I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.
I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.
I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I will make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.
So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, to develop social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.
“The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.”
― Thomas J. Watson
Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.
Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.
As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.
PRINCIPAL, ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
This is Matt’s seventeenth year in public education. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, Matt served as an assistant principal, athletic director, and building principal all in Wisconsin Rapids. Now as an elementary principal with the Mineral Point Unified School District, he continues to enjoy working with students, staff, and families in their collective pursuit of lifelong learning.