Schools are back in session or are going to be in the next couple of weeks across the country. I will begin my sixth year as a building principal after spending two years as an assistant and seven in the classroom teaching third and fifth grades. The journey has been full of unpredictability, deep connections with people, challenging situations that have pushed me to be better, and an overall fantastic learning experience. I don't have too many answers or the "secret sauce" needed to be an effective educator; however, within this post, I will share three lessons I've learned to be my personal best.
People are doing the best they know how with the skills they possess
I have heard people say this in the past, but I'm not sure they actually believe it with their actions. People legitimately want the best for themselves and their children and do the best they know how with the skills they possess. When I first started teaching in the classroom, I am not proud to admit I often judged parents and families if assignments weren't returned or follow-up communication did not take place. I would often think, "What is wrong with this family, do they not care about their child, how could they possibly forget about returning the precious permission slip for the field trip?" Once I had children of my own in school, I started to realize how hard it is to juggle work, kids, school, sports, activities, and everything else that is happening in our world. We do the best we know how in the Butler household and many times we (I) forget to pay for the yearbook, are late to return library books, or prematurely judge others even when it isn't fair.
I have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people with unique personalities, work styles, values, and talents. Whether it is a teacher, community stakeholder, parent, support staff member, or administrator, there are people who I connect with quite naturally and others require more effort on my end. I do not always see eye to eye with people due to a number reasons such as a difference in priorities, lack of communication, or whatever the case might be. In the past year, I have been able to reduce my frustration in these challenging situations by simply saying to myself, "They are doing the best they know how." I have thought long and hard about this and believe it to be true. It changes my response dramatically and causes me to think a little deeper when something might not go the way I expected. Teachers, students, community members, and parents do the best they know how with the skills they posses. When we have this in our minds, we can take a more empathetic approach and start moving away from blame while getting closer to support, assistance, and understanding.
Vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness
One of the biggest mistakes I made as a young teacher and administrator was the belief that I had to have all of the answers. I remember preparing like crazy to have all of my lesson plans in line for the day, week, and month in my first year of teaching. I also tried to anticipate all of the potential questions my students might throw my way, as I wanted to prove to my class that I indeed had all of the answers and was certainly qualified to teach them. As I gained more experience and became more comfortable with my practice, I realized there were many questions my students would ask me and I had no idea how to answer them. Rather than pretend or provide them with a run around answer, I simply started to say, "I really don't know, but we can figure it out together." When I did this something amazing happened; my students gained more trust in me and our relationship was strengthened.
A few years later, I entered my first year as an assistant principal and felt the same way I did as a first year teacher. I felt like I had to have all of the answers and be perfect with every move. The last thing I wanted to do was appear weak or incompetent in front of our staff members. It wasn't until one of our veteran, superstar teachers pulled me aside in early February of my first year and went all Jerry Maquire on me and said, "Dan, help us, help you." I don't remember too much of the rest of the conversation, but I went home that evening and thought long and hard about how I was choosing to lead. Just like when I was teaching, when I behaved as if I had all the answers, I was creating a wall between our staff members.
We are surrounded by amazing people in our profession. I don't care where you work, there are tremendous educators within your space willing to do great things for students. As a leader, sometimes the most powerful thing is to simply step aside and say, "I need your help." I have been blown away by the creative ideas, intentional steps to shape culture, and impactful practices our people are able to implement when given the opportunity to lead. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability to take a step back and relinquish control whether we are leading a classroom or school. We learn a great deal from the people around us and have a collective responsibility to empower more leaders.
I'm just a...
We've all heard it. "If we updated our dismissal procedure, it would save us ten minutes at the end of the day which would allow more time to instruct...but what would I know, I'm just a paraprofessional." I've heard comments similar to this one more times than I can remember. In the past I have ignored these comments and not really done much with them. I have come to realize this is completely inappropriate and disrespectful to all people that serve students in our organization. No one is just an anything. We have different roles and responsibilities with the same objective: we are here to serve students and provide them with the best possible experiences. Whether you are a custodian, food service worker, principal, teacher, superintendent, curriculum coordinator, secretary, instructional coach, paraprofessional, or any other position within a school district, you have the opportunity to be a difference maker for kids.
I don't have all the answers, in fact, I have very few. I have learned a few lessons over the years that have shaped my beliefs and values as an educator. People do the best they know how with the skills they posses, being vulnerable adds to our collective power, and everyone contributes value to our organizations. My thoughts are simple and hopefully you can connect with a few of them.