I am a teacher first, and always. I believe that all children can experience success when the adults in their lives work together to help direct their path. Schools play a significant role in the future success of children. It is important that school leaders focus on the things that they can control.
Running a school is not easy. When I was a high school principal, I would do what most school leaders do: arrive at work between 6:00am-6:30am, attempt to finish administrative tasks from the previous day, mentally prepare for the day ahead, and maybe I would have time for breakfast. Some mornings, I would just stare at the walls and enjoy the silence. By 7:00am, the day no longer belonged to me. My students were top priority. It was important for me to know each student and to understand their needs so that my team and I could reach them in a way that worked best. There was nothing in my formal training that prepared me for the things that really mattered when it came to doing the real work…like, what do you do when a student is having a disconnect from reality in the middle of the hallway? How do you navigate a conversation with the boy who tells you that his stepfather molested him? What happens when a student’s apartment burns down? How do you support a young girl who is pregnant by her mom’s boyfriend? What do you say to the boy who watched his mom get murdered by his father? What advice do you give the student whose mom can’t move…not because there is a physical impairment, but because she is so depressed so she literally cannot move? These are stories that I hear all the time from school leaders across the country, and unfortunately, I have heard similar stories in my own leadership journey. You cannot tell a child to leave that stuff at the door when s/he enters the school. Everything that the kid has experienced walks into that school building, and it is our responsibility as leaders to educate them despite that. Not all schools are equipped to handle the issues that walk into a building with the child and that is a reality that we have to face.
Anyone who leads knows that it can be dangerous work. It is so much easier to subconsciously maintain the status quo. Resources can be a challenge. Mental models can be a challenge. Lack of time can be a challenge. Competing demands can be a challenge. In order to be effective and really enact change, you have to challenge the status quo. You usually have to do this alone. Everyone really is judging you all the time. Every decision you make is scrutinized. Without a strong support system, you begin to judge yourself too harshly.
We keep trying to fix the problems of our schools while still functioning in the same antiquated paradigm. We do not take the time to unearth the deeply embedded social constructs that function as a compass for our work. This is not because we are “bad people”. I mean, some people may have malicious intent, but the vast majority of people who are doing this work have good intentions. We all have stereotypes and mindsets that we function from and with. When those mindsets go unchallenged, we unintentionally reproduce exactly what society expects.
If we want to truly transform schools, we all have to do our part. It is always easy to downplay our own responsibility in doing this while magnifying the responsibility of others. We all do it. School leaders who want to create an environment of success for all students do not have that luxury. True transformation of a school starts with the leader. At first glance it seems easy. Improve school culture. Help develop teachers. Create opportunities for scholars. So easy…right?