Recently I was reading the blog of a colleague where she revisited some of her reflections from the end of her first year as the principal of small Charter School. Her thoughts caused me to reflect on the past twelve months of my life. I learned more about myself as a learner, teacher, husband, father, friend and person during my first year as principal than I probably had over the previous decade in education. This year was exciting and fulfilling, long and difficult, and ultimately the most rewarding of my career. It took someone else’s words for me to reflect in a meaningful way and find the true learning experiences from the past year.
Students love a school where they are challenged. There were several points of focus at Inwood Academy this year that had to do with instruction. We were trying to decide what model would engage our students and set them up for future success. We experimented with our instructional model and worked to create an environment that challenges students to think rather than memorize and repeat; they responded overwhelmingly. The classes where students were most engaged were not always the most fun, but they were the most challenging; they forced students to work hard to get the right answers. These are the classes that teachers will continue to build at Inwood Middle School.
A team of educators is more important than a group of talented educators. I had always been under the impression that natural talent is the best thing that a teacher can possess. Coming from a sports background, I felt that if I had talented educators I could do amazing things. For the same reason that the most talented team doesn’t always win the championship, a unified team is more important when trying to improve student learning. Teachers working in isolation cannot achieve much regardless of their talent in that subject area. This year I found that I need to focus on building up the team instead of the individual.
Positive recognition is great…until it isn’t. I love to make chili. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, but I only make it a few times each year. I find that the more I make chili, the less special it becomes and when I eat it a few days in a row it starts to become something that doesn’t mean as much. Recognizing effort and success has always been a weakness of mine. I was never the type of kid who kept a second place trophy and as an adult I have often downplayed awards for effort. Moving into the role of principal I felt it necessary to show staff and student appreciation through constant positive reinforcement. Because of the frequency of this recognition it started to mean less than it should have. There is a way to show an amazing staff (which is what we have at Inwood Middle School) that they are appreciated without constantly telling them how great everything is.
Follow-through is the most important thing. As a teacher I was able to design lessons and control the outcome so much that often my work in the actual lesson wasn’t even essential to success. As a principal, the planning isn’t as important as the follow through. When planning a lesson with a teacher to engage a rambunctious group of students in a difficult task, the feedback after the lesson is more important than anything. If I have a meeting about setting up a plan for an individual student that needs additional support, I need to make sure that I put twice the time and effort into the execution of the plan. Support and trust are developed when someone realizes that not only are you there when things go bad, but also as they begin to get better.
I experienced a typical first year as a school principal. It doesn’t matter what kind of teacher you were, what experience you have, how many hours you put in, or what type of support network you have, the job of school principal is not something that comes naturally. The ability to make unnatural decisions instinctively is something that will come with time. The ability to build a network of educators who work together with the proper administrative support will come with experience. The one piece that I do possess, and probably always have, is the love for this work. Every single hour, every difficult day, every long night is worth it every day at 7:15 AM when the students walk through the door. As hard as it is, my first year only confirmed that Inwood Middle School Principal is the greatest job in the world.
By Ryan McCabe, firstname.lastname@example.org