Leadership Life Lessons

As most of you know, I began my journey into administration during the summer of 2016. My graduate program in educational leadership at Columbia University included an emphasis on public school building, especially regarding the creation of charter schools. Needless to say, I couldn’t help but jump at an incredible opportunity to be the Assistant Principal at a brand new charter school opening north of Atlanta in the Fall of 2016. I’ve been noticeably absent from the blog-o-sphere since the transition, mainly because year 1 was quite the journey and mostly consisted of staying above water (or at least floating) as much as I could each day. Year 2 afforded me and the school more administrative capacity, and as year 2 has come to an end, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences thus far as a new school leader. So, without further ado, I think it’s appropriate for me to jump back into the blog-o-sphere with this post! I’ll keep it short and sweet, but I’ve enjoyed reflecting on how far I’ve come and the challenges I’ve faced with not only opening a charter school but as a new Assistant Principal in the process.

You are stronger than you think you are
 Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  I bit off more than I could chew by jumping into administration for the FIRST time in a BRAND NEW SCHOOL.  Well, you’re probably right.  But, that’s how I roll.  There’s no time like the present.  If we sit back and wait for things to happen or change,  they won’t.  If we wait around for the right opportunity to come along with a pristine manual full of directions and how-to-guides, our schools will not change and our learning experiences will not match reality.  It’s that simple.  Don’t let experience, or the lack thereof, deter you from pursuing your dreams.  Be confident in who you are, why you are here, and your ability to lead a movement.  You really are stronger than you think you are and can do this.  GO FOR IT.

Listen and know when to apologize
School culture matters.  Your willingness to listen to your stakeholders and account for their opinions and feelings in decision making is critical to creating and sustaining a positive school culture.  Sometimes your stakeholders just want to be and feel heard.  You don’t have to agree with everything, but you should genuinely care about what they have to say and use it to continue to shape and execute the mission and vision of the school. There are also times when listening warrants apologizing.  As you practice empathy and truly engage in active listening, you learn that there are moments where you may need to apologize and admit that you didn’t get something right.  This is a monumental moment as a school leader to model risk-taking and learning from your mistakes.  After all, we ask this of our students so why shouldn’t we also hold ourselves accountable?

Know your school’s mission-and live it
Do you know the mission of your school?  Not just the words.  Do you really know what it means and its role in your leadership and decision making?  The mission of your school is a powerful way to ground you as a leader.  It should drive every big initiative you roll out as a school, and it should continuously be at the forefront of the decisions you make affecting the students, staff, and stakeholders of the school.  When designing professional development or big goals for your team each year, be sure to check the mission for alignment.  You’re more likely to get buy-in from your team and stakeholders when you implement new ideas and goals that are aligned to the mission.

Ask for feedback, and trust the process without judgment
How often are you asking stakeholders for feedback?  Seeking feedback is a crucial key to sustaining a growth mindset, and you must give your stakeholders numerous opportunities to give feedback.  Now, you must know, it’s a delicate balance you strike with feedback.  If you over-survey your stakeholders, some can tend to be desensitized to it.  If you don’t do it enough, you run the risk of feedback being given that isn’t pertaining to the topic at hand.  Be intentional with your feedback loops and plan for them effectively.

There is one really important lesson I learned this year regarding feedback, and I must thank my former boss, Chip Houston, for this advice.  We were having coffee one afternoon, and I shared with him that I was a bit discouraged that some teachers had chosen “no” to a question asking if they would be interested in participating in learning walks to observe colleagues in action.   All I could think was why wouldn’t you want to observe another teacher in the building for ideas?  It’s not tied to an evaluation or an administrative presence, so why not?  And, even if you didn’t want to, wouldn’t you want to just say yes on the survey because it looks good?  I mentioned these thoughts to Chip and my initial confusion, and he responded with something that really made me think and has changed my perspective going forward.  He saw it a different way.  He saw their reply of “no” as confirmation that they are comfortable being honest with their feedback.  I had not thought of it this way before.  Once he mentioned it, I was grateful for this perspective as it reminded me to view feedback without judgment, and to be grateful for a team that isn’t afraid to be honest with their feedback.  After all, do you really want feedback that isn’t authentic or is simply there to give you what you WANT to hear?  Many thanks to Chip for this advice and perspective I’ll always remember!

Ok, that was longer than I anticipated. It feels great to reflect and be back!

Trust and delegate
There’s not much to say here, but please, if you get nothing else from this post, take this one from me with love.  You are one person and you cannot and will not be an effective leader if you do everything yourself.  You will burn out, and it’s not sustainable.  You must empower others to lead and trust their strengths, talents, and the diversity of ideas they have to offer.  Transformational leadership is not a one man show.  It’s a team effort, and it should unite others in the mission of your school while providing autonomy and opportunities for your team to lead from within.   In year one, we were short on capacity, and I did many things by myself.  Were there others in the building who could have helped?  Sure.  I was worried about burdening someone else when they were just as busy, and I also knew I would get the job done to my standards if I did it myself.  This is a dangerous trap and you can’t get sucked in to this line of thinking.  Trust the team you’ve built to do their jobs and find their passions so they have opportunities to lead.

Published by Alex Bragg

Alex is the Upper School Teaching and Learning Specialist at Woodward Academy in College Park, Georgia. She is passionate about student driven learning, the art of giving and receiving authentic feedback and coaching, innovation in the classroom, balanced and authentic assessment mapping, and school redesign.

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