As principals, we all face similar challenges on the job: building school climate, maintaining staff morale, and keeping up with advancements in curriculum in pedagogy, just to name a few. But there is one challenge we hardly ever talk about––the isolation. It’s lonely at the top.
There’s only one principal
Unlike teachers and staff, there’s only one of you in the building. You can’t go down to the faculty room and ask the crowd what you should do about frequent teacher absences. You can’t ask someone else what to do about the rubber dagger one of your ninth graders brought to school. And most of the time, you can’t join your staff at happy hour and share war stories over a beer. The buck stops at your desk and it’s clear that the tough decisions are yours to make. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to make them alone.
You’re not the Lone Ranger
I’ve known some principals who had absolute confidence in their own decisions and never felt the need to consult with anyone. They were not the administrators I admired most. In her book, Fearless Leadership, Loretta Malandro identifies 10 behavioral blind spots that can derail leaders. She puts “going it alone” at the top of the list.
The most successful principals I’ve met seek out other professional opinions and advice when faced with complex problems or knotty issues. They put together a team whose judgment they respect, whose candor they value, and whose confidentiality they can count on. They bring in key staff members to voice their expertise before they set new policies or make big decisions.
At the same time, principals who lead with strength are comfortable reaching out to their peers. They go to conferences to hear new ideas. And they connect with other principals in their district who understand the system and the challenges. Finding that principal colleague who shares your philosophy and can be your sounding board can help you make better decisions and feel less alone.
We all have our weak spots
Mary Kay Sommers, a former principal and president of the NAESP sees emotional intelligence as a key job skill for school leaders. By cultivating their EI skills, she writes, “principals can prevent emotional hijacks, inspire others to lead, influence different ways of thinking, manage conflicts to avoid negative impacts, and build collaborative teams.” We all have opportunities for growth. Having another leader to talk to or a strong team within your school to reflect with can help you bring clarity to issues and let go of your own baggage.
As a principal, I routinely asked a buddy of mine who was the administrator at a nearby school to look over sensitive emails before I sent them. I wanted to make sure my communication was professional and clear and did not veer into emotional territory. Sometimes, my buddy said, “Sure, send it.” But other times she said, “You better delete that one and try again.”
We often talked over personnel issues to figure out a new approach in order to keep from making a difficult situation worse. And my buddy was the one who reminded me that our students read Julius Caesar in ninth grade and that might be the reason for the rubber dagger. (She was right.)
Becoming a better decision maker
Reading professional articles and attending conferences to see what other principals are thinking about is a step in the right direction. and keeping up on current readings open your mind to other points of view. But developing an principal buddy or two, who can immediately give you support and honest feedback, is absolutely invaluable.
It’s time to find your professional bff.
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