Becoming a Learner of Yourself

Learning about yourself is the number one way you can prepare yourself to take on principalship and continuously grow as a leader.  It develops self-awareness, which is critical for navigating situations with others.  If you, as the principal are “dealing” with a situation with adults, you have to know yourself because the way YOU respond or react can and most times will determine the outcome.  By being aware of your go-to reactions, thoughts, feelings, and going further—your strengths and weaknesses in these areas—you can make conscious efforts to improve your leadership skills and build stronger relationships with your staff.

Being a learner of yourself starts with paying attention to yourself and your thoughts, emotions, and reactions. This self-awareness can be cultivated through practices such as journaling or regular reflection.  It might look like taking time to reflect on your leadership values and how they showed up throughout the day. 

Here’s an example of how you could do this:

  1. Decide on an area of your leadership, things that you do regularly, or situations that are important to you to focus on.  Just pick 1 or 2 or maybe you want to start paying attention when you are feeling triggered. 
  2. Set your intention. Once you have the situation in mind, like if you decided to take note of yourself when you are having your post evaluation conferences this week with teachers, make a note in your planner, set an alarm in your phone, or place a sticky on your desk to remind yourself to pay attention during the event and reflect after.  I’ve begun carrying a small notebook to pay attention to when I get triggered and just seeing the notebook reminds me of my intention. 
  3. Ask yourself, what happened? Describe the situation.  Who you were with, the time of day, where you were, your thoughts, feelings, your response.  I just made a 5-column chart in my notebook labeled:

      Date/Time, Environment, Thoughts, Feelings, Response

      The goals are to first to develop your self-awareness, then to see if any patterns emerge.  This will eventually enable you to get a sense for how you think, feel, and respond to different situations.

      Then you can dig deeper into perhaps the why, and then you can decide if there are ways you would like to change how you respond.  You can create a vision for how you want to respond in situations and then be intentional about how you go about making that vision a reality.  

      How long this takes really depends on the person and how self-aware you were when you started.  But if you ready to take on the next step, check out episode one, Effective Leadership:  Redefining Success, on my Imagine.Believe.Achieve. podcast.


      Leadership is Learning:  Being a Learner of People

      Leadership is Learning is a mindset that is CRITICAL to adopt for your success and sanity.  In my latest podcast episode, Leading WELL: The Leadership is Learning Mindset, we dig into what this really means for you and what it looks like by applying the Leadership is Learning mindset to three main areas.  This post will focus on one of these three areas:  Being a Learner of People.  

      First, why does having a Leadership is Learning mindset even matter? Why is having this mindset an important foundation of effective and balanced school leadership? 

      If you see your leadership as being a continuous journey of learning, you not only will enjoy personal benefits for your own growth, but you will see benefits that will trickle to your whole community.  You will be modeling a mindset advantageous for your teachers to practice, and you will be resilient when you experience setbacks or failures.  Also, if your community sees you as believing you don’t have all the answers, they will know that you are open to their ideas. This is especially important if you value creativity and innovation in your school.  

      A Learner of People

      Being a Learner of People is about learning how to lead your staff in human resource management—like holding people accountable, having difficult conversations, handling conflict, etc.  This area was a huge eye-opener for me. I assumed if I were clear about my personal expectations, collaborated in developing our operating procedures and norms, and then supported people, I wouldn’t have to spend much time on management or supervisory kinds of things.  I quickly realized that I had to spend a lot more time than I anticipated learning how to manage and supervise adults and that NOTHING in college EVER prepared me for that.  I had no choice but to enter this part of my school leadership completely open and willing to learn. 

      Here’s an example of how this might play out when holding people accountable:  I had to learn how I would handle situations when people needed to leave school early.  I knew it was important to me that I acted in a way that honors these values: family comes first, people are human, and we all have lives outside of school.  However, we had 300 children to take care of.  I learned as situations arose that I could honor both my values and our responsibilities by adopting a Yes, AND response. YES, I will be understanding and accommodating AND I need you to be responsible.  For example, if someone needed to run a child to the doctor, leave early for some reason, etc. my standard practice was to say, “Yes, and how are you getting your class covered?” or “Yes, and where can we find your plans?” 

      This response just kind of happened through trial and error.  I started out by just saying yes, but then trying to take care of the everything myself caused annoyance and undo stress.

      By keeping a mindset that you are a learner of people, you can allow these situations to be learning opportunities for you instead of irritations.  Instead of jumping to, “and now I’m going to have to find coverage.  There goes my afternoon,” you approach the situation as a learner.  You ask questions and assume the other person will be a part of the solution.

      If you buy into the belief that you are a continual learner of your staff and that you will learn how to handle situations as they arise, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prepare.   Before you even land in a leadership position, you can get clear on your personal philosophy, values, and your boundaries. If you have already been a principal for a while, it’s never too late to go back and reflect.  In fact, you can take the situations that have happened, reflect on those, and think about if the way you handled them reflects your values and boundaries.  If you find that reflecting on the way you handled a situation brings up discomfort and unease, it might be a good one to focus on.   You can think, “Next time, if I were to approach this situation as a learner, what questions could I ask so that I can learn the best action to take?”

