A few years ago, while working with the Center for Safe & Supportive Schools at Vanderbilt University, there was a question I frequently received from teachers: “What do I do if my principal isn’t leading?”
If this is the case in your school, there could be a variety of reasons or some combination of factors. Perhaps the principal is young, new, absent, retiring or authoritarian. A young principal may lack confidence. There is a certain amount of wisdom and stability that only comes with experience. Likewise, a new principal may feel unsure about the dynamics of the school and how to get started.
An absent principal, one who continually hides in the office or leaves the building for meetings, may not be best suited for this leadership role. A retiring principalmay check out emotionally even before the official day. An authoritarian principal may think fear is the best motivator. All of these scenarios can make it difficult for teachers to stay motivated and focused with the students. So, what can you do if your principal isn’t leading?
Firstly, you need to take care of yourself personally. You cannot do your job of teaching students if you are neglecting yourself. Consider your physical and emotional health. Are you eating and sleeping well? Are you exercising regularly? If not, think about the changes in your routine that need to be made. How are you feeling emotionally? Name what you are feeling. Whether it is calm, angry, depressed, or resigned, it is important to put a label on what you are feeling so you can deal with it. If you are having difficulty identifying your emotions, perhaps it would be helpful to talk with a friend or journal about your experiences.
Professionally, remember to keep a positive attitude and use encouraging language. Yes, you may share your frustrations with your colleagues. However, say it in a way that reframes instead of blames. For example, if you are serving under a new principal who has not communicated a vision for the school, you may feel like saying “This new leader has no idea what he’s doing.” Instead, you could say, “Our leader is learning. I wonder what we can do to help establish a vision for our school. Perhaps I’ll ask him if he’d like help leading a discussion about our vision and mission statements.” One statement attacks; the other helps.
Keeping a positive attitude and using encouraging language is a way to honor your leader. Whether you agree with everything he says or not, he is the leader. Your job is to help him fulfill his purpose at the school. You can do this by showing up for your students, both physically and emotionally. Come to work. Be on time. Be present with your colleagues and students. This is easier said than done when you are working with an undesirable principal. However, that is why you are called a professional. Do your best…for the sake of the children. And, as your mother used to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say it at all”. Schools are famous for being gossip mills, but you don’t have to participate. Hold your tongue. It is not your place to point out your leader’s mistakes. You are there to get a job done…do it.