The school year for students and staff has officially ended and I am in the midst of the summer work that building leaders typically do each year. Like so many leaders, we faced numerous challenges this year including COVID-19 virus. I should be proud of what our school community was able to accomplish and how we worked together to make this happen. The year was not perfect but we got better as a school and we provided great learning experiences for our students. However, as I sit here and write this blog, my emotions and feelings of the year for me as the building leader truly are those of struggle and feeling of isolation. These raw emotions are greater this year than before and I couldn’t pinpoint “why” until recently. During the past few days, like so many schools, we had to distribute to our families their student belongings to them via curbside pickup. It just so happened this occurred in a driving rainstorm. While the conditions were not ideal, the large amount of time this process took provided much reflection and gave me insight into why I feel this struggle and isolation. More importantly, I have self talked to myself and reinforced what I must remember or learn from these experiences to become a better version of myself moving forward. I am determined to be better for these experiences, not bitter, and grow through the process.
Here are the reasons why I feel like as a building leader I struggle, feel isolated as a leader and then the solutions or learnings I have reflected upon to move forward.
Challenge – Losing Quality Staff
Building leaders know that improving a school really comes down to improving your current staff and hiring quality people when there are openings. An area that I pride myself in is providing “leadership growth” experiences for our staff. I have devoted numerous hours of my personal time making deep connections with staff, goals for staff who share the interest of leadership and work with them to provide authentic experiences within our school so they can develop as leaders. When one of these staff members shares “I need to move to another district or position for family reasons or financial reasons”, I feel a sense of pain and loss. This is due to the personal investment I put in of my time, energy and efforts to help them develop as a leader and now it is gone. It hurts me emotionally and physically for a short time. I also recognize filling the position with the right fit is never easy as the field of quality educators has dwindled in recent years, even more so in a pandemic. This process happened again recently and these emotions were most real.
As I was processing this, I reminded myself that “developing others” is the best way to improve our school and the individual educator. It multiplies my impact upon our school community and even if it’s for a few years, that impact is much greater and broader upon our school than if I would have tried to do the role of leading by myself. I reminded myself that as a leader our greatest role is to help others and we cannot take it personally when staff must move to a new position. We need to be happy for them and we can continue to help impact their journey. It is part of the work and leaders must focus on developing people, so next person up!
Challenge – Solving Societal Challenges
Schools have always been a place that is more than just academic learning but includes developing character, providing basic needs, supporting SEL and helping students/families have a place they feel safe/supported. It feels like this pressure for schools to be the ones to provide the support for all of society challenges has increased in recent years. While this is extremely important for schools to do, I struggle with “how” when we have so many other demands upon our plate. I recognize you cannot do everything and in fact, if you try to do too much you won’t accomplish anything at a high quality level. But, where do you start and what do you start with?
As I reflected, I reminded myself that as a leader, the support of our families/staff starts with me. I must take responsibility for those I serve, support and develop. I will not say that I understand what it feels as many people in our country are hurting right now, but I can listen, try to see different perspectives and work with everyone to see how we can help our school community be a place of inclusivity, value differences and provide equity for everyone in all aspects of our work. This is simply a starting point, but it is a start and I must be committed to the process and stay with the work so that everyone in our school community is heard and feels supported.
Challenge – Developing yourself as a leader among all other demands
As I shared earlier, the best way to improve your school is to make the staff better. But to do this, leaders must first improve themselves and this really takes intentional efforts with a focused vision on growth. The challenge is how do you find the time to do this when you are already spending enormous amounts of time away from your family to simply do the job. A famous saying goes “you cannot pour from an empty cup”. As a leader, if you do not have time to feel energized, spend doing things you enjoy and find time to grow yourself then you cannot help others develop. In addition, the challenge for many leaders, quite frankly, is they get caught up in the workload and get complacent and fall back to average as a leader. These are quality people who do care, they simply do not have awareness that growing as a leader is the most important part of their work. Over time, the management part of a school leader takes more of a priority over the leadership aspect. The leader gets stagnant and the school community plateaus as far as innovation. As a result, leading a school and growing as a leader is very isolating as it’s hard to find those like minded innovative leaders. As a result, the burnout rate of school leaders is very high and most principals only last for a few years in a school.
Recognizing the value of your growth is most important to help others develop as educators and that you must operate by core values to guide your work. How a person grows over time is simply by being consistent. Yes, it’s that simple – consistency. If someone is willing to devote a few hours a week to reading, connecting with others, reflecting upon their work, then they will grow as a leader over time. This takes an investment on your part and understanding the process is most important. As you learn, it’s important to find your core values or principles that guide your decision making as a leader. This helps to keep the focus on the right work, not necessarily doing the right things which is the managerial side of leadership. As you develop the core values then you can apply those to the staff you serve. Remember, true leadership is how you can apply your learnings to help influence others. I have been so fortunate to connect with other like minded leaders through Social media, within my district and other avenues that have been there to lift me up and to show me that there is a better way. This “better way” is by working with others and being relentless to find your tribe of like minded leaders and staying with them as you push each other towards greatness.
Challenge – Never feeling that my best is good enough
Perhaps it is my own insecurities or my desire to grow as a leader, but I have found many times over the years that I feel that I am not doing my job well enough. No one has said this, but it is how I feel. It probably doesn’t help as I see on social media where other leaders get applauded for work that we do as well but because they are within the right system or know the right people (my perceptions) they get the validation. This creates a sense of frustration and is in part why I think so many leaders burn out and leave the profession or the position. Everyone wants to be validated and if they do not get that support or appreciation, many leave or stop growing. They fall back to average.
I have tried to remind myself that I and other educators didn’t go into our work for the income or the awards but the outcome (helping people). I also remind myself that leading hard work is worthwhile, but it will feel like you are “running uphill” all the time as it’s constant work and struggle. But that is what makes it great – seeing how you can transform an average school setting into something positive for kids and great for everyone involved. In addition, I recognize that many people rarely just sit down and tell those they serve “I am proud of you”. So I asked myself “why should I not start that trend”? I recently did this with our teachers and in addition to writing hand written notes of appreciation. I think it made those staff and educators feel empowered, proud and positive. It also helped me gain a sense of pride, feel energized and reminded me of my purpose. I didn’t wait for someone to come to me, I went to those I serve and shared my appreciation as I wanted to make sure they knew how much I valued them. I have reminded myself that “the position doesn’t make the leader, the leader makes the position”. Each person has the opportunity to positively influence others and it is up to each of us what we do with that possibility.
True leadership occurs by intentional efforts when you work extremely hard to improve your own learning and that leads to an improved school. I would be curious about your thoughts of leading others or a school community and the struggles and feeling of isolation that occurs with that work and how you have overcome those challenges.
It is never too late to change or adapt to create something better. We owe that to our students and staff that we serve. Comment below or reach out to me so we can learn together and create a better and brighter future at firstname.lastname@example.org