      One incredible resource for working with staff came from a surprising source: Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. This book introduced me to the powerful concept: everyone is doing the best they can.  If you can take on this perspective, I promise you, you will have more peace in your life.  Let’s just say you have a teacher who once again, is out sick and has not left lesson plans, even though you have made this expectation ABUNDANTLY clear. 

      When I was in the principal seat, I did not have this “everyone is doing the best they can” perspective.  I certainly did not think this person was doing the best she could—far from it.  So, my default reactions in the absence of thinking she was doing her best was incredible irritation, blame, hurt, aggravation, anger, etc.  While these feelings can be personally validating, those emotions did NOTHING to help me be a better leader, and coming at her with those emotions did nothing to help her be better at her job. 

      If I had assumed that this person was doing the best she could, I would have had a completely different perspective.  Taking on this assumption gets me out of an emotional state and shifts me into “what can we do to make this situation better?”  Instead of shooting off an angry email asking her to meet me in my office to talk about the situation, I might calmly go down to her classroom and address the situation more like this:

      Hey, Ms. So and So, we had a tough day yesterday…your teammates and me.  We have the expectation that everyone will have sub plans for the week in the Google Folder, plus a sub folder in the office.  We couldn’t find yours. What happened? 

      Do you see how taking on the perspective that she is doing the best she can is helpful for you and her?  As you can see in the scenario, this didn’t erase accountability for her actions, but removed the emotion from the situation. 

      Being a learner of people is an area we can get much more in depth with, but for now I want to leave you with a couple of key points:

      1. It’s helpful for your come to a point of acceptance that staff management and supervision is a HUGE part of your job and that seeing yourself as a learner of people can be very supportive to your mental health. If you see yourself as a learner of your staff, you can learn to see each conflict, aggravation, unmet expectation, or let down as an opportunity for you to learn about people and how to help them be the best version of themselves.
      2. Taking on the perspective of “everyone is doing the best they can,” not only will help  you to not get so aggravated and react with anger, but will also help you support the person in resolving the issue and be better.  

      Ultimately, having the Leadership is Learning mindset is about taking responsibility for your own growth and development. By paying attention to yourself and what develops into your leadership style, you can lead with authenticity and self-awareness, creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Check out Episode 10, Leading WELL: The Leadership is Learning Mindset of my Imagine.Believe.Achieve Podcast for more on the Leadership is Learning mindset.

      Leading Well: 5 Principles of Effective and Efficient Communication

      Learn all about these principles in this week’s Imagine.Believe.Achieve podcast!

      Principle 1:  Face to Face is Sacred Space.  Your staff is your greatest asset and how your staff spend their time is critical to your school’s success.   Their time to talk with you is limited and there are actions that can or should only be done face to face like Coaching, Collaborating, Learning and problem solving.  A good rule of thumb is information sharing from you should be limited when you are face to face. 

      Principle 2: Just Because You Know it Then, Doesn’t Mean You Share Again. Reading email from your principal daily is not a good use of your teachers’ planning time.   100 percent of the “stuff” that your staff just “needs to know” should be in one email or less per week.  If the information is not important for them to learn immediately or if it’s not a concern they need hear to hear from you first before hearing it from someone else, find a place to record it and tell them about it later.

      Principle 3:  Facebook’s for Tooting not Telling.   For schools, social media is great for tooting your horn.  Do this shamelessly.  If you don’t create the positive narrative and tell your story, they will create their own narratives and those might not be ones you agree with.   Don’t rely on social media to tell what’s going to happen.  Meet your community where they are.  Know your community.   When you choose a form that works with your community whether it’s a newsletter, calendar, email, one-call, publish it regularly so they your families will expect it. 

      Conversations and meetings

      Principle 4:  Solving may be Satisfying, but Supporting is Sustaining

      Problem Solving for teachers may be incredibly gratifying, but you are just solving the problem sitting in front of you.  You aren’t really helping the teacher, you are helping get one isolated problem solved. Instead of empowering the teachers and building their skills, you are encouraging dependence on you. 

      Cognitive Coaching Training form the Thinking Collaborative is a model of coaching that focus on supporting teachers by focusing on their thought processes as a way to improve learning and is not intended to change overt behaviors.  Essentially, the training teaches you skills for supporting teachers  in reflection, planning and thinking through their problems.

      The Coach Approach to School Leadership by Kathy Perret, Shira Leibowitz, and Jessica Johnson supports the cognitive coaching model and is a great place to start.   

      In the training, we learned how to coach teachers through what they call a Problem Resolving Conversation.  There’s a whole lot to this, but anyone can benefit from two conversation skills that are taught in the training:  pausing and paraphrasing. 

