Guest post by Michele Paine
On the Fourth of July, I had the opportunity to reconnect with a colleague who had just finished her first year as a K–6 principal in a small rural partner school in the Greater Flathead Valley area, where I serve as assistant principal in one of its high schools. Over margaritas, we laughed about our school year, each of us sharing “lessons learned” during the year. While she serves an elementary school and I serve a high school, we found that our lessons could apply universally.
Her lesson involved an ineffective teacher who quit midway through the school year. As a new principal, navigating the waters of teacher evaluation and career counseling is challenging. When a replacement teacher could not be recruited, my friend found herself in an all-too-familiar dilemma for administrators in small schools. She took on the fifth/sixth grade combination class herself, finishing her year as BOTH teacher and administrator.
“You told me being an administrator would be fun!” she jokingly pointed a finger at me. She went on to relate that her lesson learned for the year involves how she handled the resigning teacher’s exit from the students, teachers, and building. She allowed the teacher to have angry words with staff, and most damagingly, with the students who were losing their teacher. Her lesson learned: In highly charged, emotional staff situations, escort the staff member out of the building immediately, communicating a time for that staff member to retrieve belongings when the building is empty.
Venting about the year was therapeutic for her, and it also gave me advice for my own practice, something I will hopefully not have to learn the hard way. I went on to share my lesson learned, still painfully fresh, which involved a large senior prank incident that resulted in 20 seniors being denied the privilege of participating in the graduation ceremony. In contrast to my friend’s situation, I had a team of three other administrators with whom to collaborate. Our team decided to allow several of the parents to meet together with the principal. This decision, unfortunately, proved to be a bad one, as we assistants sat outside the principal’s office, listening to him get hammered by these vocal parents who banded together to protest the punishment. The lesson learned was to always have one-on-one meetings with parents.
As I reflect upon this conversation, it is clear to me that collegiality facilitates professional growth for school leaders. A well-respected principal in my district once told me, “Being a principal is a lonely job.” The invisible but perceptive distance between the school staff and school leaders is to be expected, but it often doesn’t leave administrators with much support. In my five years as an assistant principal, I have grown accustomed to solitude, but I have also learned the importance of reaching out to other administrators.
In their book Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, Bryk and Schneider (2002) examined the impact that professional relationships and trust have on school improvement and leadership. They note that “trust fosters a set of organizational conditions, some structural and others social-psychological, that make it more conducive for individuals to initiate and sustain the kinds of activities necessary to affect productivity improvements” (p. 116).
We need our own circles of trust that extend beyond our school walls. As a member of the 2016 Assistant Principal of the Year class, I was delighted to meet administrators from across the country. Over the course of the NASSP Ignite ’16 Conference in Orlando, we bonded together through a special program. Don’t forget the opportunities that a national organization like NASSP provides. As you begin your school year, take the time to reach out to your local, state, or national network for support.
What have you learned from your own professional circles of trust? What do you do (or what can you do) to foster these collegial relationships?
Michele Paine is an assistant principal at Flathead High School in Kalispell, MT, which serves 1,450 students in grades 9–12. She is the 2016 Montana Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @Painemichele.