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Administration & Leadership

How School Leaders Can Build Realistic Optimism This Year

Amid the challenges of the past two years, a superintendent shares the four-step process he used to step back from his breaking point.

November 24, 2021
Teachers in a meeting
Allison Shelley / American Education

I bottomed out in the early fall. I had recently spent some time with a friend who worked outside of education. When I went through my recent experiences of getting yelled at while grocery shopping and having people chastise me as I was eating breakfast with my kids, and showed him some social media posts, he simply shook his head. A few moments later, he offered me a job. I chuckled. He didn’t. Lunch ended and he asked me to think about it.

And for the first time in my career as superintendent of schools for the Meridian School District in Illinois, I did. For years, I really believed that I had the best job in the world, but at that moment any other job seemed better than the one I had. On the entire rainy drive home, that offer was all I thought about.

Then, almost serendipitously, my phone rang.

A principal I coach was on the other line. She was clearly on the verge of her breaking point. I could relate. She was days, if not minutes, away from throwing her keys on the desk and walking out without looking back.

I started the pep talk. I asked the probing questions. I provided suggestions. The call ended. She was in a better place—but I was in a better place as well. In that moment, I realized that I needed to hear everything I had said—potentially more than the person I was trying to coach.

My point is, it seems we’ve all hit what feels like our rock bottom at one time or multiple times throughout the course of the pandemic. First, wherever you are right now is perfectly fine. Struggling—that’s OK. Thriving—good for you, keep it up. The only thing not acceptable is resigning yourself to staying in a bad place and thinking there’s no way forward.

Below are the four insights that helped pull me from the darkest place I’ve been in during my career, and I hope they can be useful for you.

1. Realization

When his team was struggling, Boston Celtics head coach Rick Pitino once started a rant to the media acknowledging the difficulties and providing a dose of realism by saying, “Larry Bird [all-time-great Celtic] is not walking through that door, fans.”

I share this anecdote because as educators we must start to accept that easier is not walking through that door anytime soon. Two questions clarify this point.

  • Ask any veteran teacher or principal when the demands of the job become easier. In my experience they can’t answer, because as their personal skills continue to develop, the job continues to morph into a more difficult enterprise.
  • What could the local school board, state officials, or federal government enact or decide immediately that would make this year easier? The answer is most likely nothing. I ask myself this question frequently because there are things I’d like to see done differently and it’s easy for me to complain about them. But in the end, the only path forward is likely the one we forge individually.

2. Articulation 

Once I acknowledged that I was my single best hope to pull myself from this funk, I had renewed agency, but I still didn’t feel better—about anything. The next step I took did make me feel better.

I decided to be vulnerable and honest. I spoke my truth to my board and leadership team. I shared exactly where I was, both mentally and emotionally. I wasn’t in an emotional state, so I could communicate rationally, but I was brutally honest.

Two things happened immediately. I received a tremendous amount of support and recognition of my vulnerability. This helped. But not as much as the next development. I simply felt about six inches taller with the weight I had been bearing now lifted by speaking my truth to the universe.

To move forward, we first have to decide that we can’t move forward without increased personal agency and without acknowledging exactly where we are currently to the people we trust enough with our vulnerability. 

3. Clean the Plate

Right now, in classes, schools, and districts, we should focus on what we need to keep and what we can let go of, not what we need to add. In the frenzy of the moment, with the narrative of learning loss and additional federal funding, many resources and tools are being thrust upon principals and teachers without a deep understanding of the actual need and the high level of stress emanating from each educator within our school buildings.

I’m guilty of this personally and need to do better.

While these resources may be helpful, right now each “helpful” resource feels like one more 20-pound straw on the camel’s back, and everyone needs to recognize that.

The conversation should focus on what has gone well in the past two years and what we need to keep in order to best serve kids, and, at the same time, what we’ve learned we no longer need. We must actively seek, at both the organizational and individual levels, to clean the less meaningful and frustrating elements of the job off the plate.

To be honest, as educators we often talk about wanting things taken off of our plate, but we often hold every element of our work close to our heart. We recently instituted a partnership with a 24-hour online tutoring program, Paper, so that our teachers don’t feel compelled to be tied to their email in order to ensure that kids are supported at night. Some have leveraged this partnership and have freed themselves from this personally assigned responsibility and guilt, but others still haven’t been able to forgive themselves of this task. Even cleaning your own plate can’t be done solely through the work of others; it’s a process you must actively participate in as well.

4. Seek Joy in Work

As part of cleaning off my plate, I forced myself to make a list of the five things that bring me the most joy in my job. The list included one-to-one meetings with my direct reports, proudly representing the district in different capacities, data talks, coaching my leadership team through difficult situations, and spending time investing in my board of education.

Then I intentionally rerouted my calendar for two weeks to dump as much joy—those five activities—into my day as possible. It worked.

What happened by default was that I spent less time on the distractions that were not only a time sink but also an emotional drain. It turns out the very loud minority of people who were making my job very difficult didn’t deserve the attention and cognitive space I was giving them. The people who really mattered—like my team and my family—deserved that space. As I made this decision, my hope and joy returned.

In conclusion, I’m calling on each and every one of us to take agency in the fact that we are most likely our only way forward, and we must move forward with great intentionality. As leaders—which all of us are, regardless of title—we must be beacons of hope and joy in our organizations. We receive the behaviors we model and tolerate, and if we’re joyless in our job, that negativity will spread. We must set the tone and start moving ourselves forward.

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