I have been a public-school educator for 18 years. I started as a middle school language arts teacher and then moved into school leadership as an assistant principal. I’m now in my 11th year as a school leader, currently serving as an elementary school principal in Dublin.
My friend Amy and I meet every few months at Starbucks and chat, chat, chat. We yack like magpies, nursing our tea and comparing notes on all kinds of stuff. A lot of times, our conversation circles around our kids—because, above all other things, we really don’t want to screw up on the parenting thing.
“My daughter taught me something the other day,” she said. “I think you’ll like it.”
They’d had a huge teen-angst fight. The daughter raged. There had been some sort of slight, some misstep, some wrong thingAmy had done. It was an onslaught of it’s-not-fairand you-never-let-meand you’ll-never-understand.
Amy held it together as long as she could, but finally snapped back, succumbing by doing exactly what she always swears she won’t do—explain, rationalize, rant, and rage right back. Her daughter finally screamed, “Just. Stop. Talking, Mom!”
Amy stopped talking.
Recounting the moment for me, she confessed, “I kept thinking of the opening scene in Lady Bird. Awesome, awesome movie, by the way. The mother and daughter are driving somewhere, and they are fighting, and the daughter ends the argument by opening the door to the speeding car and throwing herself out.” The mother screams in terror and shock. It sets up the movie’s plot— an ongoing, relentless, terribly sad, unwinnable mother-daughter-love-hate battle.
Amy said she stood there in the kitchen with her daughter, both of them in miserable silence, and she kept thinking, Boomerang-style, of that movie, and the car door opening, and the kid tumbling out, and the mother’s terrified scream.
Then her daughter spoke.
Mom. Pause. Just because I’m angry with you doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.
“It was so honest, and so true,” Amy said. “It was the best apology she could offer to me right then. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”
In my job, it happens all the time. A teacher is mad at me because I’ve made a decision they don’t agree with. That doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong. A parent writes me a scathing email about a discipline decision. They’re mad at me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong. I offend someone with a word choice someone finds offensive, but it doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong. It's a regular occurrence at home, too: My children are furious at me, but I’ve not done anything wrong. In fact, sometimes they’re mad because, actually, I have done something right. Something reallyright.
For someone like me, who is uncomfortable being the recipient of another person’s anger, receiving misplaced anger is ongoing learning curve. I don’t know that I’ll ever actually master it. I’ll always prefer that no one be mad at me at all. But it helps to think I can accept the existence another person’s anger without taking responsibility for it. Which means, of course, I don’t have to try to fix it, or apologize for it, or try to make it go away. I can just let the anger sit there and do what it needs to do.
It’s something I’m going to try. Maybe, as with anything else, it will be another step in finding peace in what feels like an increasingly angry world.
I made up a word for this post. I turned "principal" into a present participle, because it really should be used in forming an active continuous tense. So: We are principaling, people, just like, for many of us, we are parenting and adulting and teaching.
I've been thinking of a close friend of mine. She's raising two teenagers. As many before her have learned, a woman can birth two children, and they can grow to be so drastically different that it feels they can’t possibly be related.
Same ingredients, same oven, different cakes. Really different cakes.
One of my friend's children is spending all his time overachieving. He is winning awards and focusing on being the.very.best.at.everything. The other is spending her time sabotaging herself and infuriating everyone in the vicinity. To honor my friend's privacy, I’ll not go into details. I'll just say this: My friend spends pretty much all her time trying to crack the code, trying to understand, trying to do the right thing.
No Answers Yet
Parenting the first child didn't seem difficult. Everything made sense. But it's worrisome, for my friend, how perfection seems the only goal.
The second child is challenging everything my friend thought she knew about kids, about love, about loyalty and commitment, about anxiety and depression, about medications and school systems and lawyers.
My friend has come to the conclusion she doesn't really know anything. She shrugs a lot. She send me this picture a few weeks ago. I've read every one of these, her text read.
Did it help? I responded.
We didn't discuss the photo-bomb wine, because it's super-funny, except it's not.