      There’s a whole lot more to this and I’ve have really oversimplified it, but the main thing is for you to reflect on the way you react when people come to you with problems and think about how can you use pausing, paraphrasing and questioning to help them solve their problem instead of offering solutions. This will support them in thinking through the problem so that they will build the skills to solve on their own.  

      1. Teacher vents their emotion
      2. You pause
      3. You succinctly paraphrase what they said, name their emotion and use because:

      You’re __________________ because __________________________________. You may have to do a few rounds of this with the teacher until the teacher acknowledges that the paraphrase is accurate. 

      • Frame a possible desired state.  You would say… “And what you want is”. Once that is acknowledged, you would then say, “and you are looking for a way to make that happen. 
      • Then you start asking questions to help the teacher develop solutions. Questions like, When you’ve faced situation like this before, what worked?  What resources might you have?*

      Click here for the printable sentence frame

      *This is all from The Cognitive Coaching Training — To do this skillfully and learn so many more ways to coach, you really need the training.  It will transform the way you coach your teachers. 

      Principle 5: Cut the Credibility Killers 

      There are two phrases you need to cut from your speech. 

      1.  When I was…. You fill in the blank… in the classroom…an AP… a teacher… in the other district.  No one wants to hear that. You’ll just annoy people rather than build credibility If you want to build credibility, get in their classrooms and adopt an attitude of humbleness. Instead say, “it’s been a long time since I’ve been in the classroom.  I’d love to see you teach reading.”  Get in there and notice the strategic things they do that are awesome.  Show them you know what you are talking about by noticing how they show their skill and marvel at it.  Get as specific and detailed as you can. 
      • This is coming down from central office.  If you say that, you are modeling the exact behavior you don’t want to see from your teachers.  If you really don’t agree with something, but you have to implement it, shield your teachers as much as you can, do what you need to do, but just don’t share that “you’re just doing something” because you were told you had to. 

      Strategies and Mental Tools for Carrying the Leadership Load

      Last week I kicked off our Leading W.E.L.L. series with a personal story of the struggles I went through my first couple of years as a principal and how I dealt with the stress in ways that weren’t exactly healthy. I promised that in my next post I would dive deeper into the “W” of Wellness by sharing strategies and mental tools for carrying the “leadership load.”

      The Spiritual Anchor

      The first thing I challenged you to do was to identify your spiritual anchor. By this, I meant a practice you would do every morning to connect with God or your spirit. For me, this was a devotion, for others it might be meditation, yoga, prayer, or some combination of practices. Doing this will maximize any of the tools and strategies that mental health experts recommend. It might sound like I am suggesting that you use your spirituality to get what you want. Like control or manipulation…I am not suggesting that at all, but finding techniques to make my spirituality tangible has been essential to handling the stress of leadership.

      Starting your day with a spiritual practice is nothing new, but it can be difficult to get in the habit of doing one consistently. This is where a morning routine comes in. Check out Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning, Michael Hyatt’s Daily Rituals for more on this. I found episode #33, Four Rituals That Make You Super Productive, in Hyatt’s Business Accelerator podcast incredibly helpful. This podcast addresses gives practical advice on how to make a morning routine work for any situation. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have to go into work as early as I did when I was a principal so I can go through a 30 minute routine when I first wake up. However, when I was a principal, I had to be in work by 7:00 and had a 30 minute commute. I wasn’t about to wake up any earlier than necessary and was able to incorporate a morning routine without sacrificing sleep. Let me show you how it worked for me…

      So, when I was a principal, my morning routine happened after I got to work and was only about 10 minutes. I would listen to my devotion (through the First 15 Podcast) during my commute and then my goal was to go through the same 15 minute routine every morning when I hit my desk. (I combined what Hyatt refers to as a morning routine and a workday start up routine into one routine. Listen to episode #33 for more info on this). So, I would get to school, sit down at my desk and open up a “daily page.” At the time, I used a bullet journal format and wrote out my mission statement, an intention, and my 3 most important things (MITs) for the day in that journal. I would end the routine by writing a positive note to 3 staff members. I did all of this before I touched my email. I very intentionally planned actions for my routine that would start me in a positive mindset. Regardless of how you can fit this daily ritual in, having a consistent morning routine allows you to prepare yourself so that you can bring the best version of you to do life that day.

      Having a consistent morning routine allows you to prepare yourself so that you can bring the best version of you to do life that day.

      Once you have your morning routine in place, I caution against making the same mistake I did: As I struggled in difficult situations, I wondered why God wasn’t helping me after I “put in the time” that morning. I would encounter tough situations and would either react in ways that weren’t helpful or feel completely powerless and personally victimized by the situation. I eventually realized I needed some mental tools and strategies to reconnect me to my anchor in the moment so that I could get out of my “fight or flight” mode.

