What are Your Vital Signs?

VItal Signs

I originally published this in my blog on June 28, 2010.

In my first year as a principal, I was given some advice that I am now going to share with you all.

The set up to this advice giving goes something like this (apologies to Lyle for getting most of the facts wrong and not attributing him as my source): the CEO of Putnum or Fidelity Investments walks in each morning to a stack of charts and graphs about the previous day's business. This data covers all of the essential areas of the company. The CEO can spend a short amount of time each day and get a good sense of what is going on. He takes the pulse of the company each morning. If there is something that catches his attention among the piles of charts, his focus for the day will be in that area.

The advice I got was to find the way to get the pulse of my school. What about the heart rate and respiration? Pupils dilated (or just learning – pun intended)?

So, I set out to gather the vital signs of my school. I took a two prong approach (apologies to all of those judges who include prongs in their decisions): first hand vital signs and information reported to me.

First hand vital signs come mostly through increasing the number of walkthroughs I do. I came up with a system that really started to work to get me out of my office and into classes (see a future post about walkthroughs). I listen to the teaching, talk to th

e students, and read the walls. Fantastic (and usually rather vital) signs gathered. I also check the pupils by stepping outside during recess or wandering through the cafeteria during lunch.

I learn an amazing amount about the health of the school from a series of regular meetings that I have scheduled. First (and most often trumped) is a weekly meeting with the office staff. We found an assistant that we could pull for 45 minutes to cover the phones and door buzzer. Just listening to the secretaries tell me what they know is worth twenty investment charts.

I also meet with the leadership team consisting of the Special Education Coordinator, ELA Curriculum Specialist, and Math Curriculum Specialist. We talk about kids and whole school issues.

Other regular meetings include the Technology Coordinator, the head Custodian, the Director of Curriculum, the Director of Special Eduction, the Nurse, the Facilities Director, and the Counselors. My weekly counseling session my be one of my most favorite. I sit every Friday with the Guidance Counselor and School Psychologist. We review issues, look at issues that students or staff have brought up, and, most important, talk about how the staff is dealing with the latest “issue.” While not explicit, I am certain that with two mental health professionals in the room, I must be benefiting in other, more personal ways.

Of course there is some hard data that helps to round out the vital signs of the school: daily attendance, discipline referrals, assessment results, monthly health office stats, and more.

Unlike the Fidelity CEO, I need to gather the vital signs myself. After all, I don't have a staff of hundreds and multi-million dollar budget solely for the purpose of informing the leader.

As principal, I don't like surprises. Working each day to gather my school's vital signs helps reduce the surprises. I like vital signs.

What are the Vital Signs of your school?



  1. Its all about school culture and you need to understand it. Pay attention to who talks to who, who eats lunch with who, and who goes to who’s room. You can observe a lot by just watching. (I think Yogi Berra said that.) Relationships are vital. If you manage by walking around, you can work on your relationships with all staff. Find out what they are interested in and take an interest if whatever it is. If you don’t know anything about a subject, have them teach you and make sure not to sound like you know more about it than they do unless they seek your expertise. I was principal for 13 years and I got better every year. Check my blog to help you with self-development. DrDougGreen.Com. Keep up the good work.
    Douglas W. Green, EdD

    October 10, 2010
    • Dr. Green,

      Absolutely. MBWA is so important in a school setting. The principal needs to be all over the school, learning non-stop.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      October 10, 2010
  2. Khaela H. said:

    Mr. Fleigelman,

    I am a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I found your procedures to be a very efficient way to check your school’s vital signs. Such procedures can make it easier to spot an issue, should one occur.

    October 11, 2010
    • Khaela,

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      The Vital Signs idea is totally useful for knowing what is going on – good or bad. In fact, I use it more to know the good things because the bad things seem to rise to the principal on their own.

      Good luck in Dr. Strange’s class

      October 12, 2010
  3. This is great, Larry; it is a thought-provoking post.

    In both my current and my previous headship, my office has been proximate enough to the front desk that when my door is open (which is 95% of the time), I can hear a large proportion of what is happening at the front desk. I can hear the two way conversations when parents, teachers, or students come in to the office, and I can hear one-side of the phone conversations.

    Sometimes (often?), this is irritating and distracting, but I remind myself– it is also enlightening and ultimately empowering for me to have my ear to this ground– I realize now from your piece I am monitoring vital signs.

    Deerfield Academy headmaster for 66 years (seriously!) Frank Boyden famously never had an office; he had his desk in the middle of the main entrance hallway to school. I am taken with “bullpen” office environments, such as Mayor Bloomburg’s, where every administrator works in one big (and hopefully high-ceilinged) room. I haven’t figured out how to implement this on my campus, but it would be a great way to maintain these observations of the vital signs!


    October 11, 2010
    • Thank you for the kind words, Jonathan.

      My office for the last two years was also just off the main office, and I could hear most of what went on. There really are different kinds of vital information that a principal needs to gather.

      Pat Larkin at Burlington (MA) High School has experimented with putting his desk in the lobby. I’ll have to check with him to see how that is going.

      Anyway, I hope that good stuff is happening so that your heart rate stays even and your blood pressure low.

      October 12, 2010

Comments are closed.