This photograph reminds me of the bookshelf I have in my office. It's stuffed with books, each one representing my attempt to crack the code of principalship.
Principaling. Parenting. Neither have a code (though that doesn't stop us from looking for it): There are too many ingredients. Time, demographics, effort, community, culture, history, nature, nurture, perhaps the way the wind blows and the stars align. Most people parent as they were parented, or they flip the narrative and parent in the precise opposite way they were parented. It makes sense, because pretty much everything we do in this world is related to something we've seen from others and our conscious decision to follow the model or eschew it.
Principals are in the unique situation of watching many different parenting styles and being challenged not to judge a single one of them. It gets more complicated when we, ourselves, are parenting and principaling. It's a recipe for second-guessing oneself pretty much nonstop. We have hundreds of models of students surrounding us every single day, we have the model of our family of origin, and we have the idea in our heads of how, and who, we want our children to turn out to be.
Here's something to think about: As parents and teachers and principals, we seek the impossible. We simultaneously want to protect children from pain and difficulty; we also want them to be tough and resilient. We can't have both, but we also can't end up with neither. We want a manual, knowing full well there isn't a manual. As educators, we see mistakes happening in action— parents who are going way too far one way or another, with kids take control of a household or forcing it to fold. We deal with the aftermath. Then we go home and try to parent the hell out of our kids, exhausted and overwrought with the stimuli of our day, and find that many days we're just hanging on, tight, until bedtime.
I say "we," but I really mean "me." I often use inclusive pronouns to make myself feel like part of a team.
There's lots of books out there, and there are a lot of Facebook groups, Twitter chats, blogs, and feeds. None can provide the answers for perfect parenting or perfect principaling.
But there is one thing: Getting up, stepping up, working our fingers off, and being fierce in our determination to do the next right thing.
I told this story to my friend William Parker as we recorded our upcoming podcast. *You can listen here for that podcast (and some other work we’ve done recently, and a whole slew of great stuff from Will).
What happened was so simple, and so surprisingly positive, and fun.
It started with an email from a kindergarten teacher to the rest of the staff. I have a roaster full of flour tortillas left over from a banquet at my daughter’s school, she wrote. I also have tons of cheese and lettuce. I’ll leave it in the lounge. Bring your own taco filling and you’ll have lunch!
I clicked “Reply.” I’ll bring a crock pot full meat for filling!
Not three minutes later, another email came in from a teacher named John. I have a jar of salsa and a small tub of sour cream.
And then, from a particulary witty teacher: Hey, John. I see your jar of salsa and small amount of sour cream. I’m raising the stakes. I’m bringing mild salsa, some hot sauce, and 2 cans of tri-blend beans.
I hustled to the grocery for onions, peppers, seasoning, and about 20 pounds of ground beef. The emails kept coming. By lunchtime the next day, we had a full spread. All the standard things, of course, but also sliced avocados, quartered limes, chopped tomatoes, olives, chopped cilantro, diced onions, and bags and bags of tortilla chips. People had raided their refrigerators, or made a quick stop at the grocery store, or scanned their cabinets for whatever even-slightly-taco-ish items they could find and plopped it down. Playful Amber even put two empty plastic pitchers with a sign: “Imaginary margaritas!!!!!!!!”
It was a full-on flash Mexican buffet.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—we all know feeding people is a great way to lift morale and make them happy. Especially for teachers (like me) who abhor packing a lunch. But this was better than a standard catered meal, because it was a communal effort Anyone could come to eat. Or not. They could bring food. Or not. There was no expectation, mandate, guilt, or goal. Everyone did what they wanted, what they could, what they felt like doing. Or not.
It was a great day. The positive mood filtered into the air, somehow, as though this was exactly what we'd needed, at this time, for—and with— one another.
