I asked my good friend Thomas Fuhrman to provide the insight of a current principal on what it is like on that journey towards becoming an administrator. Thomas looks into personal experience and relates it to YOUR future journey. This is definitely worthwhile for aspiring admins as well as the veteran.
Why? Sharing and Caring
When posed with the notion that others want to be education administrators and Mick Shuran’s prompting to share something on the topic, three major ideas popped into my mind about my journey to this role and decision to persevere in it.
For every person who anticipates or even aspires to be in educational administration, I would pose the quick response for which Simon Sinek has become such a spokesperson lately:
However, I would pose the question in a mirror to mirror sense that must continually look at the image reflected to determine the “why” underlying the “why.” Think of the child who inquisitively and perhaps somewhat obnoxiously fires a barrage of “whys” in an adult’s direction, seeking multiple layers of justification for some inquiry. In other words, the conversation may begin, “Why do you want to be a principal?” to which the person responds, “I want to make a difference.” The next question might be, “Why do you want to make a difference?” To which the person responds, “I remember what an impact my high school principal made on me.” Again, the question leads to, “Why did that principal’s model matter?” Certainly, this could go on and on until it seems to lead away from one’s central purpose or reason for the aspiration, but it is critically important to establish the “why” so that it can overcome the “hows” and “whats” that will inevitably pose seemingly insurmountable challenges without a clear sense of “why.” Furthermore, if you can’t find your “why,” you will continually struggle to bring others to a sense of “why” to which they can subscribe with your leadership. Furthermore, there is a clear difference between wavering in one’s conviction and changing one’s perspective. If your “why” changes, make sure that it is led by conviction, not by political agendas or influences that lead you away from the heart of your initial purpose.
My “why” begins with a purpose greater than my own, a purpose driven by my faith in Jesus Christ and God’s will for my life to be involved in the lives of others as a servant. As I was serving in the capacity of high school English teacher in a school and position that I loved, I realized that I desired to have an impact on children’s lives when they were younger. I prayed that God would somehow answer this prayer, and within a month, I was responding to a tweet seeking an elementary school principal.
I knew that this and the resulting position were an answer to prayer, and my “why” was reinforced. Though I have been in other principal roles since taking this initial principal position, I have continued to hold onto the “why” that first catapulted me into education administration. I like to hold the mirror of meaning before myself frequently to learn a continually deeper “why” which evolves each day with the realization of greater purpose that God has for me. This keeps me in humble recognition that though the waves of education may come crashing upon me, I can ride them without a sense of overwhelming failure even when they crash on my plans or ideas. Within this vein, it is important to me that I fill “the right role” for which I am appointed, not just “any” principal position. My “why” is grounded in my being the right “fit” as a school leader for the school where I am supposed to be, not just the qualified candidate for some school somewhere.
As a caveat, if your “why” includes any of the following, I would discourage you from considering or continuing your path towards educational administration:
- A cozier, more commodious office
- Greater sense of authority over others
- The opportunity to fix everything that is wrong with education
- Less concern over specific students by removing yourself from the classroom
- Popularity as a school leader
- A higher salary without additional time commitments
I would like to reinforce that each of these delusions of grandeur sometimes associated with educational administration has the wrong motives associated with it for leadership, and each further reveals unrealistic expectations that are too often a general caricature of principalship in our popular entertainment media which is far from the reality of daily life as a school administrator, expectations for self-focus rather than school community focus.
Rather than dealing with each of these individually or other related, misaligned myths about principalship, consider the other two words that have become the essential “hows” for the “why” that makes a difference in the lives of a school community.
Especially notable in the expectations for Tennessee educational administrators is the mention of “shared leadership.” Though some may have experienced or even admired seemingly autocratic rule by principals in the past, this is neither the norm nor the desired leadership model for an educational administrator today. Sharing leadership requires some very vulnerable practices, namely seeking authentic feedback and trusting others to act in accordance with a unified “why.” It requires the patience that not all leadership operates on a continuum that brings forth expected outcomes within anticipated timelines. Sharing leadership means not only sharing responsibilities but also sharing accountability for some actions for which you aren’t directly involved, but for which your school family is. Sharing requires us to consider other perspectives before forming our own, sharing experiences with others in order to better empathize with their respective perspectives. Sharing, in short, requires humility, whether intentionally sought after or brought upon by the conditions of situations common to complex relationships among school family members. It is imperative that one is prepared to be humble in circumstances in which integrity is the greatest goal and that everyone should have an opportunity to play a part.
