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The Dirty Dozen: 12 Things School Leaders Should Stop Doing Now to Strengthen the School Climate

Once I was part of a discussion in which a building principal shared that she had been called to the superintendent’s office for a meeting. You could tell by the tone in her voice that she was a bit nervous about why her superintendent had requested the meeting. She shared that it wasn’t the first time she had been called in to have “a talk.” This made me reflect on how often we behave in similar ways, intentionally and unintentionally, as building leaders when it comes to managing conversations and decisions as well as the negative impact this can have on the overall culture of an organization.

I know that I have acted in the manner described below, even though my intentions were always to be better, but as I grew and matured into the role of a building principal, I did my best to learn from my own mistakes and the mistakes of others and not repeat them, knowing full well I would fall short at times. I suspect we all could easily exhibit these behaviors as well, regardless of how well-intentioned we may be.  As a building (or district) leader, here are a few things you might want to consider stopping today. 

1. Calling faculty or staff to your office without offering some explanation of the purpose of the meeting. This causes a person’s anxiety level to increase because from the moment they receive notice, their mind will begin to swirl with possibilities of what the meeting is about. And in most cases, people will think the worst.

2. Holding faculty meetings just for the sake of holding them. Yes, faculty meetings may be scheduled for Tuesdays or the third of the month, but unless you have a specific purpose to bring your faculty and/or staff together, considering passing on the meeting. Show them how much you value their time by giving it back to them, and for goodness sake, don't hold faculty meetings for things that can be clearly addressed by a memo or email.

3. Giving excuses when you fail to follow up. Understand that when you don’t get back to people in a timely manner it gives others the impression that you are not organized or possess limited competence. For some, it can even send the message that their needs are not important to you.

4. Making assumptions. It is never a good idea to go into a conversation or a situation believing you know more than you actually, especially if you have not heard all sides of the story. If you want to know what the issue or dilemma is really about, simply ask and make sure everyone has had a chance to offer their thoughts or account before you respond.

5. Talking negatively about your staff to other staff. Speaking negatively about others actually says more about you than it does about the people you are singling out. Rest assured that the rumor mill will circulate and that anything negative you have said about someone will get back to the person. The speed at which it gets back will depend on how quickly the person you said it to disagrees with or is negatively impacted by one of your decisions.

6. Allowing the adults in your school to bully other staff. We cannot cultivate a high-performing learning environment in our schools if staff is intimidating their own colleagues through their words or actions. There are a variety of reasons this type of bullying takes place among staff. As the building leader, you must ensure this type of negative behavior is never tolerated, regardless of the reason.

7. Using the word “they” when referring to other members of your school community, especially when things are not going well or we are not happy about an outcome. To build a cohesive school community, focus more on “we” when celebrating something positive or trying to work through any challenge.

8. Getting frustrated when you think people are not following your directions to your level of expectation. Begin by asking yourself if you provided enough clarity. In other words, were your directions as clear as they could have been? Often our challenges stem from communications issues. If not, own it, regroup, and try again, this time focusing on more specifics of what you want.

9. Expecting everything to go as planned. Working in schools can sometimes be unpredictable because the variables (students/teachers/parents) are always changing. Even the best laid plans can go awry. How you conduct yourself in these moments will either inspire of deflate your team.

10. Responding to harsh (and not so complimentary) emails you receive with an email of your own. Recognize that these moments of frustration, blame, or accusatory language expressed by others who are not happy is often more about other external factor(s) causing the frustration and has nothing to do with you. So don’t make it about you. In fact, don't respond in writing at all because tone can be lacking or misconstrued in written communication, especially by someone who is already frustrated. Pick up the phone and call the person and ask, “What can I do to ease your frustration or disappointment?"

11. Asking your staff for feedback and then not doing anything with the feedback. If you solicit feedback and your staff thinks you did nothing with the feedback, they may get frustrated, and they may be reluctant to give you valid feedback in the future or give you even more harsh feedback. If you think you did utilize the feedback, then reflect on how you could have communicated more effectively so they would know the progress you were making with the information they provided you. By taking action and communicating your progress, you will get people to be more invested and honest in their feedback because they believe that something positive is going to come from it.

12. Trying to manage and lead the school all by yourself. You cannot sustain this and do it effectively for any length of time. If you try, it will come at a heavy price – your health or your family. Tap into the leadership potential of your staff. Sharing leadership with them will create buy-in, and the sense of shared leadership will cultivate the type of ownership and accountability that makes organizations thrive.

Each day in the life of a school leader is filled with challenges. The never-ending stream of problems and demands that we encounter during the course of an entire school year can leave even the most positive and passionate leaders feeling exhausted and depleted. It is easy to get sucked into the daily issues that drain our energy and overwhelm us with a seemingly never-ending list of things to do.

So what can we do to stay energized in hopes of offering some of that positive energy to others? Maybe we are thinking about it all wrong. Often we ask ourselves, "What can I do?" to make a situation better or to cope with certain issues. Rather than ask what can we start doing, perhaps a better question would be to ask, “What should I stop doing?" to minimize problems, frustrations, and overall challenges that drain our energy, overwhelm us, and cause us to be less effective. Don't let this Dirty Dozen harm your school's climate!

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