Sunday, April 28, 2013

Five Daily Musts for School Principals

By Mike Nitzel
Principal, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (Illinois) School District #41

While I do not claim that this is a complete or extensive list, these are MY five daily musts that I do which I believe has increased my efficacy as a school principal.  I would be interested in reading what you think and what you might add to the list through your comments. 

1)      Personal Professional Development—I spend at least an hour a day on my own professional development.  I’m always reading at least one book on leadership or professional practice that I can bring to bear on my work on a daily basis.  I spend at least 30 minutes per day on Twitter (per my friend and colleague Dr. Jeff Zoul) and I find some time each day to read online blogs which I find most useful and applicable to my current professional development needs.  The hour need not be contiguous and in my case it usually isn’t.  If you’re an early riser, this might be a good time for you to engage in this activity.  Often times, I end my day here. 

2)      Relationship Building—At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you can never spend too much time working on building your relationships with all of the stakeholders in your school communtiy.  It’s all about relationships.  A simple “Hi! How is your day?  Is there anything you need or that I can help you with?” can be huge in the eyes of the person on the receiving end.  Showing people your genuine concern and care for them not only as your colleagues or customers but as people will go a long way towards helping you advance your mission—improving student  learning and outcomes. 

3)      Instructional Leadership—Be in classrooms every day.  Period.  Share feedback with your teachers.  Provide them with useful resources that meet your school-wide needs but also provide them with resources that will advance their individual growth.  For example, your entire school might be working on increasing student engagement.  Share what you come across with your school community on this topic.  You may, on the other hand, have one or two teachers working on improving their use of Twitter as an educational tool.  When you come across something on that topic, share it with them.  That level of personalized attention will pay huge dividends for your school and your school goals.   I make an effort to do this daily, for my school through my Daily School Update and my weekly Monday Focus, and individually, through emails, texts, tweets, or conversation. 

4)      Connect With Your Principal Colleagues—Being a school principal, particularly an elementary school principal, can be lonely.  When I was a high school principal, I had an entire administrative staff that I had the opportunity to interact and share with every day.  Usually that’s not the case at the elementary level.  I make it a habit to pick up the phone each day to talk to one of my administrative colleagues in my school district.  Sometimes it’s just to ask how things are going.  Sometimes it’s to talk through a situation I’m working on or to offer them any help I can with something that they might be working on.  Sometimes we talk professional development.  Feeling connected to others who go through the same things that you do on a daily basis helps mitigate those feelings of isolation that we all sometimes feel.  I invariably leave those conversations feeling reinvigorated and reenergized which helps me do a better job for my school community.

5)      Take Time for Yourself—If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’ve sat through the flight attendant’s safety talk, you  know, the one where they tell you where the exits are and how to use your seat cushion as a flotation device.  Do you remember what they tell you about the oxygen masks?  They tell you to put yours on before you assist others, even your own children.  Why? Because you can’t help others if you’re lying in a heap.  There is a lesson to be learned there.  As a building principal you spend your days taking care of hundreds if not thousands of other people.  In order to do that effectively, you have to take care of yourself first.  Make sure you get plenty of rest and make sure you eat as healthy as you can.  For example, I eat lunch every day, granted sometimes it’s at my desk but most days I carve out 20 or 30 minutes for lunch.  I have little patience for principals who say they have no time to eat lunch. Forgive me but most of the time I find that a self-serving “look at how hard I work” thing to say.  You can find some time for lunch and to sit down and take a breath.  Have you ever sat down and eaten in the cafeteria with your students?  Do that and you’re taking care of yourself AND building relationships at the same time.  There are other things you can do to take care of yourself as well.  Find some time to exercise (I REALLY have to do better on this one).  Do something for yourself each day that YOU want to do and that you enjoy, whether it is exercise, reading a book for enjoyment, playing a game, attending a club or church activity, meditation, yoga, whatever!  I am working hard to make a habit of ending my work day no later than 9:00 p.m. and saving the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 for something I want to do.  I refuse to feel guilty for spending an hour watching the two episodes of Modern Family that I have on the DVR.  You shouldn’t either.  This is the longest of the five musts I’ve written about and there’s a reason for that.  In many ways it’s the most important.  If you forget that, think “oxygen masks”. 

Again, these are my “musts”.  Yours may be different.  I would like to know what you think and what you might add to my list.  Please share your comments!  Until next time, take care and BE AWESOME! 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three Things You Can Do Tomorrow to Help Build Your School Climate

"It's all about relationships".  How many times have you heard that?  I'm a firm believer that it just happens to be true.  Without good school climate, based on honest and caring relationships, nothing you attempt will meet with the success it might if your school climate was a positive or stronger one.  With that in mind, here are three things you can do tomorrow to help build school climate.  And by the way, this is not just about what principals or other administrators can do.  This is about what anyone who works in a school can do to help make that school a happier and more productive place. 

