When I got into K12 education I had no clue how a school ran. Sure, I knew a lot about infrastructure, technology, networks, etc… but nothing about managing a school, or a department within it. I did not realize the value of personal relationships, the importance of clear communication, or the huge need for patience. Coming from consulting in large NYC financial firms meant I needed to downshift drastically from every second counts to impact takes time. Though not intentionally, as there was so much that needed to be in my first role as Technology Director, I downshifted enough to have a profound impact in my first K12 independent school. Touching base with old colleagues brings a smile to my face as they speak of current life at the school referring to things I put into place nearly 20 years ago.
Here are key takeaways that, to this day, play an important part of how I go about leaving a lasting impact wherever I go:
Personal relationships are valuable
K12 schools run on a different time dimension than most for-profit businesses. Teachers have various balls in the air as far as child-specific things to tend to; pre-assessment, formative, summative, feelings, academics, maturity, hurt finger, lost notebook, divorcing parents, bullying, reports, weekly curriculum, photos, nutrition, etc… are only a few of the things teachers must deal with constantly. To give teachers time to take in new practices/initiatives is to understand, and relate to, the cognitive load they carry daily.
A very long time ago I worked in radio. One thing I learned in radio is that even if everyone hears a message/commercial at the same time, not all listen to it in the same way. Radio stations repeat and repeat for this reason. Repetition eventually sinks in and ensures and more universal understanding.
Introducing teachers to new tools, practices or initiatives must happen in stages, and must take place personally. Sure, you can present a major project to all teachers, but when it comes down to putting it in action, face-to-face conversation and support is important. Each teacher is fighting to improve something in their practice and understanding their current set of priorities allows you to see where there is room for what you wish to see happen. It will not happen any other way. Trying to do it en mass is acting on assumptions that are usually incorrect.
Get to know your teachers.
I like to tell people all the time that to do my job right I must drink a lot of coffee. Though I love coffee, the reason this is accurate is that I sit with many people individually to tell them the same thing over and over, over coffee. Sending emails is okay for operational information of how to use a tool, for example. For an initiative to be successful each player must be clear on their role and responsibility.
I worked one year under Tom Northrup, at the time Headmaster Emeritus at The Hill School in Virginia. He came into the school where I was as Interim Head of School. One thing that I loved that he did all the time was that he would have town-hall type meetings with many people in the room. Say we were preparing for parent-teacher conferences. He would ensure we all knew our role. He would then ask questions to some people in the room, such as, “if a parent calls asking about their schedule, what will you say?”, and, “if it rains, where will you place yourself to be more useful?”. Over time, this practice made our events run more smoothly, our own actions become more assertive, and our confidence to increase. We each had a place, a role to play, and a way to act. With a bit of repetition we were clear what we needed to do, and if we were not, we could trust one of our colleagues to help us out, without having to go to the top. Tom was a basketball coach, too, so he ran his teams in this fashion.
Patience, patience, patience
Back when I worked for financial firms in NYC it was stress 24/7. Even when there were bank holidays, the mere fact of living and working in NYC made things stressful. Transitioning to education meant I had to shed some of my habits, and to adjust my perception of time.
Technology moves at the speed of light, but time in the classroom moves at the speed of life.
Now that I have more experience under my belt I value time. Like cooking a great dish, it’s important to let things simmer. Tools are introduced, teachers are supported, communication is consistent, expectations are set face-to-face, and eventually you see traces of your ideal scenario materialize. Schools are human enterprises, and things will not shift overnight.
I am fortunate that I am a patient person; I try my best to be fair; and I do my utmost to push innovation, but not at the expense of good teaching. These qualities have inherently helped me be successful in my career. A lack of tact and personal connection lead a project to failure. Teachers are passionate about their students, and most administrative matters fall far down in the priorities list. To act under a different assumption is to ensure disappointment.