Reflection Brings Rejuvenation

A Texas principal looks back on the lessons he learned in his first year as a principal and offers tips for growing as a leader over the summer break in this Trials of a First-Year Principal blog post.

Wow! August seems like a lifetime ago. Yet, here I sit with the school year complete, in a quiet office. There is no buzz of student activity. The phone activity has slowed to a crawl. And the school staff has mostly departed for the summer. While the list of summer tasks is long and the urgency to prepare for the next school year is palpable, I find myself needing to slow down for a few minutes and reflect on the school year.

Seeking to Understand Perspective

One of the realizations I had late in my first year as a campus principal was that most people connected to the school system that I serve will form some opinion about the work that I am doing within our learning community. Sometimes those opinions will be rooted in firsthand, concrete knowledge of the work that takes place on our campus every day. Often the opinions offered will, however, be based on a perception gained from events and stories that have been passed through many filters that might not understand the daily life of our learning community. Sometimes throughout the year, I would have back-to-back meetings, where one person would express how awesome a specific function of the school was operating just before another would bemoan how terrible the same function transpired. I found myself wanting to agree with the positive report and dismissing the negative, with the mindset, “They must not know what they are talking about.” I had to check myself in this area and change my mindset around criticism that I did not want to hear.

The reality is that understanding perspective, no matter the nature, is valuable. If, when I hear a negative perspective, my first response is to dismiss, then I will continue to create blind spots in my leadership. Those blind spots will lead to disenfranchisement and ultimately a learning environment that is not what our students need. It is incumbent upon me to gain a strong understanding of perspective from all members of our learning community who are willing to share. As I reflect on this year, if I could synthesize all the good, bad, and ugly moments of leadership, the area that I can most improve that I believe will have the greatest impact on my learning community is to listen to understand instead of listening to respond.

Becoming a Better Leader

As leaders, we spend an abundance of time supporting the growth of others. If I hope to offer the best version of myself in service to others, I must take the time to invest in my own learning. Although this is important throughout the year and embedded in my daily work, summer is a great time to dive deeper into my own professional learning. Reflection in and of itself is a great process. Paired with action, however, in focusing on key areas of improvement will yield a better understanding of how to serve.

Here are some ways I am investing in becoming a better leader this summer:

  • Book Study of a Previously Read Book: I have found that doing a book study is great to learn a new concept or tool to support leadership. Doing a book study on a book that I have previously read intensifies the learning process and allows me to dig deeper into exploring concepts to support my growth. This summer, I am going reexplore Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game. After a year as a campus principal, I know that I will bring a different perspective to the same great words by Sinek in how to daily find my courage to lead and focus my purpose in serving our students.
  • Coffee With a Mentor: I have been blessed throughout my career to have mentors that support my growth as an educator and leader. This summer, I will connect with one mentor on a weekly basis to dive deeper into discussions that otherwise would be interrupted with the uncertainty of the school day. I always find it comforting to hear their stories of struggle and how they navigated the challenging and often competing priorities of being a school leader.
  • Summer Convention: When face-to-face gatherings were interrupted by COVID-19 quarantine, I realized how much I took this time of learning and connection for granted. This summer, I will invest in my professional growth by attending the NAESP Pre-K-8 Principals Conference in Chicago. I am excited to feel the energy of connecting with other professional and hearing from thought leaders from across the country to know how they have made it through one of the toughest years in our profession.

Protecting Our Mental Health

Educators throughout the country pour into our students every day in support of their social, emotional, and cognitive needs. Often we forget to take care of ourselves and we end up carrying, beyond our own personal needs, the empathetic weight of trauma, abuse, anxiety, depression, food insecurities, learning struggles, and a host of other burdens that our students and fellow staff members carry with them every day. This year, more than any other year in my career, I have found the need to focus on my own health and wellbeing.

As I have become more aware throughout the year, being mindful of my own needs each day has helped me develop a different perspective of how to serve others. As leaders, sometimes we feel we need to be all things to all people, which is an impossible task. I am working on prioritizing needs for my family, for my campus, and for my school district. When starting the day, before entering into difficult conversations, and before I get in the car to drive home, I take a few seconds to breathe and try to center my thoughts so I can be fully present for whomever I am with.

I am certainly a work in progress, but as I reflect on the year, I am grateful for the progress I have made in finding a balanced approach to serving others. The principalship is an incredibly rewarding and demanding job. It is full of laughter and tears, success and failure. In the daily grind, you will never truly know the full impact of your service. But I do know, it is worth it to serve our students.

Christopher Bailey is principal of Clack Middle School in the Abilene Independent School District in Texas. Connect with him on Twitter at @stixbailey.