Perception vs. Reality

When I began teaching, it was very clear that my undergraduate training had not adequately prepared me for real world teaching. That’s not meant to be a slam against the university; I don’t believe any university program can really prepare you for what you face as an educator. The same was true when I finished my administrator program.

My first three years as an administrator were full of lessons I had to learn, some easy and some much less so. Even though some of those years were the most difficult I’ve experienced in my career, I’m thankful for that experience to set me up for my current role.

One of the hardest but most useful lessons I’ve learned in my administrative journey is that reality doesn’t matter. I’m sure that sounds strange, so I’ll explain. In probably at least half of my conversations with other people (parents, staff, or students), the only thing they care about is their own perception of what really happened. For them, their perception is reality. I can try to explain what actually happened, but what is often the most effective is smile, apologize, and let them be heard.

One time this came up this year was when we sent surveys to families and staff. While the feedback is often positive, there are definitely some criticisms, particularly if the surveys are anonymous. On one particular survey, we heard from several parents that our administrative wasn’t responsive enough with our communication, particularly email. Some members of my team took offense to that. And while it may or may not be true, the fact that multiple families believe we don’t respond quickly enough says we have a problem to fix.

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, the truth really does matter. Investigations that ultimately result in consequences for students or staff rely on accurate information. However, I’ve noticed that in the course of the investigation, different versions of the “truth” often emerge, most likely because our own “truth” is shaped by our own experience and views about the event.

A big part of this has to do with letting go of being right as an administrator. This was a hard lesson for me to learn and one I still struggle with from time to time. I’ve apologized for a great many things that weren’t my fault or weren’t actually done wrong. But that’s what the situation called for at the time. Because ultimately it’s not about me, it’s about helping them move toward a resolution.

Setting Boundaries and Staying Productive

One of the biggest struggles I am hearing from my teachers right now is how overhwelmed they are with the number of emails and messages they receive on a daily basis. Emails from administration, colleagues, families and students fill up their inbox on a daily basis. On top of that, we have a messaging app that allows parents to essentially text teachers throughout the day.

During distance learning last spring, everyone started increasing the number of messages they sent electronically. Since we weren’t in the building, we couldn’t just stop by someone’s classroom to have a chat. It almost all went through email. It got to be a lot and often teachers and staff felt like they had to be “on” all the time because the school community was now messaging each other at all hours of the day and night.

I felt it in the beginning, too. I felt like I was spending 24 hours a day looking at my computer screen and responding to emails. I wasn’t sleeping well and it was exhausting. Eventually, I had to take a step back. While I wasn’t always closing my computer by 3:30 every day, I was definitely closing it by 5 or 6. It helped immensely.

Now we are in hybrid learning. We’re all still in the habit of sending tons of emails and messages (families included). But now we have kids in front of us from 8:00 to 3:00. We can’t drop everything and respond in real time the way we did when we were all at home in our pajama pants.

Email can be a HUGE time suck if we let it. I know I’m incredibly guilty of leaving my email open all day long and dealing with new messages as they come in. I have my work email on my cell phone and I’m always checking it throughout the day and night. In fact, it’s often the first thing I see after my alarm in the morning and the last thing I see at night.

But that needs to stop. We think by checking email frequently, we avoid the huge pileup at the end of the day. Productivity experts say you should check email far less than we do. We think we’re saving time by responding in real time, when in fact, frequent checking actually wastes more time than it saves (See here).

There are two other tricky parts of email at work: 1) the more you send, the more you get and 2) when you respond immediately, you set the tone for the future.

The first part is easy. If I send an email to five staff members, I will be expecting 5 emails back from that message. And if I have a particularly heavy email day, I can expect dozens of emails to fill my inbox when I return. My solution here is to stop by classrooms when I can or set up a quick Zoom chat to avoid sending so many emails. Another solution is to consolidate the info in a weekly (or perhaps daily if need be) email that goes to your staff with relevant information.

The second part isn’t hard to figure out but it’s sometimes difficult in practice. When we respond to messages immediately or after hours, we teach those we communicate with that we are always available. But that’s not realistic, especially this year with all of the extra demands being placed on us in schools. Our school handbook says we have 24-48 hours to respond to parent communications. But because we so often send off a quick reply, parents now become frustrated if they don’t hear back immediately.

This is where boundaries come in. It is perfectly acceptable (and honestly, necessary) to set limits to when and how people can reach you. Teachers and other school staff are not “on call.” We do not need to be available 24-7. That said, if you are going to change your communication protocols, it’s a good idea to give people a heads up first so they don’t feel like they are suddenly being ignored.

So what’s my plan to tackle this? I’m kicking around a few ideas around goals for productivity and boundaries:

  1. Stop checking email after work. I have provided my cell phone number to my teachers if there is a genuine emergency. Otherwise, send me an email and I’ll read it in the morning.
  2. Stop sending emails after hours and on weekends. Gmail has a “schedule send” button. If I feel the need to get caught up after work hours, that’s on me and my staff shouldn’t be expected to do the same simply because I am. I will use the “schedule send” button if I’m working outside school hours so I’m not setting the example that working late is the expectation. It starts with me.
  3. Set times for checking email. I need to set up my schedule around what I need to do and not let what comes into my inbox dictate my day. I like to check email first thing in the morning and before I leave for the day. It feels good to have an empty inbox when I walk out. I may also consider adding a 3rd time around lunch if the end of day session starts stretching out too long.