      Pausing and Seeking Help in the Moment

      Reading The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein was a game-changer for me. Bernstein offered me practical tools for what to do in the midst of those intense moments and also a way to mentally frame what I was going through. While many would consider Gabby’s tools to be self-help or new age, I applied them to my Christian perspective and found them to be helpful in nudging me to pray in the moment. Here’s what I came up with from her book:

      My Plan:

      1. If I got triggered–a stressful or irritating situation would happen and I would feel anxiety, anger, or overwhelm.
      2. First, I would stop. I would pause and slow down my breathing. Then I would pray. (I would stop and ask for help).
      3. Next, I would surrender the fear or negative feelings I had, and asked for help in responding with love.

        I think the biggest challenge I had and still have is pausing–stopping myself in the moment and making myself use my tools, instead of just trying to escape the moment or making it end because it’s too uncomfortable or painful. Or lately, I don’t stop when I get triggered because I keep thinking I need to just “get the task done” and that I just need to push through, because I have too much to do.

      I think that making yourself stop comes with practice. It’s like a muscle you need to exercise so that you create that muscle memory. Once you stop, you can use breathing exercises, get yourself regulated and then be open to returning in love. That’s my plan, anyway. Let’s see if I can put that into practice! Want to practice with me? Get your PAUSE Cheat Sheet HERE.

      Adopting A Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework

      I think there’s a lot of information available since the pandemic on self-regulation, breathing exercises, returning to the present, and getting out of fight or flight, but I still think that leaves the question, “Then what?? Once, I’ve calmed myself down, how do I get through it? Then, how do I keep from going home and comforting myself with food or alcohol to keep the worry at bay for what the next day would bring?”

      This is where a way to mentally frame what I was going through came in. Bernstein teaches this as the universal lesson:

      The world is your classroom and people are your assignments.

      Gabrielle Bernstein.

      She writes, “The first step is to witness that what may seem to be a terribly uncomfortable situation is actually a Universal Assignment.” Just taking on this perspective allowed me to step back and ask myself, “What I am I learning through this?” Sometimes that was very difficult to answer. As I used this mental framework to consider situations, I changed the questions depending on the circumstance. It might be, “What am I learning about myself?” or “How can I show up as a good leader/listener/supporter in this situation?” My work in therapy also supported this thinking. My therapist encouraged me to think about the future and how I wanted to coach and help principals one day. She said to see these situations as field research and I was learning strategies for dealing with them so I could help others later.

      Feeling Your Feelings

      Here’s the part that was and still is the greatest challenge for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. I want to numb or comfort tough feelings with food or alcohol. I have a lot of theories about why I am like this including my Enneagram Type (7), family dynamics in childhood, yada, yada…but regardless, avoiding pain and tough emotions is my jam. Unfortunately, I am also concerned about my appearance so emotional eating and drinking do not serve me well.

      I don’t have quick answers for this, because I still struggle with it. Recently, I thought I had gotten past those bad habits. My new position is much more supportive of employee wellness and has significantly less stress, so I thought that when the stress came, I would better be able to handle it without my old bad habits. However, I realized after I couple of stressful weeks, I still default back to my old patterns of stress-eating and drinking.

      Here’s where I think the answer lies: I have to see the the strategies of Pausing and Seeking Help in the Moment, and Adopting a Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework as ways to feel my feelings, process them, and stay with them–NOT just get past them so that I can respond the the situation effectively and efficiently and move on. I think that when I feel the urge to turn to external sources of comfort, it’s a signal that I haven’t processed my feelings and need to stop. I think this involves tools like journaling, affirmations, self-talk, etc. Those aren’t always possible in the moment, but I need to incorporate some type of processing at some point, before I head to the kitchen–if I don’t want to engage in that behavior anymore.

      Obviously, I haven’t mastered these tools. I had been posting and podcasting consistently once a week since the first week of January then the last two weeks of increased stress and busyness went by without a post or podcast — how ironic. I can blame my lack of publishing content on the busyness, but I think it was more about feeling imposter syndrome. Who am I to try to help people with something I haven’t mastered myself?

      I had a little epiphany today.

      As I went about my morning routine, I came across some content in The Fabulous App related to self-love…

      “ Self-love creates space for you to be exactly who you are, rather than the carefully curated version of yourself you wish you were.” 

      I need to practice what I am preaching regarding Adopting a Supportive Perspective or Mental Framework. I don’t need to wait until I have all this figured out. We can help each other by going through this together. I would like to adopt the supportive perspective that I can help others through my struggles and my journey, not by having all the answers. I don’t have to walk out front with the answers–we can walk alongside each other with the struggle.

      So, to close this, I am extending an invitation. Let’s learn to carry the leadership load together. Let’s start a community of education leaders who are trying to thrive while doing hard things. I don’t have all the answers, but I am happy to share what I have learned and invite you to do the same. We can learn from our successes and missteps. If you want a partner on your journey, please follow me on Instagram: lizerwinimagine or on Facebook at Imagine Believe Achieve.

