Going into middle school, I knew I had to have a certain look to fit in. Baja jackets or hyper-color T-shirts, yep, had to have them. Guess Jeans and Doc Marten boots, you know it. I mean I was walking into a middle school in which all THREE district grade schools converged into one melting pot of adolescent anxiety. I knew that if I didn’t have the look, I wasn’t going to fit in.
We laugh now at the mid-90’s garb we blew our allowances on, but the truth is….fitting in is important. Fearless leaders who flip schools from dysfunctional to pillars of schloarly excellence don’t dare or care to FIT IN, do they? Well, in my mind, they better if they want to understand and meet the needs of their students and staff.
The concept of fitting in naturally evokes visions of weakness. Fitting in, though, is not about being a follower or caving to the consensus. Rather fitting in as a school leader is about surveying the terrain of needs, transparently sharing how you’re going to fulfill those needs, and, lastly and most importantly, walking the talk by showing up and meeting those needs.
I’m in my first year as principal of Union Valley Elementary School in Hutchinson, KS. I’m five weeks deep into the job and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m loving my role as Union Valley principal because I’ve taken the time to “fit in.” I’ve taken the time to survey staff and student needs and thoughtfully created a concrete plan to meet those needs. I’m working hard to walk my talk and fit in as THE leader. Playing on the metaphor shared earlier, these have been my Guess Jeans and Hyper-Color T-shirts to fitting in as our school leader:
- Visibility–Upon getting the job as Union Valley principal, I informally visited with a number of staff about what they would like to “see” out of me as the school leader. They regularly and strongly told me that they would like to see……me. Message heard. I’ve worked hard to be visible in the classroom (45 documented learning walks in the first eight days of school), in the lunchroom, and in the parking lot during dismissal. Being visible has helped me make connections with all members of our learning community–teachers, parents, cooks, custodians, etc. It also has helped me realize what a STRONG school we have and where I fit in as the leader.
- Communication–Our WONDERFUL secretaries shared with me that “communication,” in their eyes, is paramount to effectively leading a school. Again, message heard. Morning Announcements, a daily 10-minute whole school assembly, helps me connect with and communicate to our staff and students on a daily basis. Morning Announcements has helped us become one big, happy, well-informed family. I’ve also worked to harness the power of digital communication through recording quick videos to connect with both staff and parents. Prior to the start of school, I created and sent five minute videos to both staff and parents. These videos helped viewers better know me as a person and understand my leadership style. They also proactively informed viewers of important upcoming activities, beginning and end of day procedures, and shared important info regarding new district initativies–bond updates, new math series, and standard-based report cards.
- Fun, Energy, and Soft Skills–The UV staff and students were hungry for fun, energy, and “soft leadership” and I’ve worked hard to deliver all three. Sometimes these efforts are big. For example, we loaded up on the “energy bus” as a whole staff our first day of PD and went out to coffee at a local cafe. However, more importantly, these efforts are small and continuous. We’ve made “greeting others” a school-wide goal. Never will a staff member or student walk down the hall by himself/herself and not be greeted with a hug or high-five or at minimum a pleasant “good morning.” These small initiatives have helped me “fit in” in a big way.
In summary, “fitting in” has been essential to our successful start at Union Valley this school year. My job isn’t to be the iconic leader who puts the school on his back. My job is to effectively read current strengths and current needs and work to develop both. If you’re new to a school this year, no matter what the role you have, think about what you can do to “fit in.” You and your school will be better off for it.
Here are a couple of videos I’ve used to communicate with parents and staff. I’m a video-creating novice. I used Touchcast to create and share both. If you’re new to creating videos, I highly recommend TC. If I can use it, you can.
Parent Communication via Video
Staff Communication via Video