Teacher lounges are funny places. I love and hate them, in the same way I love and hate—oh, I don't know. Zoos. Laundromats. Tire stores. Stories are found there, that's fo sho. Lots of stories. I’ve always thought it would be a great project to collect stories from teachers’ lounges across the country, in the same spirit as Humans of New York. The laughter, the anxiety, the therapy, the human connections. The friendship and awkward silences. The way substitutes are treated. The coffee pot, the toaster, the random Sweet-and-Low envelopes mixed in with salt packets. There is a disgusting microwave, mismatched plates, random collections of cutlery, cabinets full of random-origin chipped coffee mugs. Hundreds of different chunks of napkins left from hundreds of parent-teacher-conference night dinners.
And the food—oh, the food. All day long, all year long, there are meals, breakfast and lunch and dinner and everything in between. There is a steady stream of leftovers, forgotten tidbits left in the refrigerator to die—expired salad dressings, wilted lettuce, blackblackblack bananas, yogurt with an expiration date of 1992. It isn't atypical for people to bring leftovers from home to share, or bring things they don't want in their cabinets any longer. They drop all kinds of things in the lounge, sometimes pre-announced with an email and sometimes just left on a table for communal consumption. A half sheet cake from a child’s birthday party. A tray of sandwiches from a graduation. A box of Valentine’s chocolates. Last month, someone left an entire case of Shakeology from the BeachBody Diet. I chuckled at that one. Abandoned goals, I guess.
Teachers' lounges have the reputation as being toxic places, but they don't have to be. They can be awesome places, too. Ours is tiny. Not everyone can fit—not by a long shot. It's old and shaped awkwardly. But it's a classic shared space. Everyone has to walk through to get to the mailboxes and the refrigerators. It is full of stories and laughter and human connection. It is the place an entire Mexican-food buffet can pop up. It is a place of give a little, take a little, leave a little, have a little.
When my grandfather was very ill, the doctor came in the hospital room to explain to my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt how he was responding to their medical interventions. I was there, too, hesitant and wordless in the corner, hoping to help in some way—if only as another heart in a room full of broken ones.
We had no idea what the doctor was saying. He talked and talked and talked, but his words were like a jumbled box of Legos—we knew they could be put together, if we really tried, and they’d amount to something legitimate. But we didn’t try: It was easier to let them land, scattered, and then be still.
In the end, of course, the doctor was trying to tell us that my grandfather was old and sick and dying. On some level we understood this, even without the Lego words. But he didn’t say it. He seemed unwilling—or, more likely, unable—to use words we could understand. Perhaps he wanted to soften the truth for us, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.
We needed him to say it. It would have helped, because it could have taken our hope to a different place, where it could bring peace, and relief, and a long-awaited celebration of a man and his well-lived life.
Sometimes I fear we do the same in education. The stakes aren’t as high as those of a physician standing over the grief of a dying patient’s family—not by any stretch—but we educators, too, often falter when we try speaking the truth.
Last year, at a leadership conference in Boston, one of my session’s attendees stayed afterwards to talk. He wanted my insight after an off-the-cuff remark I’d made about the unintentional consequences of complicated conversations. He was only in his eighth month of being a principal, and he admitted he was floundering. "I really struggle with sharing bad news," he said, especially when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations. “I find myself apologizing, talking quickly, contradicting myself,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll be midway through my speech and realize the parent is confused—they have no idea what I’m trying to say.” His instinct was to forge on, but: “When I get to the part about consequences, and I refer to the Student Code of Conduct, it gets really serious, really fast—they are angry and shocked, and I realize everything I’d said leading up to that moment was wasted.
We talked a long time. I understood his frustration. We all do, I think. Later, on the plane home, I thought of three main reasons us educators avoid saying really hard things to parents about their kids.
We don’t know how to say it. Since we never know whether a parent will support us or fight us, we often don’t know how to approach our message. Because we are well trained, we know what we should say. We use words like “support” and “struggling” and “poor choice.” But oftentimes those words don’t capture the difficulty or gravity of the scenario we are trying to address.