      Carrying the Load of Leadership

      “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

      Lena Horne in Wisdom for the Soul

      When I first took the principal’s seat I remember thinking on quite a few days, “Why did I want to be a principal so badly? This is awful!” I remember, in particular, a conversation with my superintendent. He called to check on me one day, and I said, “Well, let me tell you how great my day was. I had to go to the gynecologist, and that was the highlight of my day.” I think it’s hilarious now that I said that, but oh my gosh…it really was a cry for help… wanting someone to understand what I was going through.

      My first two years, I never knew what chaos each day would bring. I was dealing with several very difficult emotional/behavioral situations with students and mental health issues with their parents. Each day I would never know if I would get spit on or kicked by a student, sued, or cussed by a parent, or maybe just be defamed on the local news. (All of these happened way too frequently those first years). I had no assistant principal or behavioral support, so I had to have direct involvement in every behavior escalation while trying to figure out how to lead a school. The intensity and frequency of these situations consumed me and took a toll on my mental and physical health.

      After my first two years, I had stopped exercising, found myself “eating my feelings,” drinking a bottle of wine each night, and as a result, gained almost 40 pounds with my cholesterol level skyrocketing to over 300.

      So. that was the load–the load of leadership–and how it weighed me down, almost crushing me.

      My third year, we had a new special education director who provided “boots on the ground” support for my school through the creation of a Highly Structured Program environment and the allocation additional staff. We hired an incredible special education teacher for our students with moderate to severe disabilities and a new guidance counselor who lead our school in creating MTSS structures and supports. So, we finally had systems in place to both prevent behavior escalation and effectively manage it, if it did happen.

      Then that March, just as I was getting my feet under me, with an afternoon’ s notice, we sent all of our students home for what turned out to be the rest of the year because of the Pandemic. It was clear that if it wasn’t one thing, it was going to be something else.

      I felt a lot of shame in how I let my health go.

      It seems really strange to write that now, but it really was shame…I was very ashamed of myself. I felt like the way I was handling or not handling my stress was on display for everyone. I had “let myself go” and everyone knew it. I could just hear what people were saying about me in all the self-hatred that I inflicted. Even now I am embarrassed about (at least my language is more gentle towards myself–embarassed instead of ashamed, thank you, Brene Brown) how much my appearance mattered to me and still does. I feel very superficial to be so worried about it, but that’s a conversation for another day. Bottom line is the self-judgement needs to stop. I finally recognize that fact.

      This shame came out in conversations with a therapist. I started seeing her about midway through my first year. I’ll never forget, our first appointment was the evening that our school was on the local news after a parent felt the need to share a stream of lies regarding our handling of a situation with her child. When asked what I hoped to get out of therapy, I remember sharing that I had to be successful in this job. I couldn’t quit, but I couldn’t continue with the misery I was feeling. I needed help liking my job so that I could continue in it. No matter how I badly I wanted to find ways to deal with the stress that were healthy, like exercising and not consuming junk food and wine, by the end of the day I was spent. I had no room for discipline and just sought comfort. I needed help with carrying the load.

      During my time as a principal, I felt like there was very little attention given to the mental and emotional support leaders need. Especially during the pandemic, I felt a sense of responsibility for making sure my teachers were taken care of, but that no one was taking care of me.

      “What about the principals?” I wondered, “What about us? Does anyone care how this is affecting us?”

      Every once in a while I see something about the importance of supporting school leaders, but it seems like those instances are the exception more than the rule. Now that I am no longer in the principal seat, I want to try to change that. I want to share ideas tools, and strategies that I sought out and learned from a variety of sources. This post kicks off my Leading W.E.L.L series. Today we start with the “W” which, you guessed it, stands for WELLNESS. My next post will dive into this topic, but I’d like to leave you with homework.

      If this post resonates with you–if you need strategies and mental tools for “carrying your leadership load”– the first thing I challenge you to do is to identify your spiritual anchor. By anchor, I mean that spiritual element that gives you strength. Is it God? Your higher power? the universe? Jesus? This job is way too hard to go it alone. Personally, I need me some Jesus. every. single. day. So let’s say you are on board with this. You are all in and you have identified your spiritual anchor.

      Next, you will want want to figure out a way to anchor yourself every morning. I anchor myself with a devotional. Just doing this may not be enough to get you through your day on those super tough ones when you get kicked in the shins non-stop (metaphorically or literally). It wasn’t enough for me just to have a morning practice, but it provided the foundation (anchor) for dealing with stressful situations. I also found it helpful to include meditation in my anchoring time and found a great resource that incorporated the devotional and guided meditation: First 15. This podcast/app provides a different short devotional each day l followed by a guided meditation/reflection, and even an uplifting song. I would listen to this on my drive to work and then take just a minute or so when I got in the office to write down an intention for the day.

      So, go do you your homework. Figure out or identify how you are going to anchor yourself each morning, then meet me back here next week for what to do next.

