Principal Helpline: “How Do I Learn to Take Criticism Less Personally?”

It’s them, not you.

new principal advice

Q

I’ve been a principal for 5 years and  I’ve learned a lot along they way. But one thing I know I have a hard time with is taking criticism personally. After a particularly contentious meeting, either with a parent or a staff member, it’s hard to believe that some of their criticism wasn’t meant personally. How do I get better at keeping my own feelings out if it.

A

I can’t even guess how many times in my administrative career, after a particularly tough interaction with a parent or a staff member, someone in my office would say to me, “Hey, don’t take it personally.”

Usually I was still steaming from the encounter I had just had, and I had a dull headache from staying calm and maintaining professional courtesy in an unpleasant situation.  Don’t take it personally? What does that even mean?

I had one memorable parent whose kid was chronically disrespectful and disruptive, but who defended her child’s behavior and disputed any consequences I doled out.  The last straw was when he pushed another student into the closed door of the freight elevator, tilting the door into the shaft, knocking the elevator off its track, and trapping two custodians inside for a couple of hours until the elevator repairman arrived.

I suspended the kid until we could arrange a hearing. The mother was beside herself. “Where was the teacher?” she asked.  “Why wasn’t someone watching him?”

When she left my office I hoped no one could see the smoke coming out of my ears. “Hey,” my assistant principal said, “don’t take it personally.”

“What?” I said. “What are you talking about? She just called me an idiot!”

He gently nudged me back into my office and closed the door. “Here’s the thing. She would have called me an idiot or anybody else an idiot who disciplines her son.  It’s not personal to you. She would act the same way no matter who was in your position.”

Oh, I thought. She would have treated anyone in my position exactly the same. Sooooo… maybe it’s not about all about me.

This was an “AHA” moment for me. It meant that whoever was principal, whoever was insisting that teachers meet certain standards or kids behave appropriately–WHOEVER was doing those things–would be the target of criticism. It wasn’t personal to me.

I would like to say after this experience, I never took things personally again. That would not be true, but I did become a bit more thick-skinned.  And that’s a condition that’s helpful to administrators in order to stay calm and professional under fire.

Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more conversation about and insights into the challenges of school leadership.

Suzanne Tingley

Posted by Suzanne Tingley

Suzanne Tingley has been a middle/high school teacher, department chair, principal, and superintendent. She taught graduate classes in education administration for the State University of New York. She developed a series of education videos and has been a Scholastic Administrator blogger.