I’ve never been a fan of having people around me who “go along to get along.” While it may make for a simple existence, it doesn’t do anything to push thinking. As I’ve shared previously, I was brought into the principal role at my building in the middle of the last school year. Our building was fully staffed at the time. Picking the people who I would be working with wasn’t an option.
Luckily, I quickly came to realize that I was surrounded by a team that I could trust to give me real feedback. As a new principal, working at a new level, I knew that my primary purpose was to learn. I spent time with members of our district administrative team to get up to speed on elementary school goals and initiatives – some of which were pretty different than the goals and initiatives we had been working on in my assistant principal role in the intermediate grades.
I began meeting regularly with my assistant principal and teacher development specialist (something like a curriculum coach) to learn more about the specific work we were doing in our building. I also started joining in on as many of our grade level PLC meetings to hear about the work happening in our classrooms. During these meetings, I made it a point to listen a lot, ask some questions, and learn as much as I could. As much as possible, I tried to avoid sharing opinions until others had the first opportunity to share their thinking. And when we got to the point of my sharing of opinions, I always asked for feedback from those I was with. I like to ask follow-up questions like “what are we not thinking of?” or “what have we missed?” These questions help make it clear that I don’t see myself as the end all be all expert in the room.
Matt Miller (@jmattmiller) said during a conference I attended that “The smartest person in the room is the room.” I think we all grow to be stronger when we can have honest discussions, share opinions, and discuss/defend our points of view. Ultimately the buck stops with me in making the decisions in my building, but as much as is possible, I want to seek ideas and feedback from the others that I work with.
This is a culture shift for some. I remember working as a teacher in buildings where I felt my opinion wasn’t important and didn’t matter to the leadership of the building. It caused me to stay silent when I did have ideas. But that’s not a culture that causes all of us to grow and excel. As the line goes, “Iron sharpens iron.” We make our whole culture stronger when people feel that they are able to offer opinions and that those opinions are valued. We make each other stronger when we have to explain, and possibly defend our own opinions.
One of the things that I don’t think we do very well in education is to feel safe to express opinions, to discuss those opinions, and then to try to come to a consensus about what is best for our students. I think there are very few people who come into education who operate from a place of debate or skepticism. Most educators tend to have been the “teacher’s favorite” type of student (and that not a bad thing, because that makes you good at what you do). But often those teacher’s favorite students are in that category because they do as they’re told, they follow directions, they don’t act up.
What I hope to see from the people I work with is a willingness to stand up for the things that matter most to them. You don’t like something about your curriculum? Ok, let’s talk about it as a grade-level team. What might make it better? How could we take what we have and make it something that you feel you can work with more successfully? These discussions may not always result in the exact change that you are hoping for, but it also might lead the others you’re working with to think in a new way.
And what I hope that the people who work with me see is that I ask a lot of questions, not because I think something is being done wrong, or because I think there is a better way, but rather I want to understand the thinking that led to your decision process. When we ask questions of one another, we aren’t doing it to challenge one another, we’re doing it to learn from one another and to push each other’s thinking.
If you’re in a position of leadership (and when you are in education, anyone can lead in a variety of ways), work to develop a culture where questions are the norm, where making one another better is the expectation. Don’t choose to be around people who will follow you blindly. Find your people who will help to push your thinking. The work you do can help each of you grow in your craft.