I just finished reading the book, The Caring Warrior by Tim (T.J.) Jones, and although it was written from a perspective in the business world, it made me reflect on my years as a building and district leader. One of the things that I always prided myself on was having an “open door” policy to my staff. I made sure that I communicated to them that I was always available to chat about their successes, their challenges, or just when they may need to vent. Through the years, many of my staff made use of my open door to share professional stories, and also personal ones of which they thought I needed to be aware. However, to truly be a caring leader, one needs to go beyond just being a good listener, or cheering up the staff by announcing a jeans day on a Friday. As I read through Mr. Jones’s book, I thought about the things that I had done, and learned some things that I certainly could have done better during my days as a semi fearless principal.
I always appreciated my first building principal for one simple reason. He always considered himself a teacher. In fact, one day as I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge grading papers, he came in, quickly took part of my stack, broke out his double sided pencil/pen (the kind with blue and red ink), and started in on checking the Social Studies quizzes I had just given that morning. I noticed that he wasn’t just making checks and marking the dreaded red “x’s”, but he was actually taking the time to write specific feedback to students. While his act of kindness showed me a multitude of things, my principal proved to me on that afternoon that he was part of the team and not just simply the head of it. He walked the walk, and this was something that I had never forgotten. When it was my turn to be the principal of that very same building, I made sure that my staff knew that I was first a teacher, and I was part of the team of educators in our school. When we conducted Response to Intervention (RTI) meetings (before they were known as RTI meetings) to grade common assessments, I made sure that both me and my assistant joined them in the exercise. We graded the assessments, and participated in the conversation about them that followed. Afterwards, some of the staff jokingly left papers for us to grade, but the word quickly got around the district, “Our principals help us.”
This same principal also taught me to trust the teachers. “Find out where we need to go, help show them how to get there, and then let them have at it,” was what he said to me. As a teacher, I can remember what our instructional mission was – to get every student on grade level in reading, and get them to know their math facts inside and out so they could solve multistep problems. The professional development we received was presented to us from both outside resources, but also involved us as the current teachers. When implementing a new strategy from those sessions, our principal would informally walk through our classrooms and talk to the students. At the end of 10 or 15 minutes, he had left a positive sticky note on our teacher’s desk about what he saw. He would occasionally follow that praise with a statement that began with, “Have you considered…”, which was meant to get us thinking. Never did he schedule formal observations during this trial time, but he made sure to give us feedback both individually and as a staff during our monthly gatherings. I used this same way of encouraging staff to be part of the staff development, and give them time to try it out. I would ask staff to let me know when they were trying something new, and I made sure to drop by with sticky notes. It is crucial to provide specific training to teachers to best meet the needs of our students, but it’s also critical to give them the autonomy to teach. Don’t get me wrong here, I was in classrooms, but it was not to give teachers feedback on a school or district created form. Of course, I dutifully completed the required evaluations, but my most important feedback to them was within the 3 by 3 colored square of a sticky note. I trusted them to do their job as a teacher, and I gave them room to do it.
I was also fortunate to be appointed as the “Lead Teacher” by my second principal. Upon taking the helm, he took the time to schedule an individual meeting with each of us over the summer prior to the school year beginning. While part of these meetings was for him to communicate what our school was going to be about over the coming years, he also asked about us. During his conversation with me, he discovered that I was almost finished with completing my masters in school leadership. Mid way through his first year as a principal, he informed me that he had received approval for me to take on a newly created role of Lead Teacher, which was pretty much a substitute principal when he was out of the building. There was no stipend attached to this role, but the experience I received taking on this responsibility was invaluable. So when I was appointed principal several years later, I scheduled individual meetings with staff to lay out what our stamp on the building was going to be during my tenure, but I used this opportunity to get to know them. Those that had leadership aspirations were given opportunities to be grade level leads, take on a professional development initiative, or attend a training and disseminate the information to the rest of us. I am proud to say that after I left the role of building principal, several of my teachers have gone on to be successful principals themselves, or even district level leaders. Get to know your staff, and train them to take over.
I point out the three examples of being a caring leader from the previous paragraphs because they are parallel with the ideas presented in Mr. Jones’s book. My personal stamp on being a caring leader is to be there for them. I laughed and cried with my staff. We became family, and we were incredibly good at what we did. Families in need came to us when they needed help. Visitors would comment that the staff genuinely loved kids. I never had a shortage of substitutes because parents of our students made up the majority of our substitute list. They wanted to be in our school. In fact, I ended up hiring three parents as teachers, and they were phenomenal. One is currently an assistant principal in a neighboring district, and she is fantastic at what she does.