no matter the class makeup.  Across the classrooms, these teachers used different class structures, techniques, and strategies, but there is one quality that all of these teachers have had.  They all have exhibited an unrelenting determination to bring their students to mastery of the standards.  When you take that tenacity and pair it with a deep understanding of the standards you get high expectations.

As administrators we know who these teachers are. We wish we could clone them.  We want to scale what they do across our school, but how?  I recently took on this challenge in my school.  My goal is to initiate conversations about high expectations in our school, provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on their own expectations, and then to learn from each other how to improve practice.

In the spirit of beginning with the end in mind and in being clear about my own expectations, I needed to define for teachers what I meant by high expectations.  I wanted to paint a very clear picture of what classrooms with high expectations look like.  I started where I often do when considering the quality of a teacher behavior or the impact of instruction:  student work. Student work is where the rubber meets the road.  It is the indisputable evidence that determines whether or not a strategy worked or if the teacher’s lesson/technique was effective.  In classes where the teacher has high expectations, the vast majority of students leave them demonstrating the grade level or course content at a high level and they are able to transfer that knowledge or skill to novel or unfamiliar situations.

So I asked myself, “What conditions exist and what do I see in classrooms that are marked by high expectations?”  I wanted to create a document I could use to define specifc look-fors related to high expectations.  The answer led me to AdvancEd’sEffective Learning Environments Observation Tool® (ELEOT).  I was introduced to the ELEOT through participating in an AdvancEd diagnostic review of a school.  I love how the ELEOT focuses on the students in the learning environment with one of the seven key environments being “high expectations.”  I decided to create my own simplified version, using many of its look-fors, but adding some of my own.   I created a 3-column chart with these headings:What are the Students Doing?

  • What is the Teacher Doing or Has Done to Support this Expectation?
  • What does the Student Work Look Like?

Under each heading are specific look-fors with check boxes and a place for the observer to write evidence.

Next, on my in-house school blog that I use with our staff, I shared the tool and a simple definition of high expectations.  I wrote that by high expectations I meant that “the opportunities provided to students to demonstrate learning are rigorous, students are expected to respond at a high level, and they are held accountable to do so.”  I shared my intent to focus on high expectations and wrote, “in order for us to reach the next level of success and get more students to proficiency (especially in math) we need to look at the level of expectations we have in all classrooms.”

I gave my teachers these questions to consider:

  • What are we expecting our students to do with the knowledge we impart?
  • Are we providing opportunities for students to show what they know in a way that matches the rigor of the standards?
  • How do we get to that point consistently in every classroom?
  • What curriculum work and assessments need to be written so that we have clear targets for our expectations of students?

After planting the seed with my teachers, I put my fellow administrators in the district to work. In my district, we have a weekly administrators’ instructional meeting where we meet at each other’s schools and usually conduct a group walkthrough of a classroom.  It was my turn to host and I asked if the group would help me gather some baseline data to begin the discussion of high expectations with my teachers.  I had my fellow principals and district administrators fan out across the building to find examples of high expectations in action.  They used the tool I adapted from ELEOT which included straightforward look-fors and a place to write evidence or examples.  They were instructed not to assess the level of expectations but to just use the checklists as ideas for what to look for and then to jot down examples of what they saw in the classrooms.

I wrote in our school blog that I hoped having this feedback will spark some rich discussion in our PLCs.  I asked the teachers to look at the look-for instrument and told them that the bulleted check-box lists aren’t all-inclusive or items that all HAD to be present in their classrooms.  I gave them the option of proceeding on as planned during the time the team would be at school to allow the visitors to “see what they see,” but also gave them the option of reflecting on what they had planned and making changes in hopes of providing exemplars for the visitors.

The administrators’ walkthroughs provided quality, specific, examples to share with the teachers and gave me just what I needed to begin the conversations during our PLC meetings next week.  I am excited to share with the teachers the examples we found and look forward to hearing their reflections.  Next steps will include having teachers bring student work to their PLC and analyzing those samples for high expectations.  I will also use the instrument I created to for more observations and to give the teachers individual feedback on the evidence I am able to gather on the level of expectations in their lessons.  It would be great to include teachers on a hunt for high expectations throughout the school, as well.