      Releasing Yourself from Expectations

      I just found a quote in a journal (I had written it in all caps) from January 2018 that reads, “MOVE FORWARD, RELEASED FROM THE PRISON OF EXPECTATIONS.” Nearby on the page is a quote that I attributed to Glennon Doyle, so maybe this one also came from her? I am not sure, but what I do know is that it’s hitting right now. A couple of Sundays ago, I was meal-prepping or getting ready to workout, or some other kind of activity that I felt I “should” be doing and wondered out loud, “why do I always feel the need to be doing something?” I wonder who else suffers from this…

      The “prison” is definitely one of my own making. I believe I wrote that the same month I started seeing a therapist. I was dealing with some extremely difficult situations at school in addition to just trying to learn to be a principal. In my first year as a principal I kept the same level of high expectations I had for myself to be a great leader and top-notch in every other area of my life (home, family, health) as I would if I had been a principal for years. Looking back now, I see how this expectation is the one that created additional stress beyond the circumstances themselves.

      I felt like the very traits that make me good at my job are the same ones that make me drive myself crazy.

      This “prison” is not exactly perfectionism. I just have this drive that I have to do everything 100 percent, full out, and be at my personal best in all areas. It’s not that I have to execute everything perfectly, but I expect myself to always be working toward my personal best.

      This wondering of “why I always feel the need to be doing something” spiraled into a week of no workouts and a couple of nights of Netflix binging with a bottle of wine per binge. hmmm. Interesting.

      Here’s the good news. After that week, I can see that I have made some progress in my thinking since 2018. I didn’t mentally berate myself for taking a break. Instead I tried to “Ted Lasso” my behavior by looking at it with curiosity instead of judgement. (You Ted Lasso fans know what I mean) 🙂 So that’s progress! So after that, I wondered if I needed to look at what I consider balance a little differently.

      Before, my definition of balance meant that I was able to balance all aspects of my life, doing each area with equal gusto, effort, and success. Great Mom and Great Leader, in Great Shape, and Spiritually Sound, Ummm…just writing that now makes me realize how silly that is. Now I think, “I need to rest.” period. whatever that looks like. (Lately for me, that’s one Netflix episode and one glass of wine). Of course with my personality I felt the need to schedule these periods of rest, put expectations on them, and make them part of a routine (insert eyeroll emoji here). Oh, well.


      maybe Glennon?

      I can see how loosening my grip on myself can actually move me forward…I am actually making more progress with my health and fitness habits in the weeks following my week off than I did previously. At any rate, I wonder if anyone else can see themselves in this scenario. If so, I’d love to hear from you!

      Building a System for Effective and Purposeful Classroom Visits Part 2: Getting them Done!

      Last week I wrote about the importance being intentional when conducting classroom visits and that in order to be intentional, the observer needs to be clear about the main purposes for being in classrooms:

      • To Create Connections
      • To Advance your School Community’s Shared Vision
      • To Collect Data

      This week we’ll be diving into how to balance getting in classrooms for these reasons.

      Creating Connections might be the most fun reason for doing classroom visits. I mentioned last week that quantity trumps quality with these, so you want them to be short. Get in, be fully present and supportive for about 5 minutes, get out. Period.

      To be sure you do a ton of these, first start by setting a goal for how many to do each day or week and have a printed list of all your teachers. Start small and be realistic. My first year was insane. I had no assistant principal. A few students escalated daily into violent episodes requiring restraint, and I was the only one my teachers could call for help. I never knew what each hour would bring. For me, getting three of these classroom visits in a day was a win. In the years that followed after I was able to implement better behavior systems, hire a new school counselor who became a key leader in my MTSS team, and was given more support from the district, I was able to set my goal for these type of visits for 3 every hour. I would set my timer on my phone every hour and stop what I was doing to get into 3 classrooms. When I returned to my office, I would write the date beside the teacher’s name who I visited.

      One of the best ideas I learned and implemented for doing visits to create connections was to send my teachers voice messages through their text messages. I would step out of their rooms, record a pleasant message–not a diatribe expounding on instructional practice–just an upbeat thank you or something nice I noticed. This way I didn’t have to worry about bringing anything with me into classrooms to leave a note, I didn’t have to interrupt, or try to navigate the room to get to their desk. I could just grab my phone and spend 15 minutes in three classrooms.

      Advancing my Vision was the purpose that I made sure aligned with at least one round of visits a week. Basically, as I was doing visits to create connections I would look for some practice which exemplified one of our instructional initiatives. I had a pretty good idea where I could look and which teachers needed some kudos. Once I found an example of something each week, I was done with that purpose. I would take pictures, describe the awesome practice I saw, then share it with teachers.

      One of the best tools I used for housing staff information and each week’s schedule, announcements, todos, etc. was Blogger. I would send out a few highlights each week in an email with the link to the blog. The latest blog post would feature a practice we were focusing on and include the pictures I took.

