Do you ever have those days at school or work where things just don’t go right? Where it seems like the world and her sister are against you? Where you feel pretty bleak?
Here’s something GUARANTEED to help you feel better:
Yes, it’s a basket of cards. Let me explain.
A few years ago, when I was a beginning vice principal, a retired principal friend, Mary Johnson, offered this wise advice: “Start collecting all the cards and letters you get where people thank you or say nice things. Then, when you have a bad day, and those days will come, believe me, pull out the cards and read a few over.”
A simple yet brilliant idea. I’ve been collecting the cards ever since. Just like you, they come from colleagues, students and parents. Being a principal can be a lonely job. The cards help me remember connections, keep perspective and stay grounded.
We all see the countdown before the holiday break, before spring break and especially in June. Staff members shout out “Two more sleeps!” as they pass each other in the hall. There are countdown boards in the main office. Some teachers put it up on their chalk or whiteboards. I’ll be honest – I’ve participated and with glee some years! But Stacy’s letter in The Final Countdown brought me up short. It really made me think. What message am I sending to students when I count down? School is horrible? I’d rather be somewhere else? I don’t really like them?
I decided to share the ideas with our staff. I photocopied these two, plus Justin Tarte‘s post, It’s That Time of the Year Again, and organized a quick jigsaw activity at our early June staff meeting. Teachers and ECE’s (early childhood educators) read and chatted. That was it. I didn’t discuss the blogs or make any directives. I just gave time to think.
But a funny thing happened in our school this June. There was no countdown! I noticed in the last week that nobody was talking in the hallway about how many days were left and especially in front of students. The whole feeling of the school was different to previous Junes I’ve experienced. Students were more calm. Teachers seemed more focussed. I didn’t sense the same June frenzy as in past years.
“One thing is certain about the role of a school leader – it is people intensive!” (in Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School Culture One Conversation at a Time, by Linda Gross Cheliotes and Marceta A. Reilly). Not only that, but every day as a principal or vice principal is filled with all kinds of conversations with all groups, including students, parents, staff, colleagues, supervisors and community members. The authors see these as opportunities for trust building and change. They believe if we are intentional about conversations, if we listen actively, if we empower others to find their solutions, and if we pratice these consistently, then reflection and powerful changes in thinking can occur.
I want to focus on active listening in this post. I know how important it is to be fully engaged in the conversation. It lets the other person know that I am interested, that I care and that they are heard. It builds trust. It allows others the time to think aloud and work through ideas. That said, I am far from the perfect listener.
It can be so hard to put aside the day to day jobs or look up from the keyboard to really listen to someone else. I have to work to curb the urge to speak and to give my opinions (of which I have many, as anyone who knows me can tell you!). Yet I know that listening shouldn’t be about me. It’s about the other person.
Recently I sat in on a group of eight principals and vice principals talking about an initiative within our district. It was fascinating to observe who spoke and who didn’t. (Mostly those who might be perceived to be more powerful within our district hierarchy spoke. A lot.) It was even more interesting to take note of who seemed to be really listening. Some participants seemed more eager to be the first to state a point. Often, when I find myself in a group situation, I also have to consciously work to listen, pause, and paraphrase. It forces to me take account of what others are saying.
Careful listening also allows me to know our staff, our students, our families and my colleagues better. It leads me to reflect more deeply on my own ideas and preconceptions. It allows me to learn as I think about what was said.
When we listen more than we talk, the payoff can be huge. It’s worth the effort.