I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the defining traits of the best principals that I’ve ever worked for.
Some of the traits that those principals shared won’t surprise you.
They were all able to articulate a clear vision of what they wanted our school to be — and they were all committed to making sure that every step we took moved us towards that shared vision. They were all REALLY good at protecting us from distractions — openly prioritizing the work we were required to do, saying to us at times, “This is a task we are required to do, but don’t put a ton of energy into it.” And they were all thoughtful and reflective — willing to consider alternatives to their core beliefs instead of relying on authority to push their own decisions forward regardless of the positions of their faculties.
But the trait that mattered the most to me was far simpler: All of the best principals that I’ve ever worked for were deliberate about building social capital with their faculties.
Note to principals: Every positive interaction that you have with a teacher builds social capital — and social capital matters most in a profession where “driving change” means “convincing people to walk alongside of you no matter how difficult the path may be.” #cpchat
— Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) May 23, 2018
They were CONSTANTLY present in the hallways during informal moments during the school day — teacher planning periods, morning arrival times, staff development days when things are slower than they normally are.
And they were CONSTANTLY stopping to have informal conversations with EVERY staff member — not just the small group of teachers that they were the most comfortable with.
Those conversations went in a thousand directions depending on who the staff member was. Talk to a young mother was centered around whether their newborn was sleeping through the night yet. Talk to a sports fan was centered around the recent performance of their favorite team. Talk to a deeply reflective teacher was centered around the characteristics of good instruction.
And those conversations were ALWAYS genuine and ALWAYS extended over time. An example: One of the best principals that I ever worked for knew just how important my daughter is to me because of how hard it was for my wife and I to have children. He asked me about her all the time — wanting to see pictures, wanting to know what she was up to, wanting to know what I loved most about being a dad. Heck: I crossed paths with him the other day on a bike trail after YEARS of being in different schools and the first thing he did was ask me about my kid.
The worst principal that I ever worked for didn’t even know that I had a kid.
Can you see why these informal moments are so darn important?
Here are a few reasons that they mattered to me:
(1). Because these principals were deliberate about interacting with everyone, everyone felt valued and appreciated: Pretty much every school leader that I’ve ever worked with — as a teacher and a consultant — likes to argue that their faculties are like families. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that there are a ton of faculties that don’t feel very much like families because the leader spends the bulk of their time building relationships with small handfuls of teachers and inadvertently ignoring (or intentionally avoiding) everyone else.
In fact, one teacher that I worked closely with liked to say, “If our staff is a family, we’d be the Dursleys and I’d be locked in a closet under the staircase with Harry Potter.”
The best principals that I’ve ever worked for invested in ALL staff members equally. It was clear to everyone in our schoolhouse that those principals weren’t playing favorites. In fact, we ALL felt like favorites because we ALL had private moments where our leaders showed genuine interest in who we were as individuals and as practitioners. THAT’s how families are supposed to work, y’all.
That left our entire faculty seeing one another as equals — a group of valued individuals all working towards the same goals and all committed to supporting the same leader — instead of as rivals competing for position and authority and recognition from the leadership.
(2). Because everyone had deep personal connections to the leader, there were hardly any “back room conversations” or “gripe sessions” in our buildings:
You know what I’m talking about, right? The groups of teachers who gather behind closed doors the minute they walk out of a faculty meeting to tear apart every decision that you’ve tried to make or every initiative that you’ve tried to introduce? Those moments are incredibly unhealthy, aren’t they?
Those “back room conversations” never happened in the buildings with the best bosses. Here’s why: Because we were having regular individual interactions with our bosses, we all had multiple opportunities to be heard regardless of the circumstances.
Those personal moments made it easy for us to feel comfortable enough to voice concerns directly to our leaders. Not only did we have the time and space to talk privately in neutral locations, we had dozens of positive experiences with our principals — so voicing concern didn’t feel threatening or risky. More importantly, those personal moments made it easy for us to know that even if our bosses didn’t agree with our perspectives, they were at least willing to try to understand our points of view.
(3). Because the principals had deep personal connections to every teacher, difficult conversations were a helluva’ lot easier to have: Let’s face it: One of the hardest parts of a principal’s job is holding teachers accountable when things aren’t going well. Have a teacher who shows up late for work every day? Have a teacher who isn’t contributing to the work of their learning team? Have a teacher who is struggling with classroom management? It’s YOUR job as a leader to take action — and “taking action” means “having a potentially difficult conversation about performance with a staff member.”
How can you make those conversations easier?
Build strong relationships with everyone on your staff BEFORE you need to have difficult conversations with them. If you’ve invested in relationships, difficult conversations are no longer threatening because the person you are speaking with has had plenty of positive interactions with you as well.
So leading smarter not harder can also begin by recommitting to building relationships with every member of your faculty.
Get out of your office and spend time in the hallways asking questions and smiling and telling stories. Spend time in classrooms touching base and checking in on staff members that you haven’t seen in awhile. Say thank you over and over again to everyone for every thing. Treat each member of your faculty like you would your own child. Value them for the individuals that they are — and let them know what you appreciate about them. Provide encouragement when they are down. Praise the progress that they are making. Figure out what is important to them.
Because no matter how much authority you have, no one follows you just because you are the principal.
They follow you because you are a person that they believe in and trust and respect and admire and appreciate. That belief and trust and respect and admiration and appreciation is built through countless individual interactions with everyone on your staff.
Think of this as an investment: The time that you spend building social capital with every staff member is time and energy you will save because the people that believe in you are ready to do anything to move your work forward.
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