“The courage to build a team”

by Ileane Pearson

The career of an elementary principal includes as broad a range of emotions as it does experiences.  My first few years as a principal were a blur --fast-paced and a bit overwhelming.  The challenges presented by a sea of students, staff, parents, district administrators and the learning curve of doing it all for the first time leave little time to contemplate those things that really make a difference, but may not be in the immediate line of sight.  Thankfully, with each passing year, things improved.

A year ago, having taken stock of all that our school had accomplished during my early tenure, there was much to be proud of.  Implementation of new curricula in math and ELA, new instructional approaches, improved use of data and rising student enrollment all suggested that we were doing things right. The pace of professional life, while still fast, became familiar and therefore easier to manage.  The vision of good leadership practice became a bit less cloudy, the overwhelmed feeling abated. But, just as I was feeling planted and confident in our accomplishments, then came an emotion that I hadn’t expected, one that didn’t go away: I felt “lonely at the top”.

Looking back, of course I would feel lonely.  After all, leadership implies singularity, a certain amount of insulation necessary for healthy, non-biased guidance and management.  But it began to occur to me that that although leadership practice can be facilitated from the top, it can best be driven by a sense of the whole.  I began to feel that if I could pursue a formula of leading WITH, perhaps that lonely feeling would dissipate.

What I really needed in order to further advance our school culture, climate and student performance was an ability to live vicariously, to begin to feel and hear more of what my staff was feeling and saying, in their words and in their sense of time and rhythm. To achieve that, I would need a team of willing partners, a group I could feel close to, a group that could help bridge the inevitable divide of “manager” and “staff”. Working through my own vulnerability, and being fully honest, I divulged to staff in a series of small conversations that I was feeling that there were pockets of needs that existed in the school, but that I couldn’t identify them clearly acting alone.  Finally, I decided to put out an “all call”. I invited staff to consider being part of a working group whose goal it was to address challenges while representing and supporting fellow staff.  My “advertisement” read, “If you would like an opportunity to be a thought partner, a colleague who recognizes problems as part of a collective, and agrees to be part of the solution, this may be the opportunity for you.  Participants need to be willing to assume a leadership role among their colleagues.”

Was this a bold initiative?  Maybe.  Risky?  Perhaps. Behind us were the days of instructional leadership teams, principal advisory teams, curriculum teams and the like, but these were groups with a narrow function, not necessarily teams that could transcend so many of the roles and boxes we find ourselves in, as part of a school community. This group would need to function more organically, to be responsive, open, trusting, thoughtful and skillful. Teachers are often not used to being on the “inside” and talking openly about heated issues, problems and concerns. We needed to deliver some results, since the genesis of this group was public, new and different, and therefore, high-stakes for all of us.  But, the temptation of tapping into valuable resources --our staff—was, for me, irresistible. It was the best interests of staff, and their welcome response to my calling that gave me the courage necessary to put a plan into action.

The Action, Betterment, and Collaboration Team (ABC) have carefully explored new terrain. The ABC Team includes special educators, general education teachers, “specials” (art, technology, etc.), service delivery providers (??? What does this mean in English? J ) and administrators.  We spent several meetings on our role clarity, and agreed that we could all provide a sort of constituent representation, with an eye toward assessing and/or improving operations, climate, culture and communication within our school, and which builds expertise in critical areas.  Working together as trusting thought partners we concluded that we needed transparency, honest communication, good data collection and a promise to include all voices in order to build integrity for our efforts. As our ERC facilitator suggested, we should encourage one another to all spend some time thinking like a principal as well as some time thinking like a teacher.  It turned out to be a norm that has been exceedingly helpful.

People don’t have to be troubled by misinformation or rumors. Even though I always strove for honesty and disclosure, to have a dozen helpers now, folks who trust and believe in each other, and in me, has begun to take our climate to a higher and more positive level. We also take time to name the positive things, and to celebrate. Great baked goods and snacks are present at every meeting and are a little something special to see us through our hard work.

We’ve made some big strides -- no one group member or faction controls the agenda or has a heavier hand than any other.  We worked through a protocol to careful identify issues, needs and challenges and participated in an exercise referred to as “root cause analysis.”  That root cause analysis proved to be important since it carefully identifies the factors that can result in a problematic outcome and the conditions that need to be changed to prevent recurrence and achieve better outcomes.  That challenging discourse resulted in our establishing priorities that are best addressed through action, a drive for betterment and respect for collaboration. Hence, our name!

The candid dialogue among group members has been refreshing and empowers us all. It’s a really different group than so many of the others that we’re used to in school, The group really does allows this principal to think like a teacher because I’m now more aware of the subtle things that impact teachers.  And teachers are relieved that their needs and concerns are unearthed, examined and understood, and in their own words and their own rhythm. I am fortunate that I took the risk. I’m not feeling quite as lonely up here anymore.