Be Great…Be Accountable (Reflections on My First Year As Principal)

God is good all the time…and all the time, God is good.  I’ve had to remember that as I’ve worked through my first year as principal.  Honestly, some days I didn’t know if I’d make it.  The task became overwhelming; people kept calling me on my radio, teachers texted me and asked why I wasn’t at school, students became upset with me because I missed days at school and they weren’t able to check in with me, parents decided that they needed to speak to me and only me, and the list goes on and on.  Wow! That’s all I can say.  My prayer every morning was, “Lord, let people encounter You when they encounter me today.  Lead the way, and let Your will be done.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Nothing else.  Amen.”  And I know that this prayer and my faith is what sustained me through this year.

If I were to be completely honest with the readers of this blog and honest with aspiring principals, I would say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  Sure, I was exposed to so many things that were surprising to me as an assistant principal, but taking over the ship that was sailing on the other side of town has been both rewarding and challenging.  Part of the challenges occurred because I can probably count the number of times I’d been to Kennedy Road Middle School on two hands prior to being named principal.  I wasn’t sure of the extent of work that needed to be done, and I had never worked so hard. I don’t think the new team I have had ever worked as hard, but one thing I knew and continue to know is that we can never ever give up on the work that needs to be done.

Truthfully, I am not the same man I was 13 months ago when I got the job as principal at Kennedy Road Middle. The five gray strands of hair that are in my beard are evidence of that. The battery in my school radio, which I have wanted to throw in the trash almost every day since August, is evidence of that. My beliefs about school and student achievement from then til now is also evidence of that. As the song says, “I know I’ve been changed!”  And I’ve been changed in a good way.  I’ve built my confidence, and my hope and prayer is that I’ve built the confidence of those around me.  We didn’t know everything and still don’t know all there is to know, but we are willing to keep growing and willing to do whatever it takes to get our school to the top.  Just thinking back to the fact that the entire administrative team was new is surely a story that none of us will ever forget.  I can remember some days where we would meet in the office, and Mr. Ray would say, “Woo…we made it through the day.  Today was CRAZY!”  And surely, some of them were.  In leading the school, there were days where students needed some extra love, when teachers needed some extra attention, and also some days when parents needed someone to sit and counsel with them not only about the students’ problems, but also about the issues they were having at home.  I learned quickly that the school was not just a school.  It was a place of hope…and that hope extended out to the community as well.  This was something only on-the-job training could prepare someone for, and we learned to navigate through it all.

We’ve received preliminary state test results that show significant improvements in all areas, especially the percentage of students reading on grade level.  It feels good because we had literacy as one of our priorities for the school year.  We knew there was some work to do there because the media center had been closed the year before due to some unforeseen challenges.  As an avid reader myself, this was one of the first notes I made when I visited Kennedy Road as an incoming principal.  We know that today’s students don’t necessarily like to read as a whole, but there are huge pockets of students that just love books.  I know that because our top reader in the school read somewhere in the likes of 11 MILLION words this school year…right…11 MILLION.  How amazing is that!

Sometimes, all of the efforts felt disconnected, but it all came together in the end.  I can remember my toughest day in the school.  I found myself on the restroom floor in my office praying and shedding tears.  I contemplated whether to even include this piece of the story in this post, but one thing I try to be is transparent, and I think it’ll help others to know that they’re not going through difficult times alone.  On this day, things just kept happening and I couldn’t find a balance, no matter how hard I tried.  I could feel my blood pressure rising, and I wasn’t sure if I was having an anxiety attack or was about to fall out in front of people.  I can remember retreating to my office and calling my fraternity brother.  I clearly remember saying, “Bro, do you have a minute?  I need you to pray for us right now cause this thing is too disconnected today.  It’s not even 10:00 and I feel like it’s falling apart.”  He responded, “Let’s go,” and proceeded with a prayer.  I followed up with a personal one where I got on my knees, closed my eyes, and prayed about everything we needed that day.  And once I came out of my office, one would think I’d gone from Clark Kent to Superman because that’s what was needed.  As the leader of the school, one can never let the others know when it feels like it’s about to crash because essentially the principal is the pilot.  The teachers, students, and everyone involved is counting on that person to keep it all together, so even when it looks like the runway is nowhere in sight, it’s important to look through all the clouds and find an appropriate place to land.  After I came out of my office, everything aligned and the rest of the day was smooth sailing.  All I could say at the end of the day was, “Thank you!”

Those who know me know that I can’t necessarily describe my year without talking about the work that has been done within me.  Dr. Cowan gave me one of my first books, which was one of my favorite gifts, and it was the book, “Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard.”  Reading the book was one of the first shifts that happened within my principalship because the stories within it helped me to see that my staff could not only change the community but change the lives of kids forever…and forever is a long time! In the book, Dr. Linda Cliatt-Wayman discussed how students felt safe to be at school because she was there, how the culture of school changed because her focus was helping students eliminate the “this is not a school” mentality and embrace the “I’m safe and can learn here” mentality. I noted all of those things, and truthfully, I had no idea how I could emulate those things and bring them to Kennedy Road. The teachers didn’t know me. The parents didn’t and the students surely didn’t know me, so what I decided to do was to dive in full force and connect with the kids.