This is exciting work we are beginning.  If this process works well, I could see it replicated with other attributes we value in our teachers or lessons. Qualities like student engagement or differentiation could be defined and broken down in similar ways then taken through the same steps.  I am energized by the possibilities!

How to make it until Friday.

By Friday I was so depleted.  I had nothing left to give.  I had suffered blows and attacks all week long and bore the weight of every negative comment or individual teacher’s problem or issue that came back to me that week. It was just too much for me this week.  By  4:00 pm on Friday when I said goodbye to the student I was keeping for after school detention, all I could do was the bare minimum of a weekly email and head home.

I kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this? What difference am I making? Who am I even helping?  This job is so not worth it…I am not cut out for this. Surely, there is something else out there where I can make a difference that doesn’t take this toll on me.”

You ever feel this way?  I have no big aha’s or insights to give at this time, but I can share what I did to make it to Friday. First, I breathed.  A lot.  Not kidding.  You know that feature on your Apple Watch?  Yup.  I used it as well as an app called, “Simple Habit.”  Every morning before work I did at least 5 minutes of meditation.  Filling myself with this before work gave me something to draw upon when the “stuff” came at me.

Meditation is part of my morning routine that I go through as I get ready.  I start every morning with a shower then I head to my home office and I use an app called Morning Routine to help me complete my daily routine.   Within the app I set up routines like my morning routine,  my work routine, and my end of the day routine.  The app will time each part of your routine and reward you with an inspirational quote when you finish a routine. My morning routine includes meditation, devotion, prayer, gratitude, and affirmations.

It’s normal when you are feeling the negativity coming your way to want to respond in kind–to hit right back with negativity or defensiveness.  There were times this week when I did just that–even if it was just in my head.  I judged the person, student, or the student’s family who was hitting me with the issue, problem, or attack and stewed in my self-righteousness.  I’m going to tell you, while those judgements gave me a quick hit of justification and self-satisfaction, they left me feeling even more depleted.  The times where (even in my head) where I responded with empathy, love, and forgiveness are what got me through to Friday.

Now, I don’t want you to think that when, for example, I was cussed at by a parent earlier in the week I was able to transcend that and be nice to her and respond with love right away.  That was not going to happen, but I could respond in love to someone else.   I purposely and intentionally did something nice for someone to give them a boost and it really did help me feel better.  By the time the parent called to apologize a couple of days, I was ready to accept it with grace.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t use these strategies successfully 100 percent of the time this week.  There were several times were I leaned into my own negativity and justification.  Those times did nothing to advance my own cause and just left me feeling worse.  Then to make things worse, I beat myself up for all of it and every other shortcoming I have.  Last night I spent the evening binge-watching season 8 of The Walking Dead and as tears streamed down my face thinking about Carl’s letters (those of you who watch it know what I’m talking about)  I felt sorry for myself thinking about every mistake I’ve ever made personally and professionally.

One last strategy that I am using in this moment is reflection.  For me it helps me to write.  It helps me to evaluate my actions throughout the week and think about what I’ve learned, how I can do better, and how what I’ve gone through can help someone else.  Right now I’m hoping someone will read this and be able to relate to what I am feeling and at least feel like he or she is not alone.  If nothing else, it helps me to get past the week before and not dread Monday.

Sometimes it’s all we can do to get to Friday.  Last week was that kind of week for me.  I think my big takeaway is to accept that.  It was a bad week.  I had times where I responded well to the challenges and times when I could have done better.  It is what it is.  I also know that every week is not always like that.  Dreading and worrying about what might come at me next week will only ruin my present moment.  My biggest successes were when I suspended my judgement and responded with love somehow.  That’s what got me through and filling myself up before the day started with a solid morning routine helped me to have something to draw from when the well was dry.  By the end of the week my well was completely dry, but I survived.  Sometimes that’s all you can do–just survive–and that’s okay.  Tomorrow is a new day and next week is a new week.  While I have no idea what will hit me, I know I can get through it.  I know I will make it until Friday and some weeks that’s enough.