How do you manage all of your emails and stay productive?

I Just Want to Principal

I just want to principal (yes, I’m aware I’m using a noun as a verb and I’m okay with it). We’ve been in school in full distance learning for 3 1/2 weeks now, even though lots of my teacher friends just went back for workshops this week. Some things are definitely getting better; students know the routine, are getting better at logging in and completing work independently, and teachers are feeling more comfortable with the tech tools they’re using. And yet, some things still don’t feel great.

I think part of it is that we’re not done planning. Some districts have made the decision to stay in their chosen format for a long period of time. We are planning to switch to a hybrid format in a week and a half. We’ve put a ton of time and energy into planning distance learning, but we don’t get to really enjoy it because we’re right back into planning the next thing.

In the past few weeks, a lot of my time has been taken up with meetings, planning sessions, and schedule building to prepare for the switch. It leaves me with less time for the parts of the job I love, the actual “principal-ing.” I know, I know. Planning and scheduling is principal work, too. But the not so fun parts of our job (like paperwork and difficult conversations) often get balanced out by the better parts of the job (like reading stories to kindergarten classes or seeing kids learning in classrooms). The good stuff makes the less good stuff worth it.

The next few weeks will be a challenge as we put our new plans into place. Fortunately, we have a few days off with the holiday weekend to rest up and recharge. I plan to turn off my computer and take my email off my phone for the weekend. I know I have to take care of myself during this difficult time because I need to keep showing up for my teachers so they can show up for our kids. Isn’t that what principal-ing is all about anyway?

What is challenging you during this difficult school year? And how will you take care of yourself so you can keep making a difference for kids?

This is Hard.

Tuesday was the first day of school, but today was the first full day of distance learning classes for our students. And it was hard.

Don’t get me wrong. We got to see all kinds of little virtual faces light up and smile when seeing their teachers and classmates, hearing them share about a favorite toy or something they like doing. I got to hear about a 3rd grade boy’s cat and his classmate’s followup question of whether or not the cat can do tricks (the answer was no, unfortunately).

I checked in with my teachers at the end of the day via email (because, you know, distance learning). I’ve never had so many teachers feeling so defeated on the first day of school. Exhausted, yes, because we are out of shape for teaching after being away all summer. But not defeated. Not wondering if they can keep teaching this year. We even had a teacher talk about quitting already. This is after two teachers quit before workshops because they didn’t want to teach this way this year.

It’s hard for everyone. Operations teams are trying to figure out how to serve lunch and get kids to school on busses. HR departments are trying to figure out how to accommodate employees with health conditions and fear over COVID. But teachers take their jobs very personally, more so than most. And for them to feel like they’ve failed on day one? It’s devastating.

I am hopeful that tomorrow will be a better day. Kids will have had some practice logging in and knowing where to find their assignments. Teachers will feel a bit more comfortable with the tools they’re using. I hope they can feel like they got a win tomorrow to send them into the weekend on a more positive note.

As a principal, it gives me an almost helpless feeling because I know there are many parts of this I can’t help them fix. I can’t control whether or not students can get online (though I did help a few parents troubleshoot today). I can’t control if the technology works as it’s supposed to. And I can’t bring us back in person, though I know that would alleviate a lot of their stress.

But I will be back at it tomorrow, checking in on them, providing training, problem solving with them, and making sure I can get as many obstacles out of their way as possible. And I am hoping that we don’t lose really good teachers because of all of this.

Twas the Night Before Distance Learning

My students start school tomorrow, but they won’t be coming into the building. I work in a school with a year round calendar, so it’s the earliest first day of school I’ve ever had. And since we’re still in a pandemic, they will be learning from home.

It’s been a strange start to the year. Our entire workshop week was virtual. I met my teaching staff over Zoom. I honestly don’t even know what most of them look like (I’m at a new school this year) because I’ve either seen them in a mask or in large groups on a screen.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we are starting in this format. The idea of bringing 900+ children into the school right now definitely leaves me feeling panicky. Expecting children to social distance when plenty of adults aren’t doing it, seems a bit ludicrous. And masks for 6 hours a day? Yikes…

But tomorrow instead of seeing all of their big smiles walk through the door, I will see them drive through the parking lot as they pick up their learning supplies. They will have no idea what I look like because I will be wearing a mask myself.

I know our staff will be great, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about them. So many in education feel like they’ve been worrying about school since we closed down in March. What would normally be a time for relaxing and recharging for the new year, for many of us, this summer was one of wearing masks, staying home, and worrying about how we would handle school in the fall.

It doesn’t help that we’ve been getting constant pressure from some parents and leaders to open up. I keep hearing this idea of wanting to “get back to normal.” But this year isn’t normal. And it won’t be for a long time. The number of COVID cases in our area keeps going up (we added another 135 in our county alone over the weekend). Teachers are afraid to go back to work, and their fear is justified.

Tomorrow will be my 15th first day of school since starting my career. And it will be one to remember. Tonight I will go to bed, a mix of excitement and nervousness. After tomorrow, the journey begins to discover ways to better support students and teachers from a distance.