The kids helped keep my heart in the right place. The hugs, the fist bumps, the let downs and disappointments, the celebrations and success stories- they all helped keep me on track.  One of my kids (because there were two that I’m sure my staff thinks I adopted) passed all of her state tests and I’m certain it was because of the expectation to do well and because her teachers did NOT play the radio or accept any excuses.  Excuses are tools of incompetence, and accountability and excuses can’t both thrive within the same building.  They made her work, ignored the complaining, and did NOT let her give up. She wasn’t perfect. She messed up. She cried in my office on multiple occasions and told me she just wanted be a good person and have a decent family one day but didn’t know how to do it.  She talked about how people picked on her a few years ago and how that caused her to learn how to fight because from what she’d experienced, people who could fight didn’t have problems.  To her, education wasn’t the tool to help her escape, and that was a problem.  She talked about how people were afraid of her whenever she spoke loudly (and she knew I hated that loud talking), but it all made sense after all of our conversations. She was saving face and was in survival mode. Not everybody knew that, but even with all that going on, I still wanted her to know and for her teachers to show her that education and high expectations were the beginning of her escape….and I applaud her teachers because they made that happen for her.  What a success story!

Back in first semester, I was somewhat delusional.  I can remember walking through the cafeteria taking pictures with students and posting them on Instagram.  I’d read Leverage Leadership, and their turnaround advice stated that Data-driven instruction and Building Student Culture were the two key levers in changing a failing school.  I was all-in.  I didn’t have any other cards to play, so these had to work!  I can remember leading professional development on Gradual Release and Depth of Knowledge.  I remember attempting to lead the team in developing BLITZ plans and rosters to help students build on to the skills during their Enrichment period.  I was doing WAY TOO MUCH, and I have to admit that I wasn’t the best at delegating tasks to others.  In speaking to some of my mentors, they let me know that I was still operating as if I was an assistant principal and not THE principal.  I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant at the time, but I do know that I was tired as all get out when I got home every day.  Some days, I would dose off at the dinner table, and my boys would make fun of me because my energy was at zero….not one…not two…ZERO!  There were numerous tasks that were sitting out there open because the to do list never ever got any smaller.  I was in over my head…it surely felt that way.  But I knew I’d never give up, and I knew I couldn’t let the team give up, so we kept pushing on.

There were days when I started to feel like I needed to give up, and when I started to feel inadequate, I was reminded that everyone has those thoughts and have to be willing to work through the uncertainty when they get in a new position.  That’s the joy of having a support team of people who can guide the work that you do.  I can remember one of my mentors saying for me to stay connected to people and to make sure that the people that worked with me knew that I was no stranger to hard work.  I can remember stepping in to cover a class to teach a group of 6th grade students after I’d returned from the Principal’s meeting one Thursday.  I can remember the front of the school being flooded after it rained super hard one night, and the water leaking all over the front of the building and the 6th grade hall.  The radio was ringing for a custodian to report to the front of the building for an emergency, and there was no answer.  I knew what needed to be done, and I found myself with a mop and bucket stopping water from coming in the building with Coach B, our Teacher of the Year.  We had some good conversation while we cleaned that water from the floor, and the one thing I always tried to show was that I wasn’t afraid to work, and that looked different on some days.  I can remember getting a team of students to  help set up for 8th grade ball and rolling chairs and tables out of the cafeteria and in their appropriate place.  I can remember Mr. Barkley, our lead custodian and Employee of the Year, saying, “Dr. G., we can get that,” but they were eating, so I told him we had it until they were finished.  After that, he came to me and said, “Dr. G., you’re different.  I’ve never seen any principal do some of the stuff you do.”  I laughed and told him it was all good.  I try to help whenever I can.  To my incoming principals, I have to tell you that when things have to get done, do what’s needed to get it done.  Some days, it’ll look like you offering a shoulder for someone to cry on.  Some days, it’ll look like you cleaning tables and helping to throw away trash in a three-piece suit.  The work looks like whatever the building needs on that day, and if you (I’m talking to new principals now) are not willing to do it, then you’ve signed up for the wrong job.

Sitting here now, I have a clearer vision of what my purpose is, and knowing your true purpose makes the work easier.  I’ve been ready for school to end for the last two months because I knew that we needed a reset.  In fact, our leadership team is about to do some preliminary work on next week so we can clean up some things, and we have some plans to keep moving forward.  Everyone’s vision won’t be aligned to what you want for the school as the principal.  Some people will immediately get what you’re trying to, some will eventually get the picture, and others will give up on it before the work ever gets started.  The latter portion have to go.  They can’t stay, and that’s okay.   As for me and my team, we can’t give up now.  We’ve come too far from where we started from.  Nobody told us that the road would be easy, and it never is.  But we’ll keep driving.  We’ll keep on riding because eventually we will arrive at the destination we’ve been aiming to reach.  #CougarAccountability isn’t just some hashtag.  It’s the work and it’s our journey to changing students’ lives.  Lives are at stake…and I have a team of stakeholders that know that and that are willing to be the difference.

Be great.  Be accountable.  Enjoy the break.

Dr. G.

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