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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

When I Become A Principal File

Originally published in TEPSA's Instructional Leadership Journal.
Bell, S. (2013). “When I become a principal file.” Instructional Leader 26(1), 1-2.
File Folders by Cody Alice Creates

File Folders, a photo by Cody Alice Creates on Flickr.

Leading change is a challenging task that involves methodical planning and constant reflection. This is an article that I wrote that was published in the Instructional Leadership Journal, which is a publication of TEPSA. This article gives advice to any campus leader involved in a change effort. I give practical advice, based on my personal reflections from the first year of my principalship. I am currently in my 3rd year as a building principal.

 The conditions for change must be created before any change initiative can begin. It is critical that an organization evaluates what it is doing and determines if it is working before new initiatives are implemented. An experienced gardener will agree that it is important to prune the weeds before planting new flowers (Reeves, 2009). Great advice, right? This is sound advice and I must be reminded of these words daily.  As a new campus principal, I learned very quickly that changing one system, regardless of the significance, could send an organization into mass hysteria.  For some, change is a word that is synonymous with loss. Change represents risk, loss and fear, which are factors that often prevent change from being implemented (Reeves, 2009). Beginning a change process before identifying and communicating what will not change, is sure to cause anxiety.

It Began With A File
After my first year as an assistant principal, I knew that I had chosen the correct career path. I began recording thoughts and collecting articles that would help me make a successful, smooth transition to the principalship. I thought I had all of the answers and I felt that as assistant principal, I had the role of the principal all figured out. With my “When I Become a Principal File” in tow, I embarked on my first journey of the principalship.  Professionally, I live by the mantra, “when you learn better, you do better.” Every learning leader that learns something new wants to immediately put it into action. I was so excited when I entered my first year as a principal. I finally had the opportunity to lead and put into action all of the ideas that I had tucked away in my “When I Become a Principal File.”  I learned very quickly that it was going to take time to implement my wonderful ideas, and that there was a possibility that some of those ideas would have to remain in the file.  In fact, after the first week of attempting to put my mark on the campus that I inherited, I remembered a piece of wisdom that was shared with me that I placed in that file. I was advised that it would take three to five years before I would begin to see my mark on the campus. All of the members of my new staff did not share my same zeal for change, and I learned quickly that it was wiser for me to go slow in order to move fast. 
Rearrange The File
After I regrouped and realized that I was going to have to rearrange the thoughts in my file, I began to observe and ask questions. From my questioning, I gained a great deal of knowledge of where the campus had been and what the people within the organization valued.  From this simple task, I learned that inquiry should be a practice that is used continuously on a campus that values continuous improvement in students and teachers. Questions should drive the course of the organization and questions should continue to be asked to gain new knowledge.    
Circle of Concern Versus Circle of Influence
 Another tidbit that I gleaned from “the file” was the notion of the circle of concern versus the circle of influence. If leaders spent time dissecting the most pressing issues facing their schools that was within their control, they would probably discover that the most rigorous problems faced in education have simple solutions. I realized that I needed to focus on the areas that I could directly impact, which were human resources, time, collaboration and professional learning (Reeves, 2009). Coming to this realization helped me to focus my efforts and energies appropriately, and were the first steps in helping me develop a vision for my campus. Because the above-mentioned key factors have the greatest influence on student achievement, I began to look and analyze the previous human resources decisions that were made prior to my tenure in relation to campus data. That information, coupled with the information I gathered from classroom observations and walkthroughs, gave me valuable insight into the staffing decisions that needed to be made for the upcoming school year.  I also gathered data from the staff to determine professional learning needs, as well as, organized the master schedule to allocate time within the school day to provide job-embedded professional learning opportunities, with a focus on building shared-knowledge among the professionals within the building. Organizations do not change without changing the people involved in the organizations.  Leaders should have clarity and focus if they plan to implement change successfully.  Members of effective organizations see a relationship between their growth as a professional and student achievement (Reeves, 2009).  
Make the Plan then Work the Plan          
Education is a goal-oriented profession.  Implementing change requires unrelenting focus on a clearly-defined goal (Reeves, 2009). Although there have been a number of research-based strategies identified to improve organizations, access to endless student data that guides change efforts, and a plethora of successful schools to model, there is still a significant implementation gap. Often times change efforts began as an erratic process in response to an unsuccessful event or circumstance. Change is usually reactive and the reasons for change are often not explored at a deep enough level to truly make a significant difference.  Another nugget of knowledge that I tucked away in “the file” is that the focus of the principal, and a true tenet of continuous improvement, is the importance of sustaining change. Members of the field of education are notorious for jumping on the bandwagon and trying the latest fad. Leaders focused on continuous improvement must make well-informed changes.  Sustaining change involves celebrating the short-term victories while continuing to create a culture of commitment that will exist long after the leader that implemented the change process has departed (Reeves, 2009). 

I am in my second year as principal, and there are some expectations that are new for my staff. They are still learning about me as I am learning about them. It is normal for an organization to push back when change is being implemented, and in some situations, the force of that push may determine if the change efforts will continue.  In my experience, I have learned that being persistent and consistent along with aligning all decisions to the vision of the organization is so critical in continuous improvement. I have to remember that persistence is the key and change is not an event but a continuous process. When I can answer every question or request by tying it back to the shared vision, it moves me out of the way as the sole decision maker. Changing mindset is a significant task and persistence is critical in order to see change fully implemented. As a leader, I must remember that if I stay the course and keep my eye on the vision, then I will ultimately gain the prize.

Reeves, D. B. (2009). Lead change in your school: how to conquer myths, build commitment and get   results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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