Schools are busy places. They sometimes bring to mind those National Geographic micro-videos of ant colonies -- everyone playing their role and moving, moving, moving all the time. At any given moment, hundreds (or thousands) of individuals are following a detailed schedule that dictates what they are doing and where they are doing it.
Principals can be the busiest of all. Shadow a school leader for a day and you will likely be running from meetings to crises, from classroom observations to lunch duty, from performances to conversations with parents, and from dismissal back to more meetings.
When leaders do have a moment in the hallway with a student or staff member, they often fall back on seasonal pleasantries ("Enjoy your family during the break!"), nuts and bolts interactions ("Don't forget, grade level meeting sixth period."), or generic connections ("How's it going?").
Each of the above has a time and a place. Principals are only human, after all (no, kids, they don't sleep in the school). What follows are some suggestions about other ways that principals can communicate during their in-between moments -- while running lunch duty, chatting in the hallway, or greeting kids or staff as they enter in the morning. These are questions that can propel a school forward by modeling what it means to be a learner and inviting more voices into the decision-making process.
Question #1: What are you reading?
When a principal asks this question, whether to kids or staff, he or she is reinforcing the message that we are all readers. Books are a school's oxygen, and the more we read and share words, the healthier our school communities are. If reading is not yet a top priority in the school, this question can spark an important conversation and can lead to tangible next steps, like a staff book club or schoolwide reading time.
Question #2: I've been thinking about _____. What do you think?
Leaders cannot do it alone, nor should they pretend that they can. They need to ask for help and input. Another way to say this is, "I'd appreciate your advice." Being someone who asks for advice -- rather than being the all-knowing leader -- shows that a principal is a learner and that he or she values the perspectives and opinions of coworkers. The more varied the roles and positions of the people whose advice is being sought, the better. Consider these two examples:
The principal asks a cafeteria staff member, "I've been thinking about how to improve the flow of kids as they enter the kitchen to get their food. What do you think?"
The principal asks a teacher, "I've been thinking about how to make sure that we're getting kids moving without sacrificing learning time. What do you think?"
Question #3: If you were me, what would you change?
This is a variation of the above, but it's more open-ended. The intention is allowing students and staff to speak freely about that which is most important to them. This is a great lunch-duty question. Sit down with kids in small groups and challenge them with this: "If you were the principal, what would you change in our school?" At first, you will likely hear responses about longer weekends and less homework, but the more you ask, the more you will hear things like, "Why don't we have a girls' volleyball team?" and "If I were principal, I would make sure that teachers didn't yell at kids." You'll learn a lot from this question, so only ask it if and when you are truly ready to listen.
While most principals don't promote talking in the hallway, it's also true that the best ones treasure open dialogue and communication. When they ask the right questions and heed the old saying about why we have two ears and one mouth, principals are elevating the conversation -- and reminding everyone in their school whose voices matter the most.