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!

Making My Learning Visible

Every day I ask staff members to think, learn and reflect. As John Spencer, teacher blogger extraordinaire (@johntspencer) reminds us, being in a classroom is a tough, demanding job. It’s easy to forget that when you leave the classroom. I can talk about program and assessment in a session or from the safety of my “big principal desk”, but the reality of teaching 25 to 30 young, active and eager minds is something else. So when I ask faculty in our building to think, to learn and to reflect on their instructional practice, I need to always be aware of just how difficult teaching is.

One way I can do that is to make my own vulnerabilities and challenges as a learner visible for all the people I work with. Steven Katz , Canadian professor and educator, stresses the importance of showing that it is OK to identify challenges and weaknesses, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As students need that model and permission, so do teachers, educational assistants and early childhood educators.

In October, we held our first staff learning session. Our focus was to be a discussion and exploration of teachers’ problems of practice as they related to instructional practice. After examining perceptual data provided by teachers, we asked: “What is pressing and urgent in your classroom in terms of creating the conditions for student learning?”

To set the stage, I shared the results from a leadership qualities survey I asked staff to complete anonymously last June. (See previous post: Feedback, Priceless). This was not easy, partly because not all comments were positive, but also because this is intensely personal work.  Next, I shared my reflections about the feedback and what I wanted to focus on in my learning.  I accepted that I hadn’t done the best job in some areas of my school leadership. I accepted what the results were telling me. I admitted that I didn’t really know what to do next, but I was dedicated to finding out how to tackle the problem. I identified some next steps. Finally, I committed to telling staff about my progress in the future.

Reactions?  People were interested.  When I was honest about what I needed to learn, it opened the door for them to admit their own vulnerabilities. We can’t learn unless we admit our mistakes and work together to learn how to do things better. Our learning session was full of rich discussions about beliefs and teaching. I am really looking forward to the next session where we can continue the conversation.

How can you make your learning visible?

Canadian Experience?

Canada officially welcomes newcomers. At Canadian immigration offices around the world, we tell people their gifts, talents, training will be valued and respected when they arrive on our shores. Every week, our school registers newcomer families.

School councils in Ontario have an essential role in advising school staff and bringing parent, student, family and community voice to the forefront. Our school council is made up of parents who care deeply about the education of their children. They came to Canada for their children, but also in hope that they can contribute to our shared society. We have the benefit of the thinking and experience of a physician, a car mechanic, an engineer, a chemist, and a secondary school teacher. Among us we speak over eight languages. Our parents bring an advanced world view informed by thousands of years of culture from their countries of origin. I feel privileged to be part of their conversation and to learn together.

Yet, how many of these talented people are working in their field? One. Even though they were all welcomed to Canada, they can’t be certified or find work. Why? Because they don’t have “Canadian experience”. And you can’t get Canadian experience without certification.

This sad situation is a reality for so many of our parents and families. What a waste of human potential. We all need to examine our assumptions about the contributions of all Canadians. How can we widen our view and make sure everyone is able to contribute to the Canadian experience?