The last day I served as a building principal was September 8, 2020, and after a four-month leave I officially retired on January 21, 2021. I have much respect, admiration, and gratitude for educators who have been working in these challenging conditions the past seventeen months. During my retirement I have had time to look back, reminisce, and reflect on my educational career, which included 23 years as an elementary school principal. I can’t go back or change my experiences, but I can offer advice and insight to other leaders. Here are three things I wish I would have done during my time as a principal.
First, I wish I would have developed closer, more personal relationships with more of my staff members. For a variety of reasons, including me being an extroverted introvert, being guarded about my personal life, and my own dislike for small talk, I missed out on opportunities to become more connected, closer, and vulnerable with staff members. I kept my distance with some colleagues because I thought I was respecting and protecting their privacy. Step out of your comfort zone and work to develop positive, interpersonal relationships with all of your staff members. You can do this one-on-one, in small groups, and during staff gatherings.
Second, I wish I would have communicated more with my staff. I used to think I was filtering things not wanting to overwhelm them or put more on their plates. I learned that staff members want to know the good, the bad, and the difficult. Late into my administrative career, I learned to share my “principal thinking” with staff in-person, during meetings, through email messages, and in weekly bulletins. They wanted to know what I was thinking, doing, and planning, even if it didn’t directly impact them. They really wanted to know about all aspects of the school so they felt knowledgeable, informed, and connected.
The third thing I wish I would have done during my time as a principal was address all difficult situations with grace. I don’t know why some relationships seem to become adversarial, but I don’t think they have to be. It seemed that when I was holding people accountable or working to mentor them through the required supervisory and evaluation process, often when there was a critique, correction, redirection, or suggestion, our relationship shifted. Some folks appeared to be resistant, challenging, and questioning which shifted the dynamics and affected my reaction and response. No one likes to be corrected or have concerns pointed out, but part of my job as a principal was to work with staff members to help them become their best. Some accepted that and we worked cooperatively and gracefully together, but other times it was more difficult. I wish I would have been graceful in all difficult situations. I own my behavior, too. I didn’t need to be aggressive, forceful, or firm. I should have been more graceful myself and not overreact or let emotions control me.
It’s interesting to look back at the three things I wish I would have done differently during my time as a principal and note they are all related to interpersonal relationships with staff members. If you’re an extroverted introvert like me, it will take some mindset changes, stepping out of your comfort zone, and not making assumptions. I used to make many assumptions like colleagues were as guarded as I was, that staff members were already dealing with information overload, and that folks would acknowledge areas for improvement. But, over the years I learned to limit my assumptions, ask questions, and seek to understand the other person’s perspective.
I admit it took me a long time to recognize the things I mentioned, but I’m sharing these three suggestions with you so you don’t have to wait until you are retired to strengthen your leadership and interpersonal relationships.