Aug 05

Thoughts for a New Administrator: Time

[I’m headed into my ninth year for working on SLA – one planning year, and this is the school’s eighth year. And while there is still a ton to learn about doing this job well, I thought that I might be reaching a point where the lessons I have learned might have something to offer to new administrators. Thus, this piece.]

There are a lot of challenges to moving from the teaching life to the administrative life. Some, I remember trying to anticipate – the idea of managing adults being the obvious one. But some I didn’t really think as much about – managing time. The rhythms of the life of a principal are very different from those of a teacher’s, both day-to-day and over time.

On the daily level, there’s the realization that your life is not dictated by the class schedule the same way everyone else’s is. And that takes getting used to. As a teacher, your professional life is based around your class schedule. As a principal, while it is important to be in the hallways during the change of classes, you get to choose when you do your walk-throughs, when you answer emails, and there’s no guarantee that your meetings will fit neatly into the class structure – in fact, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t.

For me, that meant learning a kind of time management discipline that wasn’t as necessary when I was in the classroom. I had to learn to budget my time during the day in a very different way. Goal setting and holding myself to deadlines meant that I didn’t waste time, and keeping track of what class periods I chose to be in classrooms meant that I got to see the school at different times. And for me, budgeting out lunch periods so that I could spend time with students and teachers as they needed me became really important.

On the larger level, a principal’s hardest times of the year aren’t always in line with a teacher’s. The end of the marking period grading crush was always hard for me, but as a principal, the weeks after report cards come out are more busy than the weeks before they come out. This meant that I had to make sure I paid attention to the energy levels of the folks around me, understanding that teachers and students often got tired at different times than I did. It meant learning how the administrative rhythm of the school went so that I could plan my own life accordingly. I’ve learned to block out almost every night of June for school, as there’s always some end of year event that I as the principal have to be at.

The best advice I’d give to a new administrator about time is to be aware of it. A principal’s life is unstructured, but very busy. Planning that time out, and being thoughtful about how to manage your time can mean the difference between being a pro-active leader or a reactive one.

 

Jan 07

The Worst Consequence of Your Best Ideas

[I’ve talked about this idea a lot, but I wanted to actually put down both the reasons and some of the pathways to do this down in writing. Hope you find it useful. — Chris]

You have to wonder why desks in rows and textbooks on the desks have survived as long as they have as the dominant instructional model when so few people think that it’s actually a good way to teach and learn.

And then you realize that while it never goes all that right, it rarely goes all that wrong either. Teachers don’t usually get in trouble when administrators walk into their classroom and see kids with books open, doing work, even if the work isn’t worth doing.

And all those other ideas that we love so much – inquiry, project-based learning, technology, real world application of student work – they get so… messy. And something always seems to go wrong. And we have to face that education is a somewhat reactionary field to work in. The death of so many good ideas is when something goes wrong and someone decides that we should never do that again.

And the desks get put back in rows and the textbooks land on the desks again.

But there’s a way around that, and it involves thoughtful planning. It doesn’t involve coming up with the perfect idea, because let’s be clear – there is no perfect idea.

Again – there is no perfect idea.

Everything has a downside. Everything.

At SLA, the best thing about our school is the incredible empowerment of our students. And the worst side of that is those same kids who are so incredibly empowered occasionally become really entitled, and then we have to deal with that.

But we realized that would happen before we started. And every time it does happen, we remind ourselves that it is a natural consequence of what we love, so our reaction has to be tempered so we don’t lose the soul of our school.

And so, whenever you have a new idea, ask yourself and your colleagues:

What is the worst consequence of my best idea? What is the thing that, even if we do this really well, will frustrate me, frustrate kids, frustrate parents?

And then follow-up with these questions: How will we, as a community, mitigate that consequence? What are we willing to live with, if it means we get something incredible out of it as well? What are the risks we are willing to take? How will we front load the negative possibilities of this idea to our stakeholders so they are prepared for it as well?

Don’t just do this alone. Do this as a community, because the author of an idea is often the last person to see the scary side of the idea. Do this not so you can just dismiss fear, but so you can acknowledge it and lessen the factors that cause it.

An easy, concrete example for us was thinking through the policies around being a 1:1 laptop school. We made a decision not to lock down the machines, because we wanted the kids to really feel like they could use the laptops to their fullest potential. That meant that the kids went home with a fully unlocked laptop to unfiltered home networks. We had to talk to students and parents beforehand about issues of internet porn, around good digital citizenship, around being safe and smart with your digital footprint.

And then we had to expect that no matter how much we did that, kids would make mistakes. And because we agreed, as a community, that the benefits of all the kids being able to access the full power of the laptop outweighed the negatives of some of the kids using the laptops inappropriately, the laptops are still open seven years later. And we’re better for it.

And most of the time, there is still the thing you didn’t think of. But the very act of going through the iterative process of trying to solve problems before they show up has made us more willing to acknowledge that our ideas aren’t perfect and that problem-solving will always be necessary. The goal isn’t perfection — it’s pragmatism.

Whether it is a new technology, a new pedagogy, a new program in the school, we have to be thoughtful in the way we evolve as schools. We have to acknowledge the good and bad in the changes we make if we are to do right by the kids in our charge. And we have to own the limits of our ideas, so that we can hold onto those ideas and not regress to a vision of school that, while easily recognized, is loved by no one. Owning our flaws and learning what we can mitigate and what we have to live with is a way to power past fear once and for all.