One interaction at a time develops positive school culture. I want people to embrace the discomfort that comes with growth, take risks, and ask questions that propel us.
Creating this kind of environment does not happen by accident. If the goal is to create an atmosphere where innovation, growth, and change are embraced, school leaders must be intentional. Here are three ways to do this important but subtle work:
1. Name Your Mistakes
Talk about your mistakes for the well-being and growth of your faculty. While it’s hard to admit to moments when you may have misstepped, admitting to mistakes and using them to frame your growth can have powerful impact on the community you serve. When you speak about challenges that you wish you had handled differently, you give your colleagues space to be imperfect, and that can be an importantly catalyst for change.
I started my professional life as an English teacher and i loved it. But as an administrator, instead of talking to my staff about how awesome I am at teaching The Great Gatsby (ask me any time about that scene with the shirts!), there’s more to be gained from sharing about how I struggled with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My openness about how I wish I would have handled certain aspects of those classroom conversations differently highlights the messy imperfection of the work we do, and in my sharing, I can shape how my community understands mistakes. Mistakes, risks, and professional growth are normalized when leaders are willing to speak about experiences when they didn’t quite clear the challenge in front of them.
2. Be Human
Outside the walls of your school, you are a person with a life, and in the chaos of the school day, it can be hard to remember that. However, your humanity is your best and most important currency at school. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg writes, “Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all professional and it is all personal.”
For me, bringing my whole self means talking about my family, my friends, and the things I enjoy outside of my work. Giving voice at the lunch table to the nervousness I feel about my son starting kindergarten this year reminds others that I’m a real person, and the personal stories that are shared with me helps me see others beyond the role they play as professionals. These bonds are priceless and help carry tension when things get hard.
3. Make Room at the Table
In my teacher education program, a professor once gave me this pearl of wisdom. She said, “Don’t ever ask a question that you already know the answer to.” This scared me because I already worried about not knowing my teaching content. Asking questions I didn’t know the answer to seemed like a recipe for disaster. She was right. The more open my questions, the more creative, generative, and thought-provoking student answers tended to be. When you make room at the table, you create a dinner table experience instead of a drive thru one.
As an administrator, you already know that you don’t have answers to every problem in your school community. But, you have something even more powerful: the ability to grow the leadership of your team through guided inquiry. In other words, ask questions, and let your community answer. You may have a vision for the work ahead of you. You must also be flexible enough to allow others to figure out how they want to operationalize that vision. The benefit is that when you take advantage of the expertise of your colleagues, you create ownership and collaboration that improves experiences for the students you serve.
Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more conversation about and insights into the challenges of school leadership.