One of the most significant features of sharing (in terms of leadership and responsibility) for me is a release of the burden of always having to be right (or assumed so). Many seek leadership to have the answers that they don’t have, and fairly enough, when the answers aren’t correct or problems can’t be solved, the leaders face the greatest scrutiny. By surrounding myself with innovative people and problem solvers, I can share in the struggle to solve the inevitable problems and face adversity with resources well beyond what are in my toolbox. Sharing is not only the right thing to do; it is imperative to the healthy functioning of a school. In every principal role I have held, I have relied on an amazing cast of characters around me who demonstrate amazing ingenuity in areas in which I am an utter buffoon. In the Shakespearean play As You Like It, Jaques reminds us that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.” Without tapping into their expertise and experiences, I could never
accomplish what too often is attributed to me. If you struggle with sharing, know that going into
school administration, and be ready to learn how, or know that you won’t be a good fit as a
school administrator. In short, be ready to play “many parts” and play the supporting role just as
often as the leading role.
Sharing can’t happen without a profound commitment to caring. At my current school, we commit to the motto: “Let’s prove we care!” We don’t want to merely pay lip service to caring, but we want to be held accountable to “proving” that we care. Caring is expressed in learning student and family names and greeting them daily with a smile, in preparing lessons that engage and enrich students’ education, and in follow-up calls to parents and school community partners to come up with creative solutions to life’s difficult situations. This year, we have expressed our school philosophy in the following (included in our student handbook):
We care about…
Safety. It is critical to a child’s learning that he or she feels safe at school.
Wellness. Health and physical fitness significantly impact children’s development.
Attendance. Students need consistency in their routines and progression of learning.
Academics. Developing academic skills and critical thinking drives lifelong learning.
Character. Students should make informed choices and respect one another.
Equity. ALL students should be supported based on their respective individual needs.
Opportunity. Students benefit from multiple diverse experiences.
Caring often means sacrificing comfortable conditions for the sake of constructive solutions. Mantras without action are moot and generally turn one into a figurehead without substance; I have found that part of caring as a principal is investing in one’s school, investing time and money, yes, but also investing one’s energy and attention to listen, to respond, and to admit when I am wrong. Caring is validating others’ perspectives and seeking opportunities to empathize when doing so is possible and sincerely understanding when empathy is beyond my capacity. I can’t relate to everyone’s exact situation, but by caring, I can enter into a relationship in which I am willing to listen and understand before responding.
Caring ultimately means persevering through challenges and setting goals to improve situations for all students and families. This is exhausting work, and I am far from meeting the expectations I have set for myself in this area, but I want to continually act with integrity to always empower our JWES family. Caring also means recognizing when to exercise your sense of humor to reduce tension in a situation or to act with grave concern to be sensitive to the serious nature of someone’s tragedy or loss. Caring means taking a pie in the face when a child works exceptionally hard at a fundraiser to raise funds for the school. Caring means holding back tears when meeting with a colleague when his or her tears are too much to bear or crying along with him or her because you know just how he or she feels. Caring means running a mile with students while wearing a mascot costume to encourage the students at the back to keep going. Caring means commitment and longsuffering. I don’t want to live in the past or the future, but I want to consider both in helping those around me to grow and achieve more every day. Caring is intimately woven into my “why,” and I can’t imagine any significant meaning in my role without it. Caring can’t happen effectively without the concerted efforts of those around us committed it, and caring is far less likely to happen if it isn’t embraced, encouraged, and perpetuated by school leadership.
My journey as a school administrator is an ever-changing puzzle of acronyms, legislative actions, curricular adjustments, and various other commonly identified features on the edges; however, the central pieces of the puzzle are people and the relationships that form the basis for my “why”: sharing in the journey of educating our youth and families through loving and caring relationships which never neglect the potential that we all have to contribute to our world. I encourage others to think about why you are starting your administrator journey before ever jumping into the driver’s seat, to be ready to respond to navigation along the route, and to change direction, as long as it allows you to arrive at your intended destination with your invaluable passengers. Also, be willing to allow other qualified passengers to spend some time behind the wheel with your support.
Thomas could be in this photo...it has not been confirmed.
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