By Lori Cullen
Lori Cullen (@lorilynnecullen on Twitter) is Principal at Erin Woods Elementary in Calgary, Alberta.
I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what I have learned about leadership and being a Principal. I am always learning; however, here are the key lessons that I want to remember and apply to this year. Not in any particular order, here are the ways I hope to become a great leader and great principal.
1. Communication Is King, Communication Is Key
I can’t say it enough, or in enough ways; that is my motto. If there is something I really, really want people to know, I need to say it often, in many different ways and formats. The same goes for me; if there is something you really, really want me to know, tell me often, in person and by email. I have learned the hard way that the top two non-effective forms of communication in schools are saying something over the PA system, and at an assembly. If you make announcements or give important messages in these two ways, perhaps 10 percent of the people will actually hear and understand. At the other end of the range, the most effective way of communicating is one-on-one or face-to-face with a small group of people who are taking notes. If they do not take notes, a follow-up email is necessary.
2. Just Because I Said It Doesn’t Mean They Learned It
I find that I often tell people “how” to do things . . . how to write report card comments, how to conduct parent meetings, how to work with a student, how to organize a classroom . . . and the list goes on. However, just because I said it doesn’t mean they learned it. In fact, my saying it doesn’t mean they even heard it, got it, understood it or believed it! I find that if I want people to learn something new, I have to teach it. (Wow, amazing concept for an educator!) Tried and true teaching strategies work for adults, too. Don’t just tell an adult how to ride a bike; teach them. Show them, help them, support them, let them try it, encourage them, listen to them, answer questions, applaud, cheer and celebrate!
3. Back It Up
Not your hard drive, your words! I find that backing up my ideas, thoughts, and initiatives with current, quality research found in reputable literature is the way to go. I am fond of saying, “This isn’t Lori’s thing, or Lori’s way.” By that, I mean we should do this because we know it is best practice, and it is proven good and right for students. This is based on research and backed by data. The way we do it in our school might be specific to our content, but it is tried and true.
4. Let Others Do
I often have teachers and staff approach me and say, “Can I do this?” If “this” is in any way reasonable and safe, it’s always worth a try. Remember riding the bike? How will they learn if they don’t try? My job is to talk it through, make sure it is the best try (don’t hop on a bike that is too big or too small or has a bent rim and wonder what you did wrong), and then support the outcome, whatever it may be. A word to the cautious: “Can I do this?” is quite different from “Can we do this?” See #1 – communication. Then sort out the we.
There are people in my school who are experts at what they do. The bookkeeper, administrative secretary, custodian and tech specialist all know things that I do not know. Appreciate them. Appreciate their knowledge and expertise. Let them help!
6. Be Aware
To be aware, you have to be where the people are. I find that many things in a day can pass me by if I don’t leave the office. Just walking around the school, outside of the school and into classrooms brings an awareness of the everyday goings-on, successes and challenges. How can I improve on things if I don’t know what needs improving on? Having people tell me is one thing; seeing things for myself is a whole new “Ooooohhhhhh.”
7. Follow Up
Following up on things I say or ask is a necessary way to add meaning to what I do. For example, if I ask teachers to read a chapter in a book or watch a webinar and then I never go back to it, ask about it or talk about it, it wasn’t really that important in the first place. I find that what you focus on shows people what is important and what is important is what improves. Unless I follow up, I am really just making weak suggestions.
8. Change Your Mind
It is an exhilarating feeling to know that you can change your mind at any moment, usually not on a whim, but when you learn or realize something new that would be more productive or effective. You know the old saying, “Doing something over and over the same way, and expecting different results is… ” Well, you can fill in the blank. Don’t do things over and over the same way unless you can’t think of a different way, or unless it’s working exceptionally well. Over the years, with all the mind changes, we have developed into a team that is flexible, progressive, and growing. Trying things in a different way on a different day is the example of growing and changing.
9. Be Gracious, Be Kind
There is no reason I can think of to be anything other than gracious and kind toward all of the different people you meet and work with. People like to be thanked and treated in kind, courteous ways. People who are treated this way are productive, happy people. And the word gets out. Before you know it, people will want to come and work with you!
10. Have a Sense of Humour
Life is stressful, work is stressful, but it is true that everything goes a lot easier when you can laugh about things — and at yourself. From a person that has the ability to let people get under her skin, I’ve learned that not owning, not exasperating and lightening up helps get me through any day. Luckily, I work in a school and am blessed that I can talk to, enjoy, and laugh with all of the little people who come through the door of the school every day. In the end, they don’t really care about the budget or the regulations. They just live in the moment.
A Final Note
Live in the moment and enjoy the children. If you don’t like the choices you made today, you are in luck! You can wake up tomorrow and make different ones! What choices will you make today?