I have crossed over to the “dark side.” I am now an assistant principal. Although I transitioned from a teacher leader to an assistant principal over two months ago, I made this decision back in 2013. It was a tumultuous year, one in which I decided that the safest place for my students and me was my classroom, room 134. Most of my colleagues were hiding in our rooms due to a hostile working environment and poor leadership. Sitting at my desk that April, I had an idea that school should be very different—more like a garden than anything. A leader, I said to myself, should be the gardener: Planting seeds, nurturing them and promoting growth. Since becoming an assistant principal two months ago, I have to admit that I am not yet tending a healthy and tranquil garden. Each day I struggle. I struggle to be the leader our staff needs and to place myself in the shoes of the educators I work with. I fight to remember what it feels like to be a teacher, including the incredible pressure I felt to meet the ongoing needs of students, always keeping myself focused on what is best for them. Each day I go home tired, worn out and wondering if the decisions that I have made in the day are the right decisions. I laugh at what I thought this job would be like before I began. I had such thoughts of grandeur about how I was going to “revolutionize” my school. Sometimes I question the impact I make. In a moment of being very hard on myself, I thought, “Am I truly making a difference?” Then a staff member will stop by my office and thank me for replying to her emails so quickly. “That means so much to us,” she will say. At those moments, I remind myself that I may not yet be tackling the heavy stuff to make a huge difference, but being a positive force does not always require a huge accomplishment. I take a breath and determine to focus on being a PC(3) leader—not one who is politically correct, but a leader who is present, who communicates, is compassionate, and composed. That’s PC(3). The teacher in me says, “That may not be everything, but it is a very fine way to start.”
To truly support our teachers, I have to be where they are. I conduct regular informal walkthroughs and make it a priority to get into halls and classrooms. Every morning I greet teachers with a friendly hello, and the end of the day say goodbye and thank them. I want the staff to know that I care about them beyond their job. I care about them as people.
On-going, authentic, two-way communication is hard to come by these days. But nothing as various and complex as a school environment can grow and thrive without it. I make and seek out opportunities to have two-way communication with staff and encourage the teacher leader that resides within them. Open communication leads to transparency, and transparency is a vital part of a safe and trust school. That’s why I always give timely feedback after walking through a classroom. As an educator, I yearned for a meaningful response to my work. Now I see this feedback as the water that encourages growth. When possible, it’s best to communicate in person. I don’t handle volatile situations over email. Teachers tell me they feel more listened to when I respond to an angry email by showing up in their room to talk it over. Maybe we can get more done over the Internet, but an important personal connection is sacrificed in our pursuit for efficiency.
The other day, I was speaking with a staff member behind closed doors, and she became very upset about something personal. I had no words, but I asked her, “Can I hug you?” She opened her arms said, “I am so glad you’re here.” A compassionate leader is empathetic and responsive. We don’t always have all of the answers, but if something is important to my teachers, it should be important to me. I just want to love on my teachers the same way I did for my students.
There are many situations that will arise during a school day that may present difficulties, but an instructional leader must remain composed and poised under the pressure. Just recently, I had a situation today where all of the staff members were crying in the room due to a serious situation. As much as I wanted to cry, as my empathy was kicking in, I knew that I had to remain calm and provide some assurance and continuity. When everyone else feels pulled apart, a leader has to be the glue. Do I miss the classroom? God, yes. But I know I am where I am needed, tending our garden. I never want teachers to feel like I felt in 2013. Not on my watch.
Kelisa Wing is the author of "Weeds & Seeds: How To Stay Positive in the Midst of Life’s Storms" and "Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline" (both available on Amazon). She also is a 2017 State Teacher of the year, speaker, teacher and activist for discipline reform. Kelisa holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland University College, a ...