One Semester Down, One to Go: 4 Lessons I've Learned as a First-Year Administrator
One semester down, one to go.
I am halfway through my first year as an administrator. The transition from the classroom to the admin office has taught me more and pushed me harder than anything I've ever done professionally. Yes, it's a new city and a new school and those changes come with their own set of challenges, but the role itself (Director of Curriculum and Instruction) has stretched my skill set to the edge.
Relationship building, clear and timely communication, consistency, collaboration, vision, organization—every day I am challenged to build skill in these areas, which is exactly the type of professional challenge I wanted. After some reflection, here's what I've learned from the first semester:
1. Don't let minor problems monopolize your day.
As a new leader at my school, I felt a sense of urgency to meet everyone's needs immediately, to try to right all the wrongs, to fill all the potholes the past had left behind. To some degree, I feared people may see me as ineffective if I didn't "get to work"—I definitely felt a need to prove myself, to demonstrate my efficacy. But unless it's low-hanging fruit, most decisions/changes take time. Here's a hard lesson for me: Not every problem can be solved immediately, and if you try to solve every problem immediately, your head will begin to spin. It's OK to see a pothole; to recognize it needs to be filled; but for now, to drive around it.
I like bringing order to chaos, pushing back against the inevitable entropy the world throws at us every day. Erecting sandbag walls is essential to stop a flood, but when the floodwaters recede you must spend the necessary time erecting sustainable structures that will prevent future floods. Systemic, major problems require deep thinking and sustainable solutions.
During the second semester, I will schedule my day differently. I will schedule more time for thinking and research, for organizing, and for planning. Carved hours out of the day where I will not answer emails, make phone calls, take meetings, or fill any potholes. Clarity, focus, silence. "Deep Work," as Cal Newport calls it, is essential in an attention economy. There is nothing more valuable to the world than your attention, your focus, your concentration. Where you direct your attention will, I believe, determine your leadership legacy. So don't let minor problems monopolize your day.
2. Every decision you make will be criticized and praised.
I knew every decision that came from my office would be challenged, but when you're making a decision that affects 100 teachers, responses can vary wildly—in the same day, I've had a teacher tell me an initiative we started in the fall has been the single greatest factor in their professional growth since they started at the school, while another teacher dropped by to explain why the initiative was completely ineffective for them. This does not mean that faculty opinions fluctuate too much to be helpful, far from it.
What it means to me is that whenever you decide on anything, be as intentional as you can be: consider all angles, ask for opinions, and then make sure your purpose is clear. Always, like Simon Sinek argues, come back to the WHY? of every decision, because more than anything, that's what teachers want to know. And they want to know if your WHY? is consistent and thoughtful (i.e. Where is this decision leading us/me?). If your purpose is clear, I find teachers will be gracious even if they don't like the idea.
Over this holiday break, I read Creative Followership: In the Shadow of Greatness by Jimmy Collins, former President of Chic-fil-a. Principle #22 reads, "Make Your Decisions Good." Collins counsels anyone working in an organization to "own [your] decision, to take responsibility for [your] actions, and to make or turn [your] decision into a good one" (115). This principle reminded me that no decision will be perfect from the outset, it must be seen through. So remember, you can tweak and adjust along the way, but once you've made a decision about how to move forward, you're married to it and it's your responsibility to make it good. Critics will be there every step of the way, so don't allow the emotional outcry to overshadow what you know is right. Remember, every decision you make will be criticized and praised.
3. Don't share your half-baked ideas with everyone.
I'm a dreamer. There is hardly anything more professionally gratifying for me than having a conversation with a colleague and dreaming big about education. That's not as much of a problem when it's a teacher to teacher conversation. But as an administrator, I've noticed a few unintended results from those conversations.
a.) Dreaming can cause confusion: Communication is difficult. Clarity is paramount. So when you mix in your wild idea with everything else that's actually happening, it's possible that you're shooting yourself in the foot, unintentionally of course.
b.) Dreaming can cause mental fatigue: Teachers may be unsure where the dream ends and reality begins. Teachers are typically overburdened and stretched, so when you're talking about a radical idea, many teachers are only hearing the amount of extra work your dream is going to take.
c.) Dreaming can cause anxiety: When you're a dreamer, change doesn't scare you. But that's not true for everyone. Your ideas have the potential to alienate teachers before you've had a chance to build relationships with them.
4. Listening is actually a skill.
I've always heard this, but I've never really believed it until now. Timothy and Brian Kight (Focus 3 Podcast) have talked about listening as a skill ad nauseam. Here's my problem: Like I said earlier, I love to solve problems, to be a great resource to the people I serve in that way, but my tendency is to solve your problem before you've finished talking, to simplify your situation based on my limited perspective and understanding. That can feel belittling or condescending, no matter if my intentions were to help.
Sometimes I hit a home run and my intuition is on point, but sometimes I whiff and hurt the relationship I want to—need to—build. Listening is perhaps the single greatest attribute of an effective leader, and I need to build skill in this area.
Because life at school is often hectic and busy, the mind doesn't have a chance to rest much. It's always in burn mode. One thing I am trying this semester is meditating for 10 minutes each morning. I am using Sam Harris's Waking Up meditation app. I am 10 days in and am looking forward to seeing how the practice helps calm my mind and allows me to slow down. This, I believe, will have a direct effect on how I will still the thoughts (tasks, reminders, objectives) in my head when I need to listen to the person across the table.