      Collecting Data was the function of the more traditional walkthroughs I would do. First, I started with the goal of getting three walkthroughs in a week and then moved to 3 a day. I wanted to be sure I got into every teacher’s classroom at least once every 2 weeks for this type of classroom visit. I used the district walkthough instrument my first year, then asked to shorten and separate it into separate instruments for key areas of instructional practice. Like many out there, the tool (ewalk, then later Google Forms) automatically emailed the teacher. I kept the comments on the form positive or neutral (checks next to observed or not), but kept notes for evidence or things to coach on later.

      One of the best resources I found for organizing how to plan and implement walkthroughs is Justin Baeder from the Principal Center. His template for classroom visit notecards helped me to be sure I saw every teacher within a two week time period and at different times of the day. The notecards are designed so that the principal will have one for each teacher. There is a table to fill in on one side with the teacher’s schedule, while the other side has sentence stems for instructional coaching. These were great because I could grab three cards a day, plan when I would go to the visit the teacher, date the visit on the card, and return the card to the bottom of the pile.

      The bottom line is that to get into classrooms, you have to know your purpose, set a goal based on number of visits, make a plan, execute it and track it. It’s like many things in education. It’s simple, but not easy.

      Building a System for Effective and Purposeful Classroom Visits Part 1: Clarity of Purpose

      Few would argue with the importance or value of the instructional leader spending time in classrooms.  You might be facing barriers or making excuses for why you aren’t getting in there, but very few would say that getting in classrooms isn’t important. But if your classroom visits lack clarity, purpose, or you don’t have an intentional plan that balances the most important purposes for getting in classrooms, you won’t be effective in improving the quality of instruction–you will be wasting time. 

      So let’s think about the main purposes for going into classrooms…

      If I were to classify the most important purposes why I went into classrooms they would fall under these 3 categories:

      To Create Connections

      To Advance my School Community’s Shared Vision

      To Collect Data

      If you are clear on your whys and you make sure you have a system for balancing those purposes, you will be less likely to default to one purpose for getting in classrooms that you find most comfortable and end up leaving out the other purposes.  You will also be more fully present in classrooms and use your classroom visits to move your school forward. 

      Creating Connections:  These are your positive or neutral classroom visits you do to learn your students, your staff, to create relationships.  You do these to fill the buckets of students and staff with positives related to seeing you in the classroom. 

      When it comes to visits for creating connections QUANTITY TRUMPS QUALITY.  You are going in to show that you care about the students and teachers as human beings.  Some people are great at doing these visits.  They are the default.  They go in classrooms all the time and just sit by students and be fully present.

      I am not sure what this says about me, but I wasn’t like that at first.  I felt like whenever I was in the classroom I needed to notice something really great instructionally, be in there for 15 minutes and use some kind of walkthrough instrument, or I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.  Having that mentality ended up being a barrier to me getting into many classrooms.  For example, I might finish with something and have 30 minutes before a meeting. So I would either think, “I don’t have time to do any walkthroughs.” Or, I might head down the hallway, get stopped by a person or situation and then I really wouldn’t have time to get one in. Well, if all your visits take 15-20 minutes, you can see how this would happen.

      For me, just knowing that these types of visits are important and that they SHOULDN’T take long was a key mind-shift for me. So, I made it a habit and a priority to get into at least 3 classrooms just for a couple of minutes every day…then I set a goal for every hour…

      Advancing Your School Community’s Shared Vision: These visits are the ones where you are going in classrooms and taking pictures of the awesome things that kids are doing.  Now, when you are using these to be intentional, you look for evidence of whatever initiative you are working on.  Then you brag about how awesome the teacher was in your weekly email.  We all have those, right?  Some form of weekly communication with your teachers?  I had a blog that I made on Blogger that housed all my staff info. Every week I would drop pictures in that blog to show great stuff going on connected to my school goals or vision and then send an email to staff linked to it.

      Collect Data – Walkthroughs –The best mental shift I made was to see walkthroughs as a separate event from the other 2 classroom visits with 2 main purposes related to collecting data:

      1. For coaching conversations, meaningful feedback, evaluation
      2. For monitoring implementation of an initiative

      My last two years as a principal, I also changed the way that I handled these walkthroughs. I started doing what I called Focused Walkthroughs.  I did this different ways depending on the time of the year and/or what we were working on as a school or district.  For example, the year we had our SACs accreditation I used the ELEOT Look-fors and separated them into different areas and just focused on one area when I was in classrooms for a period of time. 

      Focusing on just one aspect of great instruction or environment helped me be more present in classrooms.  Instead of checking off a bunch of stuff on my phone, I just looked for one main thing.  For example, at the beginning of the year we used the Student Focused Culture Walkthrough Tool.  Just a little aside…One key characteristic I would be sure to include no matter what instrument I was using, was to be sure the lookfors in the tool are focused on what the students are doing.  

      Once you become crystal clear on the purpose of classroom visits, you plan them in a way that you get them done.  When balanced well, this will help you improve your school’s culture, advance your instructional vision, and lay the foundation for what you are trying to achieve. 

