Will I Lose Touch?
By Dr. Ryan A. Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
[We originally ran this short article in the ISU Ed. Leadershop in 2011. As we are nearing completion of another year-long Principal Internship experience at Indiana State University, we thought it might be helpful and informative to run again, this topic that is often on the minds of new and aspiring leaders. Enjoy.]
Healthy reservations were expressed to me in a question asked recently by a future Principal: “Will I lose touch with students when I move from the classroom to school leadership? I don’t want to lose the one-on-one connections I have.”
Natural apprehensions are to be expected in this transfer of professional responsibilities; after all, no prescribed class rosters or officially scheduled students will fill a leader’s playbook each day through which to foster and maintain positive relationships. Plus, the fact that one’s locus of responsibility expands from 30 to 150 students all the way to 300 or 3000, as well as dealing with faculty and staff issues, is enough to get anyone’s attention.
Well, I can say, without hesitation, that “all is good.” I have found through many years of building leadership that a principalship was even more satisfying than a position as classroom teacher to forge one-on-one relationships with students and to make a positive difference. This has to do with three variables: (1) A principal’s paternal/maternal identification as a leader, (2) Autonomy for targeted/assisted intervention, and (3) Authority through which to make life-changing decisions.
First, as principal, students often identify with you either paternally or maternally, influenced in part by the “in-loco parentis” factors of school cultural symbolism, those that occur visibly through a leader’s participation in school-day presentations, greetings, events, rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations of school life and identity. As principal, you not only become the living logo of the building, through which school mission and vision are embodied, you also become a father or mother, a “dad” or “mom,” to students.
Your role is such as the building’s premiere parent, and because of such, students will do what they typically do to maximize their desires for parental “permissions.” They’ll attempt to please you, of course, and even look up to you at times, yet they’ll predictably also play “parent versus older siblings” and seek YOUR help in trumping what another in authority has demanded of them. What this amounts to is much traffic to your office, as well as many attempts to get your ear, from all in the school community.
To say that these experiences with you are anything less than impressionable for students would be an understatement. Through your interactions, students hang on your every word, carrying your messages to others willingly, serving up the knowledge gleaned as most worthy of family (school family) discussion. Your presence and symbolism have great power and impact; please realize this humbly and responsibly.
Second, as principal, despite all that confronts you from “without” – such as the increasing responsibilities in dealing with the market forces of school competition, standardized testing pressures, classroom observation logistics, data analysis responsibilities, and curricular mandates -- the lion’s share of your time each day is spent interacting one-on-one, or in groups, “with people.” You spend much time communicating with those who work each and every day to help your school reach its goals, thus allowing you opportunities to build, what Sergiovanni (2009) would call, relational trust with your followers. I would suggest that with this in mind, much of your time, energy, and focus is rightfully placed upon the needs of students.
Powerful to note is that as principal, for the most part you are not required by assignment to attend to specific tasks during externally prescribed periods of time. You set your own schedule to the degree that emergency circumstances and your superintendent will allow. In such, you decide upon whom or what to focus. Imagine the opportunity to focus on children each morning in the manner in which you choose -- to foster relationships with students, as each and every day provides the need for positive adult-to-child intervention.
Before school begins each day, as Principal you can watch closely and identify those kids who are coming to school in need of most help and attention. You then have the opportunity for a kind word, some unencumbered moments of your time, an invitation to your office, and even some personal effort to make things a bit better for them. Imagine from the standpoint of a struggling student, the meaningfulness and memorability of a school leader’s taking the time to provide a helping hand … just because the principal cares enough to do so. I would argue that there is not a better anvil and hammer to forge relationships than your ability as a principal to “care.”
Tough (2008) noted the importance of an educator’s caring, stating:
It was the X factor, the magic ingredient that could outweigh all the careful calculations behind [a school’s] strategy for success … what made a difference in many students’ lives was a personal connection that was impossible to measure and difficult to replicate. If the kids didn’t get that, all the tutoring in the world might not help them. (p. 186)
Educators’ demonstrating “care” in the most arduous of circumstances was Tough’s (2008) example, through which heroes made a positive difference. So can you.
To those who believe that school guidance counselors have this as part of their job descriptions – “Absolutely.” They most certainly do, as schools are not limited in the number of heroes they employ. Yet, there’s no substitute for a principal’s taking time as well to individualize and act on behalf of students, within the framework of his/her expertise, authority, interest, and compassion. There’s enough “need” to go around in today’s schools, as children come to us more broken all of the time, in need of heroes.
Finally, as Principal, you have the greatest authority within your building to use your panoramic perspective to “do what’s right” and make a positive difference. You see the entire picture and can act upon it. Students and staff will seek you out for redress of “wrongs.” Even in times in which you try your best to act discreetly and confidentially, news will spread regarding your actions. This can be used to your advantage; after all, you have the power to act when others do not. People will know more about you than you realize; they will identify closely with “the you” that your office, your beliefs, and your deeds represent. You will create bonds with others simply because they respect and admire what you have accomplished. You are a living logo with visible authority to wield great power on behalf of the underdog.
Thinking back to one of my most meaningful experiences as a K-12 leader, I was tending to paperwork in my office in the half hour or so after I announced to students in a school-wide meeting my retirement-of-sorts from the K-12 public schools. As most students and staff were back in class, a small group of students filed in and sat with me, some with smiles and well-wishes; others in tears. What surprised me the most was the fact that a few of the students who were crying were not those whom I was even aware of close feelings on their part. The authority through which principals make life-changing decisions brings us closer to students than we may ever realize.
Our relationship with students, upon taking a position as a building leader, may not be exactly the same as it was while a faculty or staff member, yet it will most certainly be “as close” and “as powerful,” if not more so. We don’t lose touch. It’s all good! Yet, I caution that with this realization of potential for strong connections, we also understand that a direct result of factors (1), (2), and (3) above, can be as much negative as positive, if we are not acting with virtue, mission-mindfulness, and student-centeredness. Amidst the challenges that school leadership brings to those of us willing to accept the invitation come the greatest possible rewards through relationships with students and stakeholders lasting a lifetime.
Sergiovanni, T. (2009). The principalship: A reflective practice perspective (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Tough, P. (2008). Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.