Last new year I wrote a tribute to my sister-in-law after I learned New Year's gifts from artists to their patrons were meant to honor the role benefactors played in making artists' work possible.
I quote myself from last year in asserting that anyone could credit someone with making his/her current life's work possible, if not easier. In my case, there are many people I could thank for allowing me to raise a family and pursue the career that has felt just about right at each turn and trajectory.
This year, I am honoring the principal to my vice-ness, K. We are in the midst of our fifth year together as high school administrators, and I owe him the sharp turn I took down this path, as well as how relatively un-bumpy the road has been.
When you work closely with someone who is unfailingly honest and who has high ethical standards, it shapes how you work and view the world and relationships. While I consider myself an ethical person, I won't ever know what I would be like if I learned to be a school administrator under anyone else. I just know that I am very fortunate to have his model.
In school leadership, and perhaps in other leadership roles as well, it's easy to succumb to the path of least resistance, paved by passive aggression, white lies, and deferred maintenance. Poor school leaders enable poor school teachers, and inconsistent enforcement of policies and standards breeds lack of trust among students, staff, and parents. It takes guts, and some heartache, to do the right thing. I've learned this along the way through challenging circumstances, but the ultimate responsibility--the hardest conversations, calls, and decisions--fall to the principal.
I've joked that I often ask myself (particularly when I can't simply walk through the doors adjoining our offices and directly consult him) WWKD? But in fact, I am perfectly sincere. At the back of my first-year vice principal notebook I kept a page of lessons I learned from my principal, partner, and "work husband."
1. You tell the truth because the truth is bigger than you are. The alternative, lying or failing to confront the issue, is seductive because it's less painful for you, and seems easier on the other person. But the job is not about you nor the other person; it's about 1100 students and their best interests. Don't save yourself; do right by them.
2. Don't use a convenient excuse in exchange for the truth. Sometimes we are "saved" from having to deal with a situation because it changes or circumstances arise to smokescreen the real issue. People deserve the straight scoop, even if it has become irrelevant.
3. Letting frustrations fester is unhealthy for the entire community. As someone uncomfortable with confrontation, directly addressing people who offend me or going back to people with feedback after the fact is not a natural impulse. But I have watched relationships on our campus grow in a culture of honesty--in which I can tell you I feel disrespected by your response or behavior and at the same time communicate to you the importance of our relationship to me. Done properly, confronting true feelings defuses rather than breeds conflict.
4. Consistency. "We hang our hats on consistency," my principal says, and there is probably no approach more important. Students, parents, and staff need to know there are no "back-room deals" nor special favors. We've built a compendium of past practices and precedents, and consult them when there are judgments to make. Foolish consistency, however, prevents an organization from evolving and progressing. At times, we've changed our minds, reconsidered, and slowed down. Ultimately, you listen to your people, and you listen to your heart.
5. Trust, Value, and Respect. These are the values underpinning relationships on our campus--the triad my principal invokes often. There is trust among colleagues to make good decisions in the best interests of our students and school community; the work of staff members is valued; respect is implicit. Our staff members are unusually close to our student body, and the trust and respect we have in and for students (and vice versa) affords them rare opportunities and makes our school a safer place.
6. Be True to Your School. Blind loyalty is no good. But when you have built an organization upon a foundation of honesty, consistency, trust, value, and respect, then you have a community in which members go to bat for one another, advocate for one another, and refuse to throw one another under the bus. Our leader models this by putting our high school's needs first, always. It's a tremendous responsibility. When bad things happen, though, we know how to take care of one another.
Finally, I am fortunate to work with someone who views me as his friend, as his family, and as his administrative partner, despite the difference in our titles. We are both raising small children, and there's no question of where both our priorities should lie. He and I have shared the responsibilities of supervising games, dances, and performances in a way that has made the demands of a stressful job manageable, in a way that has allowed for some balance--for us to coach our children's Little League and soccer teams, and to drop our kiddoes off at school some mornings.
He understands that I cry when I am tired or frustrated; his sense of humor and love of a good prank have lightened dark days; he has encouraged me to invest in and grow my personal and professional selves.
I have great awe and admiration for the demands--on heart and soul--of being a high school principal; I don't know that I will ever be ready or willing to shoulder them myself. But I do know that I have a philosophical foundation and tools to take with me wherever I go. Thank you, K.