This killed me today…
—Alec Couros (@courosa) August 25, 2012
As most of you know, that was from my brother and he is referring to my amazing little niece. I do not want her or any other kid seeing their principal in that manner. This is in no way meant to criticize the current principal or Raine’s school, but it did spark me to think about my time as a school principal and some of the things that were extremely important to me. “Fostering Effective Relationships”, in my opinion, is the most important quality outlined in the Alberta Principal Quality Standard, and those relationships are the basis of a strong and innovative school.
As schools have either started or will be starting in the next little while, I just wanted to share some ideas about practices that I thought were important as a principal. I would in no way say that I was perfect as a principal and definitely would change some things that I did, but I am hoping that principals are looked at as more a part of schools, not the “master” of them.
- Welcome the kids when they arrive. Wave goodbye when they leave. – In Alberta, teachers do the majority of supervision, and it can be time consuming. I remember seeing this as a pain because you would have to deal with discipline, cold, etc., but then I started seeing this as an opportunity to really connect with kids. My mentor principal was adamant that him and I would be outside for supervision before and after school, because it took something off of the plate for teachers, but more importantly, it was a way to just talk and get to know students and parents. Not only could you get to know the kids better, but you could see problems before they started and diffuse them. I went from hating supervision to seeing this as the best part of my day; it is all about perspective. As the kids leave, be outside again, check in on them, and say goodbye.
- Your first interaction with a student should be a positive one. – I never wanted kids to see my office as the place where they got in trouble but as a place where they could come, talk, and grow. My goal as a principal was to ensure that I talked to kids and got to know them so that if they ever did end up in my office, I already had established a relationship with them. If I didn’t know the name of a student or anything about their situation (from their mouths) I had failed that kid. Knowing them and building a relationship with them led to an environment where that when they would show up to the office they were more worried about disappointing me, as opposed to being fearful I would be mad. Some kids will inevitably end up in your office; how well they know you and how well you know them will have a huge influence on what happens after they leave.
- Talk as little as possible. – This was probably one of the best pieces of advice that I had ever received going into administration. Carolyn Cameron had told me to never tell a kid why they were in your office, but to ask the following question: why are you here? This will not only give your information that you may have never known, but it helps to focus the child on their behaviour as opposed to how big of a jerk they are feeling you are at that point. If they can’t answer the question immediately, wait. If it takes them longer, wait longer. Kids are often so wound up that they may not want to say anything for a bit but keep them close. Once you tell them to “think about it outside”, you have shown them how easily you can sever a relationship with them. Most kids that are in your office need the exact opposite. They need to know you will be there for them even when they have screwed up. Eventually, stories will come out, so then follow up with, “If you were me, what would you do?” Kids will usually go to something extreme like expulsion for pulling Suzie’s hair, which now puts you in a great position to show again, how you are an advocate for the child. Work with them through what should happen next and follow with, “how will you fix this in the future?” So from this, you have asked three questions and let the kid speak and taught them how to deal with their own issues. Isn’t that what we want from our students? Use this as much as possible.
- Use humour to deal with situations any chance you can. – My mentor has always said to me, “If you wouldn’t laugh, you would cry.” Sometimes using humour is the best way to deal with a situation. I had a student in my office who was disrupting class and making annoying noises. Not life threatening, but something that we knew inhibited the learning of others. So I picked him up from his classroom, asked him to bring his work, so he could hang out in my office. As we sat there, not talking and doing separate work, I thought it would be a good time to look up “polka music” on YouTube and crank it in my office. He hated it, but knew exactly what I was doing. He begged me to turn it down but I told him, that I loved it, and it helped me work. He BEGGED to go back to class but I said, “nah, it is fun with you here.” Then it came to the point where I said, if I let you back, could you quit disrupting? He agreed to which I told him that he was more than welcome to come back later and listen to music. He never disrupted class again. Not only did that happen, but him and I also had a funny story that we could share and laugh about. The goal is to not come down with the hammer, but for a kid to really understand what they did and to get better. Not every action needs the same reaction.
- Do the walk. – Every day when I was in school, I would purposely get up and be present in every single classroom. Sometimes it was for 30 seconds, but I made sure that the kids saw me when I wasn’t away for meetings or whatever. It was my way of checking in with them, and them having an opportunity to check in with me. Say hi to the kids and just see what is going on. This does not only help to build powerful relationships with your school community, but also creates an environment where you see real teaching and learning that happens in schools. The more you are present in the classroom as a principal, the more privy you are to see what actually happens. My goal was to be present but invisible to teachers, but present and very visible to kids.
- Kids will love you if they know you love them. – The majority of educators get into teaching because they love kids. But at some point, it seems that we are taught to keep a certain distance from students because they might not respect us. I think that is a ridiculous idea. To me, there are three levels from a good to great principal. Level 1 is when they love you. Level 2 is when they respect you. But the pinnacle is level 3, when they love and respect you. Imagine how much more you can get from them in their learning when you have both of those present. This is not just for relationships with students, but in any relationship in your life. Be open to showing kids how much you care about them. Be their advocate. Care about them. Say kind and authentic things about them. Embody to them how you would like them to treat all of those in their lives.
I encourage anyone to share what they do as a principal or have seen their principals do to build relationships in schools for any readers of this post. There are way more than I have listed here!