Monday, December 2, 2019

Losing a Leader


At the end of this month my principal of the past five years will move on from our school to the district office. This is what happens when there's unnamed upheaval (unnamed in that teachers can tell something more is happening up there but no one up there will be specific with exactly what) in the upper levels of the district, which are causing people to leave, which are causing spots to need to be filled. A spot opened up near the beginning of the school year that my principal would be perfect for, the district asked her to apply for it, and she got it. These things happen and I'm not here to complain or litigate the timing of things, even though taking our principal mid-year is a real annoying choice to say the least. What makes it worse is the job she's getting will be perfect for her and she's going to be extremely good at it, so I can't even complain about that.

My principal leaving has brought up a whole host of emotions in me. I've already had this conversation with her, so she knows this stuff. But reflecting out loud helps me process, and I never know if admin somewhere else will read this and learn from it. Because there are things an administrator could learn from what I'm about to write.

My principal for the past five years has been the best boss I've ever worked for. I literally could not have asked for a better administrator. I've worked in a lot of schools and under even more principals and vice principals, and they've ranged from good to middling to downright awful. I know what I'm looking for in a boss and who I'll work well under and who I'll chafe with. You get by in any situation, but I firmly believe that teachers, if able to, don't leave schools. They leave administrators. I know I did. My last VP was a nightmare on two legs.

My principal hired me the day of my interview. I rolled in straight from teaching session at a three day conference in Northern California. I'm in Gresham, as far north in Oregon as you can get without actually being in Washington. I'd gotten the call with the offer to interview the day before, and it was the last day of the conference. So I finished my last session, jumped on my motorcycle, drove the three hours home, changed, grabbed interview clothes, got in the car (it's a long way to go on a bike after a long day), and hit the road for a four and a half hour drive while my wife found a hotel. I got to town at probably one am, crashed out, and was up at six for an interview at seven. First one of the day. Got there, had to dissect some data (weeee), teach a mock lesson to the panel, and do the interview thing. I felt like I nailed it. Afterward I went to get lunch, more coffee, and get ready to drive home.

As I was getting my Baja Fresh I got a call. Not from that interview, but from a different school in the same area who I'd had a video interview with a few days before. They wanted to offer me the job. I begged off, telling them I needed to think about it for a few hours and I'd get back to them. As I was finishing by lunch I got another call, this from the school I'd just interviewed at, also offering me the job.

Holy crap. Two offers in one day? When does this happen? I was still in town too, which meant it was my turn to interview the principals. I went to the video interview school first, met the principal, got a tour of the school, and talked to her for about a half hour. She was very friendly and the school was nice. Then I headed to the school I'd been at that morning and toured the school and chatted with that principal. I asked her all the questions I wanted to know, about technology and teacher freedom and data and creativity. She gave great answers and I was feeling convinced. Then I asked her, very specifically, "How driven by data are you? Will I be tied to a curriculum?" And she said magic words, words that made my mind up right then and there. She said, "Well, we have to use data, that's part of what comes down on us from the state and the district. But I believe that teaching is an art as much as it is a science, so as long as teachers get results I want them to be creative. I think students respond to that." I'm going to put that in big bold text now so you know how important it was to me.

"I believe that teaching is an art as much as it is a science, so as long as teachers get results I want them to be creative. I think students respond to that."

Oh yeah, this is the place for me. I took the job on the spot. It's a risk. Principals say all kinds of things they don't actually mean. But she felt like she meant it. And she pretty immediately proved that she did.

I have told bits of these stories in the past in this space, but they're important to make my wider point. When I started at my school I became friends with the other guy teacher in fifth grade, a kindred spirit of creativity. It wasn't long before we were talking about making stuff in the classroom and investigating these things called MakerSpaces what what would that be like, how cool would that be? We picked out a room being used for storage, built a wishlist and a plan, and went to her office to pitch her. We fully expected to be shot down. One does not simply walk into your principal's office and ask for five thousand dollars to do something brand new. But you gotta take the swing, right? She listened carefully, asked good questions, and then said yes. Yes! Told us to come to the PTC meeting coming up and pitch them because they'll love it and they'll give us money. Told us there was technology budget we could use. Hooked us up with an amazing parent who got hyper-involved and became the third arm of the team. Did everything we could have asked for and more, all without a shrug or an "I dunno..." or a question that this would be good for kids. The MakerSpace is still there, still being supported, she still believes in its power. If she didn't it would have been converted into something else long ago.

