SURN Principal Academy Delivers Powerful Messages: Communicate, Value Relationships, and Create Your Tribe

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

By now the wave of school openings has ended and the school year is well underway. The challenges that accompany the start of the new year are now giving way to the day-to-day work of meeting the high standards we have set for ourselves, our faculties, and our students. Meeting deadlines, managing conflicting obligations, providing direction for teachers, and supporting students can be overwhelming and make it easy to lose sight of our optimism. To help mitigate this, I’d like to remind you of some things you already know but may forget in the daily shuffle.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate! 

Remember to communicate! Effective communication leads to an effective organization. Communication with all stakeholders is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a productive school year. As a principal, I tried to balance written communication with the powerful communication of my presence. It is no longer enough to just mail documents home. We must also embrace systems such as ConnectEd and School Messenger to stay connected with all members of our community. We also need to remember to post information and publicize school events and accomplishments on the school website and on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Technology has increased the number of outlets for us to communicate and has made information more accessible to our stakeholders. As a result, we may sometimes worry that we run the risk of over communicating, but this is a preferable position to be in than not having communicated enough. Remember, effective communication builds trust. It puts people at ease (especially newcomers!) and keeps people from having to guess about our expectations.

Being present is a powerful form of communication and a characteristic of effective leadership. It is easy to get trapped in your office, but it’s essential to satisfy the high demand for your presence from both internal and external stakeholders. First and foremost we communicate the value of education by being present for our students. This includes being in the hallways, cafeteria, and extra-curricular activities. Every organization, department, grade level, central office person, and family that is associated with your school wants a piece of your time, and it is important to provide each of them with an opportunity for a face to face meeting. Try to schedule these meetings during your least busy time.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Relationship over Achievement

 Student achievement is a source of strength, both for the division and the individual schools. Achievement creates energy which, in turn, fuels further improvement, but too much focus on achievement can actually damage student performance.  For example, as the principal of an unaccredited school, I relentlessly focused on tasks and goals. In the beginning, I commanded and coerced, and as a result, my faculty became more concerned with meeting my expectations than with meeting the needs of students. I should have heeded the caution of Spreier, Fontaine, and Malloy (2018): “Too intense a focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity” (p. 45). In other words, I should have remembered to coach and collaborate, to take time to learn my faculty, staff, and students. Relationships take time and are made one open-house, one faculty meeting, one classroom visit, and one hello at a time. With relationships and trust fully established, we can get down to the business of improving student learning for every child in our building.

Mentor leaders encourage collaboration, pride, and networking as they develop their tribe.

Creating your TRIBE!

The principalship is a high-demanding, complex, and lonely job. Therefore, experiencing a supportive community of fellow principals is necessary. Principals rarely have opportunities to collaborate with their peers to share ideas, reflect on leading and learning, and discover how to improve their performances. At the beginning of my administrative career, I worked in isolation, but I quickly learned the power of having a community of leaders as a muse. In my latter years of being administrator, I was introduced to SURN. Being new to VA, the network in the Principal Academy helped develop my VA educational leader profile. To this day, I remain in contact with members of my cohort as well as my mentor. I encourage each of you to take advantage of your cohort members and our time together during the Principal Academy. By surrounding yourself with positive people who are in the similar roles, they are going to push you towards greatness.

Communication: The beginning and ending of leadership

by Jamon H. Flowers, M. Ed., SURN

As a principal, what is your vision? Do staff members know what needs to be done to reach that goal? Do they know how you expect them to reach that goal? More importantly, do they know why this goal is vital to meet? And once they understand the “what,” “how,” and “why,” do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely manner? These are pragmatic issues that principals encounter. Here are a few thoughts I have on how to more effectively address these issues and reach set goals in an authentic and enduring manner.

Collaborative vs. Solitary

Before anything else, engaging stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and community members, in conversations about where we are and why we are there, where we need to go and why we need to go there, and how we are going to get there and why we are traveling the path(s) to get there are pivotal. Notice why is included in each question. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the fact that you are seeking and valuing their perceptions increases their commitment and confidence which reduces resistance when it is time to implement. This collection of perspectives helps to pinpoint what needs to be done (the what), action steps needed to deliver (the how), and the reasons for doing it (the why) helps to keep everyone focused.

Telling Your Why

Principals have the best intentions but need to remember that people are not mind readers. That’s why it is important to share your why. Tell your staff and communities why you choose to lead your school, your vision for the school and how you will get it done. Often, principals, especially those new to their school buildings, are met with more resistance due to the lack of communication. People do not give support for what they do not understand or fear. In this case the fear of the unknown. State and live your commitments on a daily basis. You are being watched by all to determine if your why is at the forefront of your actions.

Give Them Space

Early in my administrative career, I discovered that my message of the importance of teachers having autonomy was not demonstrated in my actions. I was dictating the paths to achieve set goals. Staff and teachers became more concerned about meeting my expectations versus completing their work in a quality way.

The lesson I learned was that being too rigid compromises an individual’s ability to perform. There is nothing wrong with giving teachers the flexibility and freedom to interpret change so that they can get the job done in a way that works for them and the school. Remember, when we ask for change teachers are on the front lines. They have the skills and capability of executing in the moment, so let them do it and provide them with resources and support. Doing this gives them a sense of ownership, pride, and a boost in their morale.

 Celebrate

One of the simplest acts of showing gratitude is to celebrate. Celebrate those who contribute to the success. Leaders cannot change an organization alone as it takes an entire team to achieve this goal. When implementing change it is inevitable that we will experience setbacks. However, it remains crucial to celebrate whether it is a big or small victory.

As a principal, I celebrated my staff frequently, especially during testing season. During this intense period, I made sure staff was showered with gifts, food, and other incentives. For example, community partners provided faculty and staff lunch for an entire week. Additionally, the parent-teacher association (PTA) supplied teachers with baskets full of snacks and inspirational quotes. At the end of each school year, awards and trophies were distributed to those individuals who exceeded expectations. Teacher morale, their sense of efficacy, and their commitment strengthened. I was told on many occasions they felt appreciated and valued- two emotions that are sometimes absent in the education system. Let us be honest with ourselves: we all want to experience those feelings on a regular basis and when we do, we are motivated to do more for a cause. Remember to celebrate students and community members, too.

Final Thoughts

If we are not careful, visions and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into practical, on-the-ground performance through a complex sequence of interactions, on a daily day. It is crucial that you use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed above. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So, say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.