Fear that we’re wrong. Just like the doctor who didn’t say, “Your grandfather is dying,” we often avoid telling parents tough things about their kids. We don’t want to say, “Your child can’t read” or “I am out of ideas to help her,” or “His behaviors are frightening others.” Even typing those words here makes my fingers quiver, because I’ve been so trained not to say things that may cause hurt or wrath. We all have. And… what if we are wrong? What if there was a false accusation and our investigation was faulty? What if the problem actually lies with us, or the teacher, or our school structure, or how we have connected to the child? What if our professional judgment is off kilter?
Fear of the response. A few months ago, a principal pal of mine called a parent, one he knew to be volatile and accusatory, quick to defect blame to anyone and anything else. He had to tell her about a scuffle involving her son. Dialing, he felt sick. His hands shook. The moment he said the word “scuffle,” she interrupted him with an unstoppable rant. In the end, he was called names (“racist,” “incompetent,” and “bully” being the most hurtful of the lot), he was threatened, and he was left holding a dead phone line. With that kind of treatment, no wonder he was scared to tell her the truth. No wonder we all have felt—feel?—that way.
So what do we do? There isn’t a simple answer here, unfortunately. The best we can do is acknowledge and understand the quandary we’re in. We need to be honest but kind; we have a desire to help without hurting; we speak to an audience that might, or might not, be open to hearing the whole story in the first place. We do our best. We choose our words carefully and confidently. We leave ourselves open to feedback and the inevitable emotional responses. We admit when we are wrong. We forge on, learning more each time we say something difficult. That's what my grandfather's doctor did. His best. And in the end, it was okay, and we understood, and we knewhe’d done his best.
That’s all we can do, no? And as we stumble through missteps and mistakes as principals—communication being part of the package—we get better, each time, at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise. We get closer and closer to our goal: To speak the truth, and speak it well.
What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication? What serves as a "body language" or words, helping us really connect to others beyond the dry sequence of formal words?
Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."
Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language. They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with. English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:
Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean? Just sayin'.
"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says. She's right. I've heard that done. But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles: They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."
I like a good conversational nudge. A secret little word poke. When words become a facial expression. It's fun.
When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations. "Listen to yourself," he said. I did. He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.
Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself. Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.
Sorry, linguists: I don't believe particles destroy the beauty of our language. I don't think it is lazy to use, them, and I don't think it makes me inarticulate when I do. Like most words or phrases, they can be fancied up and used perfectly—at the perfect place, time, pause, or thrust of conversation— to enhance meaning and drive a point home. A good particle makes the listener or reader grin in recognition.
Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness. After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words. Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?
It's super-cool. Truly.
*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker. The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.
A mentor of mine once told me, "Every five or ten years, you'll have one that feels you might not survive." That's this year for me.
So I'm writing a pep-talk blog post. The pep talk may be for you, or it may be for me, or maybe both. In the end, it doesn't matter—just so it serves a purpose for one of us.
This year's relentless array of challenges have grown almost comical. Every single time I think there will be a quiet day, I'm blasted with an out-of-left-field problem I didn't see coming. I've also felt cold for five straight months; there aren't enough sweatshirts to take it away. My skin feels like a crinkled, worn parchment. My house is crumb-y and my clothes all look the same. Rut, rut, rut.
There should be some sort of law that if you live in Ohio, you go somewhere warm as winter wanes. For a day or two, even. That's all.
My sister lives in Mexico City. Almost on a whim, my husband and I packed up our kids, tank tops, and sun hats, and flew there to see her and her family. We spent three full days drinking in the stories of this rich, layered city. We were buoyed, giddy: The colors! The sun! The blue of the sky! For breakfast the first day, my niece squished up a fresh avocado and spread it on thick wheat toast with a drizzle of spicy sauce on top. I ate it every day, and have eaten it every day since. I stepped back from myself and pictured an energy tank that was filling, filling, filling up.
Seasonal depression is a real thing, methinks. I'm a relentlessly positive person, but there were many days this winter I wondered, "What is wrong with me?" Blech and ick and meh and blah.
A few weeks ago, I presented to a group of principals about ways to avoid burnout. The topic itself was an irony not lost on me, since there I was, presenting as some sort of expert, and I felt—had been feeling— like a wet, bedraggled rat trying to scurry and scrape my way out of dirty depths of seasonal doldrums. I felt like a fraud: Who had thought I could talk on avoiding burnout?
