There are many timeless leadership lessons about how to create a vision for your school, including the one my first superintendent offered me: “When teachers come to your office with a monkey on their back, listen and give them your advice and guidance, but when they leave your office, make sure the monkey is still on their back, not on yours.”
My mentor was right. Teachers often brought their problems to my office, anticipating that I would quickly solve those problems or relieve them of responsibility. They were doing this because a continuum of principals had conditioned them to bring every issue that concerned them to the principal’s attention, to the point where my outer office could seem like a waiting room in a busy doctor’s office. A vision based on empowering teachers to make more decisions for themselves—keeping the monkey on their back—would be better for them, for me, and for the whole school.
Making a change
I wanted to see a quiet, orderly, welcoming office environment, so I began searching for a better way of handling things in more appropriate settings. I needed to envision—and become comfortable with in my own mind—what would look good, feel good, work well, and become productive in my school setting. If I couldn’t see structures, operations, supports, and the efficacy of daily functions, I was ill-prepared to persuade others of the benefits of my vision.
I also mulled the question, Why are we doing what we are doing if we don’t know why we are doing it? With hours of reflection and introspection, I affirmed why we did what we did. Others began to catch a glimpse of what I saw and bought into the vision, and we worked hard to clarify what we imagined the best school could be—and to create it together.
As my visionary responses and goals became clearer, the how-to of developing and leading a change process came next, often with trial and error. With constant focus on performance goals, my staff and I developed the beginnings of the Intervention Assistance Team (IAT) process that eventually evolved into Response to Intervention (RTI). We discovered how we could share responsibility for success.
I learned during our problem-solving envisioning processes that my teachers were primarily seeking my awareness and “blessing.” Most responded well to my words and display of support and became more self-sufficient in teaching and engaging students. By dealing with problems and concerns in the most appropriate settings of the school (the least restrictive environments), teachers felt more empowered, cared for, and autonomous—and they liked that.
Seeing Some Results
Teachers became comfortable sharing concerns about students’ behavioral and academic needs or other pertinent issues, accepting and trying interventions, supporting each other, and sharing what worked and what didn’t. We were constantly questioning our beliefs and practices, and as we did, we learned as much about ourselves as we did our students.
We created progressive steps:
- Teachers brought their concerns about students to me.
- Together we assigned ownership and the most appropriate place for the problem(s) to remain.
- If that location was the teacher’s classroom, we discussed interventions, timelines, supports, and actions that we both agreed to fulfill, along with delegated assistance from others.
- When appropriate, we convened intervention assistance team meetings to discuss and deal with the problems.
One of the most challenging problems was redesigning our approach to student management. With similar reflective analysis of practice and procedures, we realized that many of our students displayed inappropriate behaviors because they hadn’t been taught positive alternatives. We envisioned multiple ways to teach, model, and reinforce a schoolwide code of conduct focused on four virtues:
- Working for quality
- Earning respect
- Treating others kindly
Students responded more appropriately to their teacher’s direction and instruction, and best of all, the problems didn’t take up residence in my office, freeing my time for other matters. Within months, my office became a welcoming place for parents and visitors, free of the drama of issues that needed my immediate attention.
Once we collectively saw what a quiet, supportive, disciplined, remarkable school could look like, sound like, and feel like, things began to happen in our school in ways that reflected the qualities of the conduct code in beneficial, productive ways—fewer behavior referrals and improved academic achievement.
This vision of management and instructional leadership enabled me to become a better delegator, which is sometimes a challenge for principals. My teachers became more confident and self-reliant, wasted less time waiting for others to act, and experienced less stress. The school’s productivity dramatically increased.
Quite often, when I read social media posts from new principals, they appear to be overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks they’re immediately required to face. Visioning doesn’t seem a priority, but without clarity of purpose and direction, chaos will develop, further troubling attempts to lead.
To sort through the weeds, you need to make the time, whether you’re an aspiring principal, early in your career, or a veteran, to ponder this question, Why am I doing what I am doing if I don’t know why I am doing it? When your time of reflection brings clarity and focus to important issues impacting you and your school, you’ll know the answer to that question, and you can begin to cast your vision for your school.