      Getting It Done! Part 2: Planning Your Attack

      Last week, I shared strategies which made the overwhelming job of being a principal much more manageable for me. These were all part of the Personal Productivity System I developed from what I learned in David Allen’s Getting Things Done (commonly referred to as GTD).

      The main parts of this productivity system are:

      • A place and systems for processing “stuff”
      • A place and systems for collecting, processing, and prioritizing thoughts.

      Once I had those two main parts, I established a daily routine for sorting through those “collection buckets” as I referred to them last week. This routine is my Workday Startup Routine. Going through the steps in my startup routine help me focus on exactly what I need to do each day and ensure that I make time for the important, not just the urgent. They are how I plan my attack.

      You have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.

      David Allen

      Workday Startup Routine

      My Workday Startup Routine is a series of steps that I do every day as soon as I get to work before I do anything else. It helps to set a positive tone and establish exactly what needs to be accomplished each day. My routine ensures I prioritize the important, so I am not just always just pulled to the urgent. Also, if I do get pulled, when I come back I know exactly what to do next. A few highlights from my routine include:

      Starting the day with 3 positive notes

      When I was a principal, I wrote 3 different staff members a note each day and tracked who I wrote notes to by checking their names off a list. This ensured I encouraged those in my care and started my day focused on the positive.

      Positive walk

      I made myself do a lap around the school after I unloaded buses and talk to at least three different staff members a day to build relationships and connect. Until I made this part of my routine, it was way too tempting to stay in the office while it was fairly quiet in order to knock items off my list and I was missing a great opportunity to build relationships.

      3 MITs

      This is not on the list in the picture because at the time I was setting my MITs at the end of the day in preparation for the next day, but now I do this after I read email during the Workday Startup. Some folks will say that MITs are not tasks to check off–they are areas of focus to advance your mission and vision. I used the practice of identifying the MITs to prioritize 3 items from my list of Todos. I would go through my binder and think about what absolutely HAD to get done that day. It was and still is a key part of my productivity.

      To learn more about the Workday Startup Routine check out: Focus on This Podcast Episode #028 – How to Start and Stop Your Workday and Daniel Bauer’s – Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast – Episode 230 How to Have Powerful 2020.

      My best advice for creating your own startup and shutdown routines is:

      • Get some background by listening to the above podcasts
      • Create your routine based on what you need to do everyday, but sometimes forget/don’t do when things get crazy 
      • Add activities that you do not do naturally, but are important
      • Start your day with something positive

      The benefits of building your own productivity system extend to managing stress, not just getting more things done. That’s probably was the most powerful benefit for me. In GTD, Allen discusses how building these systems “closes loops” in your brain. He contends that a lot of he stress comes from having “open loops,” but if you have a system you aren’t worrying about what you have to do.

      Getting It Done! Part 1: Building Your Personal Productivity System

      When I became a principal, I became a ravenous consumer of anything related to productivity. I wanted to have a life outside of my job, so that meant learning strategies to become effective and productive. I didn’t want spending time in classrooms to mean that I would have to spend hours after school on email or other administrative tasks. I knew that there had to be strategies I could learn to manage my time and help me to get everything done effectively and efficiently.

      I’m happy to report that there are strategies I learned and systems I built which made the overwhelming job of being a principal much more manageable for me. Today we’ll focus on how to get started.

      The first thing I would suggest is to Build Your Personal Productivity System

      I learned this concept from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the art of stress-free productivity. Key concepts I learned in this book laid the foundation for how I work.

      What did I learn?

      • You need to have a place and systems for processing your “stuff”.
      • You need to have a system to collect, process, and prioritize your thoughts.
      • Having a system is essential to managing your stress and getting things done.

      How to Create a System for Processing the “Stuff”

      Step 1:  Put all papers you receive from meetings that don’t have an immediate place into a “collection bucket,” that you will come back to and sort through later.

      Step 2: Process the papers, and file them into a folder system based on when you will address them. I used a tickler file system. This system is basically 31 folders labeled 1-31 for each day of the month. You don’t have to know exactly when you are going to deal with the action item represented by the paper, you just need to prioritize. You will know deadlines for some papers, and placing papers in files based on when you will address the paper helps you know what to tackle first. This was HUGE for me. Previously I would file all my papers by project, idea, or just put in a “To-Do” folder. Then I would lose the paper or have messy stacks of files on my desk.

      How to Create a System for collecting, processing, and prioritizing your thoughts

      Step 1: Adopt the philosophy that your mind is designed to generate ideas, not store them.

      Step 2: Establish a “collection bucket,”for your thoughts that you can come back to and sort through (notebooks or a binder with tabs).

      I had a mini binder with different sections for:

      • Todos
      • What happened today
      • Personal PD
      • Reflection
      • Weekly email
      • Miscellaneous ideas!

      Having a system is essential to managing your stress and getting things done. Once you have systems in place for how to manage the stuff and the thoughts, you plan how to attack them.

      Part 2 of Getting It Done! released next Thursday, will focus on how to plan your attack.