I started by being really honest about the internal fights of frustration in my own mind, reminding them multiple times, "I don't have answers. I can only offer validation." I felt the audience really sitting up. Putting down their phones and closing their laptops. Agreeing and relating. When I finished, one raised his hand. "Why don't principals feel like they can talk about their dark times?"
We kept talking and talking, long after the session was scheduled to end, as we tried to answer his question.
"We have to be the strong ones."
"We're not paid to have bad days."
"There is no time to wallow."
"Everything just moves too quickly."
"We need to be unbreakable."
All these things are valid. And it wouldn't be right or fair or productive to try to find a way out or around them. We are paid to be the strong, positive, confident ones. That's why we are leaders. It's just what we need to do.
And, as they say, if we look around and see no one following, we're not leading. If we're grumpy, we're making everyone else grumpy. And that's not okay.
So let's pull our bootstraps—yank them, if needed—and bust through this month. Stay strong, my Midwest friends. The sun is coming out soon. It's a promise, promise, promise!
**This, by the way, is a photograph of a tree we saw when walking to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. I look at the colors and gasp a little. This tree alone may be enough to get through
I really should get to the work of writing down things my father says. He is wise.
Today he told me this:
“A lot of people don’t really have any meaningful capacity to solve their own problems. They just wallow around in them, flail around in them, blame them on somebody else, ignore them, run from them, and of course misidentify them.”
He remembers becoming aware, and horrified, somewhere around the age of 20, that no matter what, problems were going to keep coming. “When I solved one, there would be another one right behind it."
When he'd been a kid, no one had ever mentioned that troublesome little detail about, you know... life.
It was shocking, and depressing. Rather than pout about it (which, incidentally, would be a common and reasonable and common), he decided to go ahead and approach this realization, and thus, yes, life, by attacking problems as they came, fast and fierce, so he’d be ready for the next one. And he decided to do it that way because, he reckoned, if he didn’t, he would ultimately and inevitably be overwhelmed, swamped, and hopelessly stuck. And he didn’t want that.
These are all his words, by the way. This his how he thinks. Logical. Rational.
He says he decided, all those years ago, to make it a goal to choose the type of problems he’d have to deal with. His thinking was characteristically linear: If he found life work he enjoyed, the constant stream of problems coming his way would likely be related to things he liked. Right? It didn’t always work flawlessly, of course, because we can’t completely control such things. But control wasn’t the point. Increasing the odds that he’d enjoy the inevitable lifelong stream of problems—that was the point. So he focused on a life of doing what he enjoyed, which was build houses, run his hay and sheep farm, raise his kids, help people, and write music into songs so sweet they could—can— silence a room.
I’d wager most people never figure out about accepting and attacking problems. They're too busy being pissed the problems even exist to actually get to solving them.
Instead, they want someone else to solve them.
Thank goodness, I suppose, because that’s what I get paid a nice salary to do.
It’s Groundhog Day, which is a good day to think about this. It’s the point, actually. Problems come and keep coming and keep coming. All life long. It’s like cleaning the house. It’s never, ever, ever done. Ever. I mean, it gets done, constantly, but then people come home and live here. So then it starts over again.
"Make sure your kids know this," my father advised. "Children should grow up knowing problems will keep on coming, and they have a choice in whether they like the type of problems that come. The only way to get through life is to attack, attack, attack the problems."
Blogging the truth is impossible for a school principal. 90% of the stuff I want to cover really can't be told publicly, because most of it someone else's story, and, perhaps more importantly, all the stories are somehow tied to a kid—and I won't write about kids in any way that could be negatively misunderstood or misconstrued.
I could fictionalize some of the stuff, I guess, but that doesn't really work, because, you know, people aren't stupid.
The passage of time helps; I could write about some of the things I experienced years ago. The question becomes: How far back is safe? A decade? Certainly a decade. Right?
Actually... Probably not.
