September 4, 2017 Mike Gwaltney no responses

REPLY: “A Letter to My New Principal”

A couple summers ago, I read Laura Bradley’s open letter to her new school principal in Edutopia. I remember thinking that I almost completely agreed with Laura’s advice to her new school leader. I noted her letter was shared again this week, and with me being the new principal at my new school, I’m finally writing my reply.

In the same format as Laura’s original letter (to “Teacher,” from “New Principal”)…

Dear Teacher,

Thanks for the warm welcome! I could not be happier about joining your school and to be working with you. I know that you and your colleagues are a talented and dedicated group, and it’s a real privilege for me to be working with such awesome teachers.

Like you, I’ve spent a long time working in schools and have seen all kinds of school leaders. I have appreciated those leaders that made me feel valued and supported, and that’s the kind of principal I hope to be for you. You know I have a big job with lots of responsibilities, but my primary focus is on helping you be the best teacher you can be, so all of our students benefit.

Let me begin by saying that I believe all teachers are leaders, not just the school principal!  You lead in your classroom, in the hallways, on the stage, and on the field. Leadership at school must be distributed and shared, and I don’t plan to try to do it all on my own — I value and rely on your personal leadership ability.

You wrote “effective principals genuinely care about kids” and I could not agree more! I do this work because I believe in our students and care about their learning. I will be out and about each day, greeting students at the door in the morning, eating lunch with them, going to their games and performances, and getting to know their interests and concerns. I know it is important that I have a relationship with them because knowing the students helps me learn how we can tweak our work to best serve their needs. Being truly “student-centered” means we all have appropriately close relationships with kids, and I hope to do that as well as you already do.

I also agree with you that if principals “genuinely care about kids, [they] will care about their teachers.” I value you and trust you to be the professional you are. The best principal I ever had loved spending time with the kids, and during breaks and lunch was somehow always available to chat with them. And he was also available to teachers! I can remember him coming to find me at the end of the day a few times a year just because he wanted to check in and see how I was doing. He made time to go into classrooms as a regular part of his day because he wanted to show he cared about our work. He was always ready to talk about my interests and the ideas I had for my classes, and was focused on partnering with me to make school a great learning community. More than any other school leader, I felt like he really “got me.” He showed me he cared. That’s the kind of principal I want to be for you! Of course, I need for you to help build that relationship with me, and give me the feedback I need to best support you.

To be a principal who cares about and supports teachers, I want you to know that I’m committed to “responding to your needs.” I commit to our ongoing conversation about learning and school business. I will listen, and really try to hear you. I know you have big, bold visions for our students, and I know my job is to help discern how those fit our strategic direction, and then help make them a reality. I know that one of the most important indicators of a successful school is a healthy and thriving faculty culture, where teachers feel valued and supported to grow and do good work. As your new principal, I look forward to talking about your exciting ideas! I have ideas too, and I’m sure ours will often overlap. I want you to know that my primary job as your principal is to help you develop your capacity to meet our mission with excellence, and I want to help you get what you need to build that capacity.

I have a slightly different view about the last item in your letter. You wrote that you hope I will “wait a year before making any changes.” I know it is not easy to be on the receiving end of change, so I get your thinking on this, and having been a teacher with a new principal before, I can empathize. And yet, we both know that we are living in a dynamic time of constant change in our society. Indeed, many have said that the 21st Century is itself a “world of change.” We should expect some small changes in our schools every year as a result. I think educators Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown explain it well:

What happens to [schools] when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change? Ironically, the relentless pace of change that is responsible for our disequilibrium is also our greatest hope: a new culture of learning is taking root and transforming the way we think about information, imagination, and play. We need to transform our schools for this new era of learning.

Leadership in a culture of change is not straightforward though, and I will need your help as we all navigate complexity and uncertainty over the coming years. I like how Jim Hemmerling describes how to lead in this culture of change and here are 4 commitments to you:

1. I promise to put our people first by connecting change to our shared sense of purpose. The “why” of any change must connect to our mission and vision and our shared sense of what is best for kids.

2. I commit to support you so you can go all-in with any change. I want to help you get the skills and tools you need to do our important work daily.

3. I will model a growth mindset, and encourage you to experiment and support you in analyzing and understanding the results. Together we will build a powerful learning culture where we all feel safety to try new things and sometimes fail.

4. I will engage you early in any change process, and will value your input. I plan to lead inclusively, walking our transformation journey in partnership with you.

Let me end by answering the question you asked at the end of your letter: “what do I need from you so I can be an effective leader of our already great school?” I need your good will, and your feedback. Like anyone, I will make mistakes! I need to know you are on my side and that we will all succeed together by being in partnership. I often say “thanks for the feedback” because I know all of us need to share with each other how we can be better in our roles at school. I need your help in developing and maintaining a school culture where we discuss our work collegially and always have each others’ backs.

I can’t wait for the kids to arrive and to get started. Here’s to a great school year!

Your New Principal

 

 

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Mike Gwaltney