Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Confessions of a New Administrator: 6 Takeaways from 6 Weeks of Administration

Summer Learning has come and gone, and I'm left reflecting on the experience. It is so hard to come up with an answer when people ask me, "How was being a summer school principal?" I struggle to consolidate the thousands of moments into a neat, tidy answer! So here's my best attempt: 6 takeaways from 6 weeks as a summer school admin.

1. Communication is key!

If there's one thing I got practice in this summer, it was communicating. With kids, with parents, with teachers, and with district personnel! Clear communication was essential to proactively avoid issues and make sure we were all on the same page, plus it helped cut down on fears of rumors or hidden agendas or any of that negativity that can eat away at school culture. One thing I resolved at the beginning of the summer was to keep my staff in the know, and from comments I heard, I think (hope!) I did a fairly good job of that.

Communication also included having to be the messenger for things I did not agree with. Newsflash: this is hard. It's hard to be honest when sharing an unpopular message while not throwing others under the bus. Through being open in the rest of my communication, though, I hope I was able to share these things in an authentic yet respectful way.

2. Prioritizing is life-saving!

On the first day, I'm pretty sure I had a deer-in-the-headlights look all day long as everything was coming at me. I didn't have filters to sift through it all and everything screamed, "URGENT! TOP PRIORITY!" No one can run at that level of stress and anxiety forever - we have to learn to prioritize!

If I were to characterize the biggest change in my practice from the beginning to the end of Summer Learning, I would say that I did a much better job of figuring out what really needed my attention right away and what could wait for a few hours or a few days. I thought a lot about what was urgent vs. what was important and how to make time for the important things that may not be so urgent. I also grew more comfortable with the fact that while one person might think something is hugely important and urgent, my role as the principal was to hold all of the needs in balance, and sometimes that one thing had to wait.

3. Fight to spend time with the kids!

Why did most of us become teachers? Because we love kids! And that certainly didn't change as I became a principal! It was easy to get caught up in the to-dos needed to make things run smoothly and completely miss out on the moments with students. I had to make it a daily priority (see #2) to get out of the office and spend time in classrooms or meeting kids on their way in or out. It was worth it!

Sometimes it was challenging to feel like this was the best use of my time. That might sound crazy, but if I was in a classroom where a teacher was rocking it and had everything under control, it was easy to think, "What am I doing here? Why do they need me?" The truth is, they didn't need me...but I needed the reality check of what was going on in the classroom, and the kids (and teachers?) really did appreciate seeing a principal who was involved in their learning. They can never have too many positive adult examples around!

4. Conflict is a reality, and that's okay.

Let me be honest for a second here - I don't like conflict. It's hard, it's messy, and I'd rather avoid it. But it's a daily reality in our jobs, and even more so in a position of leadership. There are so many people I was working with, and all of them had different perspectives on any given issue about the school! And most of the time, those perspectives were born out of a really good place of wanting the very best for the students and the school! There are just many views on how to get there.

As the principal, I had to be willing to stand up and make decisions that I knew would disappoint some people. I was the one who talked to parents when they were upset. I got to defend my teachers (it's amazing how much easier it is to step into conflict when you feel responsible and protective of your people). I'm certainly not advocating for creating unnecessary conflict, but I grew much more comfortable in handling things when they came, not taking it personally, and focusing on the issue and the solution rather than getting stuck in the problem.

5. Structures make the world school go 'round.

One of the hardest parts of being a principal is that so much of my job was proactive. When things were going well, it was evidenced by, well, a lack of problems. Usually, that meant that good structures had been developed and set in place so that things just ran themselves! Often, I didn't even notice that the routine was working or that it was making a difference, because it "just happened".

Most mornings, I went out and played violin for the kids as they walked into school, and often, they came in and glanced at me and went straight to breakfast. One morning, I had a lot of paperwork to do and thought, "Oh well, they're hearing the same songs every day anyway, they probably won't even notice if I skip it today." Boy, was I wrong - I heard about it that day! This is a frivolous example, but it struck me because it demonstrated how much the simple routines meant to the kids, even if they didn't show it.

When good systems were set up, people did what they were supposed to, and everything ran smoothly. When a kink in the system appeared, it quickly devolved into chaos! Systems thinking is a skill I need to continue to cultivate, and I saw the importance of it and the impact it can have on large numbers of people this summer.

6. Get comfortable with living with ambiguity!

One of the most immediate differences I noticed, moving from a teaching job to an administrative job, was that I couldn't plan my day. As a teacher, I figured out lesson plans and I had the structure (see #5) of class periods, lunches, and recesses to guide my day. As a principal, all of that was thrown out the window! Although a lot of my thought-work was proactively planning, my day-to-day was reacting to whatever went on! I never knew if it would be an easy day or a hard day - it just depended on what happened. This was quite a shift in thinking!

I also had to get more comfortable with ambiguity in general. So many situations came up that did not have black and white answers! I had to live in the tension of the "where we are aiming" and the "where we are now". I had to balance the needs of different teachers and different students and various subgroups of each, none of which was clear-cut. I also had to be comfortable letting go and letting people find their own way - some more quickly than others. Although it was tricky at times, this was the beauty of leading and learning - the messy, trial-and-error process that results in growth.

Disclaimer: If I were to add #7, it would be that a positive attitude works wonders, especially in a leadership position, because it affects everyone you meet...but that wasn't so much a new learning as something I was able to keep up from my teaching 😃. Find joy in every day!

I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I know these lessons learned will follow me wherever I go, including in my new role in the district. What would you add to this list as top takeaways from beginning in administration?


  1. Excellent and informative reflections-thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, Aubrey, you learned so much in a short six weeks! I love the point you make in "Fight to spend time with the kids." I often feel that if a classroom is running smoothly, there's no need to be there. But even master teachers need support and recognition, and it's good for us to see students at their best. I'm going to keep this in mind every time I feel that my time might be better spent elsewhere. Excellent reflections - thank you for sharing.