I guess I'm trying to blog without controversy. Which is a lot like trying to eliminate stress: It sounds do-able enough, right up until you try it.
A close friend of mine got another job last week. It's a really good job— his dream job. He will be teaching and heading up a department at a prestigious university. His days will soon take on a different pace, pressure, and pull. It won't be better or worse, necessarily—just a different universe for a guy who's worked his entire career as a public school teacher and administrator. I envy him. He's starting over, and he can take what he's seen and help others learn from it openly and honestly. I'm jealous, in the good-jealous way; I am so happy for him I could pop. I'm glad he gets to do this thing. He deserves it more than any human being on earth, and I'm rooting for him with all of the luck-bones in my body. Not that he needs it.
Thinking about his new job reminded me of my consolation prize about not being able to blog the real truth about being an educator. Even when things happen for teachers and principals we can't write about (especially on a public blog, of all things), there is intense learning in all of them, and they deserve to be told to others as learning tools. All of my "day-in-the-life stories" tend to percolate inside my brain, and I'll often ask myself: "What happened here that holds value in making me a better principal? Is there something others can learn from it? How can the story be changed to honor privacy but still demonstrate an important learning point?"
That's why I tell versions of stories to my graduate students. They come to class after a loooong day of teaching, all slumpy and dull-eyed. Their backpacks and bags thump heavy on the floor next to their desks. This time of year, it's dark and gray and slushy, too, which is squelches the positivity of... well, anyone. Which is why I always open class with, "I have a reallllllllly good one for you today..."
They sit up. They attend. They relate—their arms raise with a question or a story of their own, or they explain a similar experience. We spend a chunk of time breaking it all apart: How was the situation handled? Did things turn out well or was the whole thing bungled? What could have changed its course? Stories grab my students' attention and, conveniently, demonstrate the applicability to key points on my syllabus.
There is so. much.to.be.learned. from stories. So while I don't tell them here on this blog, they really are my best teaching tool. With character names changed, and a few key detailed altered for privacy, I can give a story a brand new purpose and plan, multiplying its scope into supercharged real-life learning.
Not long ago, I was overboard on frustration and irritation; everything grated on me, and I felt very off-balance. I couldn’t quite get myself together. I was stumbling— and I knew it.
That’s progress, by the way: Sometimes, when I’m in a bad place, I spend a great deal of energy hissing to myself, “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Until I believe it, or it actually comes true, or life smothers the issue. It's only later I realize how not fine I'd been.
This time, knowing I was off-kilter, I made the conscious decision to just keep on keepin’ on. Everything balances out, no?
I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store, somewhere between the Oreos and the Cheez-its. We did the “how-are-you” thing.
When it was my turn to answer, I shrugged. “It’s not an easy time of year,” I said.
“Oh, I know!” She exclaimed. “You know what you should do?”
“No, seriously. This really works,” she said. “You should get a gratitude journal, and write in it every day. Just one thing. Then, when you’re feeling down, read all the things you have to be grateful for. It will fix you right up.”
Let me tell you this: When things are challenging, and someone tells me to take a moment and feel gratitude, or—worse—to pull out my journal and count my blessings, I want to punch something.
Gratitude doesn’t work like that. Not for me, anyway. I can’t flip a switch from genuine frustration or anxiety to—click!—instant, genuine gratitude for all the good things. I can’t flush negative feelings easily, and I certainly can’t seamlessly float from unhappy places to happy places.
Gratitude, for me, has to be built when everything doesn’t suck. Recently, when taking a walk, there was a just-right-moment: My mind was calm, my body felt good, the sunset was breath-stopping, my children were riding ahead on their bikes, and my husband said something super-funny—I had to stop walking so I could appropriately hoot. In that moment, it washed over me: I am so, so, so lucky.
The feeling was extra-powerful because it was genuine, not just something I’d mustered up to replace something else. And not because it was long or earth-shaking. It was just real, is all.
