Hey, High School Principal: Take a Hint from Your Students

Guest post by Annette Wallace

Like many high school principals, I find myself always thinking about how I can be a better leader. I read books, stalk amazing principals’ social media accounts, and pick the brains of great principals about ways to be a more effective leader. I am obsessed with being the best principal I can be! As I was walking down the hallway today, the thought occurred to me: What if I stopped, looked, and listened to the hints and lessons my students were giving me on how to be better principal?

Lesson 1—Always look alive, be agile, and be quick!

When students hear my 3 ½ inch Nine West heels coming down the hallway, they mysteriously move quickly, quietly, and stealth-like back into the classroom and slip into their seats. As a school leader, it is imperative that you are agile. You must have the ability to adapt your leadership to your surroundings and to the situation at hand. Slowness and an inability to make adjustments at the drop of the hat will have you headed down the wrong hallway in the wrong direction.

Lesson 2—When the love of your life disappoints you, move on … 

Find another boy’s hand to hold in hallway THE DAY DIRECTLY FOLLOWING THE BREAKUP. Teenagers have this ability to express their emotions very deeply and be extremely attached to another teenager—to the point where I often remind them mid-hug that they will see each other in exactly 90 minutes, at the conclusion of Block 2. Then, when heartbreak eventuallyhappens, emotions run high for a few hours and the next day the girl is holding another boy’s hand in the hallway. As school leaders, we should follow that lesson: Be passionate about your school! But when you find things are not working out the way you planned … have a mini-meltdown (so long as you are alone in your car in a parking lot away from school) but don’t unpack and live there! Move on—love every little thing about your school, building, and kids as if nothing ever went wrong!

Lesson 3—For the love of the game, leave it on the field!

I love watching student athletes participate on our fields, courts, and lanes. As a former athlete, I find myself often getting caught up in the moment—but I quickly stiffen up, act like I am not super excited, and behave like the grown up that I am. I love the way (most of the time) that our students are uninhibited and get excited on the eve of a big game. They aren’t afraid to be emotional. They aren’t afraid to take a risk. They are willing to always leave it on the field. Likewise, school leaders must have that uninhibited passion for what we do every single day. When we walk through the doors, we need to be emotionally charged to lead our students and our teachers to the best of our abilities. We should look forward to walking in the building daily. We must trust our abilities as school leaders and take chances. Sometimes we will win and sometimes we will lose, but we will know that we did our very best and left it on the field!

Lesson 4—“Dr. Wallace, why are you always rushing us?”

Daily, I find myself reminding students to hurry to get to class. Often, a phrase my former assistant principal used pops into my mind, “Be the engine, not the caboose!” As I think about it, in some ways, my students are right. Why rush? A sense of urgency is important, sure, but I am always rushing. I assumed one of my strengths as a principal was my sense of urgency, but when urgency causes me to rush everything, I sometimes leave my staff and students feeling like I am “too busy” for them, and at the end of the day, I barely have the energy to crawl into bed. As school leaders, we must slow down and take care of ourselves. Join an exercise group, practice yoga, sit down and eat your lunch (possibly in the cafeteria … but chew slowly, talk, smile, and laugh throughout).

[Bell rings … the lesson has ended for today.]

So, high school principals, slow down, look around, and listen! Our students send us clear messages every day. Look alive and learn from them.

Please share lessons that your students have taught you when you slowed down and took the time to really listen and learn!

Annette Wallace is principal of Pocomoke High School, a high-poverty school on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She believes that in order to change her community, she must provide students with access to an education beyond high school by breaking down any and all barriers that might get in the way of her students achieving their dreams. Annette is the 2017 Maryland Principal of the Year. 

3 Comments

  • Elizabeth Jones says:

    These are certainly some very thought provoking gems of information. We, as educators, must take the time to do everything we can to really listen and hear our students and our colleagues.

  • Kara Fitzgerald says:

    Amazing! So proud to teach students under your leadership as well as learn from such an amazing administrator! #dreamteam

  • Deanne Moore says:

    Thank you for these useful tips that work well for junior high principals, too. Lesson 3 really resonated with me.

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