A few months later we went back to her. Since the MakerSpace is cool, how about this thing called a MakerFaire? Could we do that? It would be a lot of work but we could get one going by the end of the year. She said yes again! She found the money and time. She backed us up in front of the staff. The MakerFaire is still going strong. She's still involved, still helping us, still encouraging the teachers who might not be as enthused as we are.

This can do, yes let's do it attitude of hers has heavily influenced my own teaching. I am and always have been a jump first, ask permission later kind of human. This does not always sit well with administrators. I know plenty of principals who need the Why and Wherefore first. I know more who look at the schedule not as a playground to work within but as a sacrosanct text to be followed to the minute. I don't work well in those scenarios. My principal never pushed those things. She understands that sometimes reading runs long, especially if we get caught up in the story and are suddenly in the midst of building tree kangaroo traps. She knows that construction is math so even though we're not exactly on where we need to be, the kids are learning what they need to learn. She trusts that if she comes into my room and sees cardboard everywhere and the room looks like a giant mess, the kids are learning. Why should she trust that? Because I tell my students, "If Mrs Cook comes in here and the room looks like this she's going to wonder what on Earth we're learning. She's going to ask me what you're learning. Do you know what I'm going to tell her? Ask the kids!" She comes into my room while we're building and knows not to ask me what's going on. She asks them not what they're doing, but what they're learning. And they know, so she's cool with it.

Our deal has always been as long as my data doesn't slip, she trusts that what I'm doing works. My data doesn't slip. My kids love coming to school. My discipline is contained. We're good, and she believes that's what learning and teaching is.

Last year she suggested me for a construction pilot that ended with my kids building benches that now exist around my school. I didn't seek that out. She brought it to me. She trusted me with it. It paid off, we did amazing things. And we're going to do amazing things again this year with a fifth grade class led by my kindred spirit co-conspirator.

I went to her when I didn't understand a bunch of what she was talking about in a data meeting and said, "I don't understand what you were just talking about in this data meeting" and she took time after school to walk me through it. She didn't say, "Why don't you know this?" or "You ought to figure this out." She was a leader, appreciated me saying I didn't get it, and showed me the way. I've never worked for a principal I've been comfortable saying, "This stuff that you're talking about like we all get it? I'm drowning and don't get it at all" to. That's a crazy thing to say to your boss. Unless your boss is awesome. (I think I wrote about this after it happened but if I did the blog is buried among the however many are in the archives here. You dig, there's a lot of good stuff back there.)

We had this conversation about leadership.

I don't know if everyone knows how good we have it. I feel like teachers have a hard time seeing outside of our bubble sometimes and there's always something to pick at. Real problems need picking, of course, and no one is perfect. But the things we are able to do right now, the freedoms we are afforded, these are more precious and rare than I think some realize.

I'm incredibly nervous about having a new principal. I feel very safe and supported right now. I can do what I do because she trusts that it's right. We're going to have an interim principal for the remainder of the year and that will be whatever. I dunno. I'm sure it will be fine, but even if it's not it's only a few months. After that, what then? I acknowledge that this statement makes me sound like I think I'm a delicate special snowflake teacher, but my way of teaching is not normal and doesn't often read as normal. Especially if the administrator is a by the book type. We will rub each other the wrong way. What if the next person doesn't get it? Doesn't trust? I'm willing to be flexible, but I'm not willing to not teach how I think is best. I will be unable to fit into a "From right now to right now you're all to be teaching reading from the book" rigid schedule. The district is saying all the right things about what they're looking for in a principal for us, but the truth is no one will replace who I've been working with for five years.

A good principal makes all the difference. So does a bad one. All I want from a leader is trust and support. I've had that in spades and it has made me a better teacher. It has made our school a great place to work and to learn. What do I want in a new principal? Faith and trust. What do I really want? My principal to not leave.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.