Leading in Tough Times

sneeze “When the principal sneezes, the school catches a cold.”

So says Todd Whitaker, author of many great leadership books, including What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things that Matter Most. I love this quote, because it sums up everything I believe about the importance of the role of school principal.

The principal has the greatest impact on school culture of any other person in our educational systems. I liken this to the influence that the teacher has in the classroom. Have you seen a great classroom? Of course, you have. Look to the teacher. Have you seen a great school? Look to the principal.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not on some kind of ego trip as a school principal.  There are many more people who work in schools and give their all to our students that are more important than me.  It’s the ROLE that is key.

If I act down in the mouth, negative or even nasty, that will travel through the school like wildfire. If I act as if I don’t trust our staff, everyone will know.  On the other hand, if I walk around with a big smile on my face all the time, welcoming students, parents, staff and visitors alike, that shows everyone how much I like my job. When I believe in our students and our staff, everyone knows.

Being positive when things are going well is pretty easy. And a lot goes well in our school and thousands like it. Teachers work like crazy preparing wonderf

ul lessons and learning opportunities, students show how much they love school and their teachers, and support staff add immeasurably to the school culture. I could list a hundred things that I am proud of in our school.

Then, inevitably, the tough times come. These can take all kinds of forms, but come they do. Lately in Ontario, we have been struggling through a conflict between educational sector workers and the provincial government. Lines have been drawn in the sand, and tensions are high. The situation doesn’t show signs of a quick resolution.

As a principal, if I’m negative about it, the school community will be negative. I need to be able to maintain a positive school culture so we can continue move forward and work together. It’s a challenge as I deal with uncertainty, frustration, anger and powerlessness from all sides.


Education is about relationships. Strong, caring and empathetic relationships are the key in this situation too. Students need to know that their teachers and educational assistants still care about them, even without extra curricular activities for a while. Parents and families need to know the school is still there to support them and their children. Staff needs to know that I respect their rights and value everything they do. It can be a tough line to walk! I find myself carefully considering what I say every day, which is a great leadership lesson.

Honest, timely and transparent communication is also very important. Critical people to communicate with include both formal and informal leaders on staff. But everyone wants to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and why decisions are being made.  During times of crisis or just difficult times, people are hungry for information. My responsibility as principal is to make sure I share the information I have in a timely way.

Finally, I need to take care of myself. A burnt out leader is not much good to anyone!  I try to do at least one thing every day that brings me joy.  I also think about each staff member’s gifts and talents. I visualize them working in our great school. I imagine where I want us to be tomorrow, in a few weeks and in a few months.

Then I put that smile on my face and head in to work!


3 Responses to “Leading in Tough Times”

  1. Susan Bosher Avatar
    Susan Bosher

    I couldn’t agree more. The important work we do as leaders cultivating relationships has never been more evident than right now. Supporting staff and keeping the tone positive with parents has really been a benefit. When parents comment on the good things that are happening their appreciation is accepted on behalf of the amazing team we have at our school. In many ways I’ve seen teachers working even harder in the classroom to offer extensions to the curriculum that they may not have done before to show their commitment to student learning. Although the extra-curricular opportunities make a child’s year even more memorable these extensions benefit even more students than those few students that are chosen for an athletic team or school musical. The goal now will be for both to happen when things get back to normal so that we can provide an even richer experience for all students. This will be my goal as a leader!

  2. Thanks for your post. I love my job, but one of the most challenging parts is always being “on”. Having a bad moment or bad day as a principal can have a wide impact.

    1. So true. Just like a teacher – when they have a bad day, it really affects their students. Being “on” so much is one reason why it’s so important to leave work at work when you can.

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