1) Ask for Feedback: As a principal, I make it a practice to ask for feedback from all of our school's stakeholders.  But no matter your role, you too can ask for feedback from your stakeholders or customers.  Tomorrow, whether you are a principal, teacher, cafeteia manager or custodian, consider randomly contacting one of your "customers" and asking three questions: 1) What are we doing well?; 2) What could we improve upon?; and 3) Is there anything that your would like to share with me about our school/classroom/cafeteria?  Make this a weekly habit. Listening and giving people a chance to voice their opinions will improve your school climate in significant ways.

2) Stop and Ask, "How are you? How can I help you?". Expressing genuine concern for someone and being there to help them with anything they might need help with can't help but strengthen relationships and enhance school climate.  They may say they are fine and there is nothing you can do to help them at the moment. Great!  But end the conversation by reminding them that you appreciate them and are there for them anytime they need you. 

3) Commit a Random Act of Kindness.  Do something nice for someone.  Put a piece of candy on someone's desk.  Put a piece of paper with a smiley face on someone's desk or chair that says, "You are appreciated! Have a great day!".  Whatever you choose to do need not be complicated or time-consuming.  Keep it simple.  Also, consider doing it anonymously.  Doing something for someone else and not expecting anything in return, not even gratitude, will not only make the other person feel good, it will make you feel good as well. 

Do these three things tomorrow, and then make a habit of doing them regularly. Don't wait! These small things will pay huge dividends in enhancing your school climate! 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

8 Elementary School Rules to Guide Administrator Thinking

As I was walking through classrooms at Thomas Jefferson the other day, I stopped in a first grade teacher's classroom.  I hadn't noticed these eight posters hanging on the wall before but for some reason I noticed them that day (I'm going to pretend that they were new and that it's not a case of me not being very observant).  Anyway, as I was looking at them, it become clear that these posters identified eight simple rules to guide student interactions in that classroom.  As I sat there and thought more about them, I realized that in these eight simple rules were some very important guidelines for administrators to follow in their relationships with staff members.  They're probably applicable to relationships with all stakeholders but here I will focus only on administrator/teacher/staff relationships. 

1) Encourage Others:  A quick word of encouragement can mean a great deal to one of your teachers or staff members and is always welcome.  You can always find something to praise someone for and if you can't, you aren't looking very carefully.  And don't forget, we shouldn't just praise outcomes.  Effort is just as worthy of praise as outcomes, perhaps more-so.  Praising effort encourages risk-taking, doing things in new and different ways.  A short handwritten note or face to face are my preferred methods of praise, but if time will not permit it, a quick email will do in a pinch.  It is, as they say, the thought that counts.

2) Listen: When engaging in conversation, remember to listen as much if not more than you talk.  I think it was Mark Twain who said "God gave us two ears and one mouth so we will listen twice as much as we talk".  People want to be heard.  It lets them know that they and their thoughts are important to you. 

3) Take Turns: Each one of your staff members has a special gift and leadership skills you can tap into.  Don't hesitate.  Most staff members want to be trusted with leadership responsibilities.  Being the boss doesn't mean you have to be in charge of every little thing.  The best leaders know when to let go and whom to let go to. 

4) Think Before Acting: Let's be honest.  As administrators we have a hundred different things coming at us at once most days and sometimes it can feel overwhelming.  Before we do or say something that we could later regret, let's stop, take a breath and THINK.  Talk it through with a trusted colleague.  Remember, what could seem a small slight or offense to us could be large in the mind of someone else.  I love my job and I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.  But it does exhaust me.  Daily I remind myself of the best advice my dad ever gave me: "Never make an important decision when you're upset or tired."  I've always remembered that, and it has always served me well.

5) Use Kind Words: Even when you are upset, there is no excuse to be rude or disrespectful to someone.  Understand that people are emotional beings and when they are demonstrating their upset and you seem to be the target, most of the time they are not really upset with you.  Using kinds words, even in the face of difficulty, can never, ever steer you wrong. 

6) Talk It Over: Don't let things fester.  If there is something that you need to talk to someone about, don't dilly-dally about it.  Talk it over with them respectfully and with a solution mindset.  If there is something you are unsure about doing, talk it over with a trusted friend or colleague.  It's amazing how sometimes saying things out loud can help you crystallize your own thinking, not only about what you should do, but how you should do it.

7) Be Quick to Forgive: People are going to hurt you.  It's true that as administrators we tend to have a bit thicker skin than the average Joe or Jane, but things can still hurt us.  Don't hold on to hurt feelings. You do have a choice in the matter. Make the choice to forgive the person who hurt you and move on.  At the end of the day you will be happier for it and your relationships will be healthier.  

8) Share: Share your talents, your energy, your thoughts, and your passion with your staff.  I'm not saying you should be a know-it-all, but as a leader, you have things to share.  Don't be shy about it.  More than that, however, share leadership.  Your staff wants responsibility.  Give it to them.  What you get back will be infinitely more valuable than what you give up. 

I'm a big believer that "it's all about relationships".  By encouraging others, taking turns, listening, thinking before acting, using kind words, talking it over, being quick to forgive, and sharing, you will be building relationships in meaningful ways, improving your school culture, and ultimately making it a better place for your students.  And that, my friends, is what it's all about.