Another thing I think about when I feel crappy: O ur school librarian sees every student in our school on a four-day rotation. One of the things I appreciate most about his work is the genuine connection he makes with his students with simple conversation. He doesn’t just say, “How was your day?” He asks them what is happening, how they feel about it, and how they react to challenges. He uses what they say to teach something important—not in a lecture-y way, but just asking the students to think about how their action and reaction contribute to their attitude. A few weeks ago, I heard him talk about bad days. “When things are hard, is it because you had a hard day—or because you had a hard five minutes?” He wants them to identify the difference. Because it's an important distinction. If there are 17,000 minutes in a day, and only a fraction of those are icky, there’s certainly time to embrace the good that came to us in the other thousands of minutes.
Gratitude is a cycle—it emerges, it fades, and it emerges again.
I like to grab it when it’s there and, when it’s not, wait. For me, it can’t be forced. But time will bring it back around.
If I feel it, and share it, then I feel it again. It’s a nice promise that comes from universe, no?
In a recent New Yorker profile, Hollywood supertalent Sam Mendes discussed the challenge of being a director, particularly in the beginning of a career. “Actors see directors work all the time. Directors see precisely no directors at work.”
I read that line a hundred times. I freakin' love it, with a key word substitution, of course: Principals see precisely no principals at work. (*Side note: I love Mendes's use of the word precisely. Geek-out moment for word-loving me).
There are a couple places I’d like to dig here.
First, by the time principals get their first job and first office, they’ve seen the work of one or two, mayyyyyybe three principals. If they are later in their career, they may have seen a couple more. But then— it’s over. As soon as they get their own keys, they will see precisely no more principals at work. They’ll have a lot of collegial meetings with other principals, may even be lucky enough to have some sort of mentorship-visitation-thing going on with another principal, but that’s not the same—oh, Lordy, so not the same—as seeing one at work. At real work.
Another thing to consider: Like actors working with directors, teachers see principals work all the time. They are right smack in the center of all principal decisions; they live and breathe alongside the principal's approach to challenges and celebrations. They have a lot to gain from a strong principal— and a lot to lose from a weak one. Their emotions and pride and livelihood are wrapped up together and knotted tight with what's happening with the principal.
Like actors and directors.
Students and parents see principals work, too, though they are the movie-goers in this analogy. They don't know everything that happened in the making of the movie, but they experience the end result. They like it or they hate it. Actors and movie-goers are hard-wired to evaluate and whisper their judgments and reproaches about the director. It's perfectly socially acceptable to blast a director.
Similarly, for students and teachers and parents, it's perfectly acceptable to blast a principal.
They can't win, what with the constant judgment and censure. I'm allowed to say that, because I'm one of them.
The impossibility of it all, for us principals, is that criticism is based on emotional reactions to limited information. I did it myself when I was a teacher: Bolstered by the energy in the lounge, I'd sniff at decisions my principal made. In climbing up on that critical high horse, though, I had about ten percent of the information I needed. It's not just the factual information I lacked—it was stuff about school climate, parent pressure, priorities, even the bone-deep weariness my principal was undoubtedly feeling.
All those things can make what seems like a boneheaded decision make, like, a lot of sense.
If I had a dime for the times I’ve gotten criticism for a discipline determination, a poorly planned meeting, a poor word choice, even a lapse in composure—? Sheesh. I've heard it from everyone and anyone watching from many degrees removed, anyone who has a free pass to criticize that which doesn't make visible sense. Denigrate with gossip and speculation and snippy, snappy commentary—all just out of my earshot.
Noteworthy: Every single principal I've ever met, from near and far, has one thing in common: Trying their very best. Noteworthy: No principal I've ever met, anywhere, did better work because of the whispered scorn or disparagement. Noteworthy: Principals are a hopeful bunch. We'll keep on keeping on, even knowing we can't see one another work or learn from one another, and we'll deflect the naysayers and stay focused on the work of helping kids. Alllllll noteworthy.
With four weeks left until holiday break, it's going to be a tough month. December is never easy. For my principal brethren, I wish you all a good month of strength and composure. And precisely no hurtful, unhelpful criticism.