Letter to a new School Administrator

principal

I have very vivid memories of the year I made the move from teacher to school administrator. It was a big, life-changing step.  Every BIG change we make in life has its adjustment period, but when you are in a profession that is rooted in something greater than chasing a dollar, I think this is especially true. If you are like most teachers, you went into education to make a difference in the lives of kids, not just get a paycheck, so you constantly do the self-check on whether or not you feel like you are making a difference. The best educators I have known are always a little bit anxious over this and always live with that nagging worry that they aren’t doing it well enough.  In order to survive, you learn to moderate that voice in your head and be aware of the ways you are making a difference.  I think in the classroom, in dangerous proximity to the unwashed masses of kids, you get a lot of tangible, daily opportunities to see your interaction put a smile on a face, or help a kid figure something out, or lift a kid’s spirits when they are down.  When you move to administration these opportunities to make a difference in the lives of kids actually expand, but they become more abstract.

 

I remember when I made the move how I worried about so many things; the responsibility, the changing relationships with both students and my peers, the new interactions with parents, etc.  Most of all, I remember missing the energy and dynamics of the relationships you build with kids when you work with them daily in the classroom.  By about three months in I had the sense that I had made the right decision – I was really happy to not be grading papers at home at night and stressing over lesson plans – and I was beginning to feel like I had what it takes to figure the job out.  I was, however, needing to grieve the loss of the more intimate, daily interactions with kids in “My” classroom, where I was master of that little universe.  I realized that the relationships I had with students were going to slowly change as I interacted with far more of them, but with far less real, deep, individualized attention.  Owning that, grieving it, and focusing on the new ways I could impact kids’ lives on a systems scale was essential to my mental health.  Realizing you have the opportunity to impact faculty lives as well as kids is also a part of the journey.  Grieve the classroom connections with kids you’ve left behind, but embrace the new landscape of relationships that have opened to you as a school administrator.

 

The other thing to realize is that, as an administrator, you see everything that is broken or in need of improvement on the macro level, so it is easy to feel like things are going poorly.  The reality, however, is that as you and your team address issues and head off problems proactively, you often find teachers saying things like, “That was a really great start of the year.”  And you probably think, “Wow, it felt really rough to me.”  This is because you are dealing with all the rough edges so teachers can feel like it went smoothly.  Administrators are the ultimate cat herders, Jello nailers, plate spinners – often feeling like you have a target on your front and tire tracks on your back – but if you lean into this and take on a servant-leader attitude, you can become the force that frees teachers up to teach and makes the whole school work.  Roll up your sleeves, embrace the new chaos, and roll around in the messy, joy of school administration.  And remember to give yourself some grace.  As a school administrator, there will always be more to do than can possibly be done.  Eat this elephant one bite at a time.

 

The other thing I learned to adjust to was the different type of stress.  As a teacher, I experienced “Head cold stress.”  You know, that constant, congestion-type of stress, like there is always something weighing on you, always papers to grade, projects to complete, lessons to plan – like a too-heavy backpack that you can’t take off even though the straps are digging into your shoulders, and your feet are getting harder and harder to lift.  As an administrator, I experience “River-rafting stress.”  There are periods of really intense, white-water, waterfall, I’m-gonna’-hurl stress, but it is interspersed with some relatively calm, just keep paddling stretches.  I realized each day was an unpredictable adventure full of interesting challenges.  There was still plenty to keep me awake at night, thinking about, problem-solving, etc., but I actually experienced less of the debilitating, constant feeling of being hopelessly behind and overwhelmed with school work (grading, planning, etc.).  Try to remember this as you paddle consistently and steadily in the calm stretches, it will help you find the strength to dig deep and courageously through the turbulent white water when everything feels like it’s trying to flip your raft.  You can give that superhuman effort when you remember that the rapids only go on so far, and there will be calm waters on the other side.

 

Finally, as I made the adjustment to the new frontier of school administration, I found I had to resist the tyranny of the urgent’s power to derail a people-centered approach.  In my classroom, the nature of the work was intrinsically human.  No matter what other interests or tasks competed for my attention, every day the door to my classroom would open and the real reason I was an educator would walk into my world, full of joys and hurts, and mischief, and wonder.  As an administrator, you have to make a conscious effort to keep the focus on relationships.  No matter what was on the plate, I committed to make, time for people – for real human connection each day.  I made it a priority to stop to talk to kids each day no matter how busy I was.  I kept the open door to teachers and staff as much as possible, even if it meant I had to do some of “My Work” after school let out.  After all, as an educator, we are in the business of impacting peoples’ lives, not simply running a school.  Lots of people can run a school.  It takes someone special to keep a school thriving and focused on making a difference in the lives of kids and all who work there.  If you’ve made the jump from the classroom to administration, you have once again answered a high calling.  Life will be decidedly different, but the mission is the same – to make a difference in the lives of kids.

grad jump

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