This week, I had the chance to catch up with a former colleague who is also a current principal. We had the pleasure of working together at the start of my career at a very complex elementary school. When I say complex, I mean that the range of student need was both varied and significant. It’s that school where some kids would not necessarily come to school having had breakfast, or perhaps even a lunch in tow. Learning needs were almost secondary to basic needs, but we were a great staff who worked hard to make a difference, and I think we did.
When we get together, we have many stories to share about our teaching and learning experiences. There are many fond memories and a few laughs to be sure. However, the one thing that we always seem to come back and bond most over is our animosity, fear, respect, and love for our former principal. To be clear, I did use all four of those descriptors together. If you’re scratching your head, here’s how that works.
The feelings of animosity were usually pretty easy to see and probably feel. Late and long staff meetings and professional learning sessions (we would do after-school meetings on both Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they would often go past 5:00) after an already long day of teaching will do that pretty quick. In those moments, we all had the right answers and all her decisions were simply wrong. As a beginning, wrongfully confident teacher, I wasn’t too sure of what to make of it all, but I remember putting in really long days and thinking about work a lot. You for sure did not want to be that teacher in the staff meeting who didn’t get their “homework” done, and you needed to be darn sure you had something to share. There was a lot of grumbling, but in the end, we were always active (some more than others) participants.
During one casual pop-in, my principal dropped this on me: “Hey Ian, can I see you after school? And bring your planning and assessment with you.” I have talked about this moment before as my career-defining moment. This was not uncommon – my colleagues had told me about their encounters – but that simple interaction struck instant fear, and those 3 or 4 hours before the end of the day were some of the longest moments of my life. I can still see and hear the tick-tock of the clock as the moments slowly passed. When the day was over, I collected my things and headed to the office for our meeting. Thankfully, I felt like I had some of the right stuff. I know for sure that I has something more than nothing, but I just wasn’t sure why she had asked for it. In the end, the meeting was very positive, and she encouraged to take my first steps from a relationship-based professional to a master teacher. She paired me with another colleague who had some great assessment strategies and I took it all in. To shorten a much longer story, I learned from it, took the advice, and soon became an area lead teacher in assessment.
As I settled into my new position, and started to pass along some of my freshly adopted learning to others, I found myself more and more reflecting on where I had come. In those moments, I started to wonder just what would have happened to me if my principal had not cared enough to ask that question of me that day, or paired me up with a trusted colleague. I realized that upon reflection and departing the school that I had developed feelings of respect for my former principal, and for what I had encountered.
Coming back to my recent meet-up with my former colleague, we always end our reminiscing and come quickly to the realization that six of the teachers on staff at that complex school had gone on to become principals or system leaders. The hours of staff meetings, professional learning, and hard questions had paid off. At this point, none of the grumbling means a thing and respect and admiration turn to love. Love for each other, the experiences, the hours of hard work and even more hours spent worrying, and perhaps more than anything, love for the principal who had the courage to take us to places we didn’t know we needed to go.
On the off-chance that I run into my former principal, I always tell her about these stories and some of these feelings and she always laughs. She thinks it’s funny that I look so deeply at things and always says things like “oh Ian, I was just doing my job”. Whereas I find myself using the conversation to try and draw more wisdom for my own use, she is more interested in my kids and family, how coaching is going, and the state of my golf game.
Ultimately, my message to my colleagues, teachers experienced and new, is that sometimes you might now know what is happening in the moment, but if you are open to learning, trust the process and believe in your leadership, something wonderful just might happen. You just might not realize it until years later.
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.