The perfect day is…

Every school leader I know has experienced a version this story.

You stand in the aisle  of the bus before you return to school yelling over the diesel engine (unless you are lucky enough to have a microphone on an air conditioned charter bus).   You reminisce about the kids’ amazing seminar debate about immigration in front of the Statue of Liberty and the wasabi eating contests at a deli after the Broadway show. The kids give some heartfelt shout outs to each other and offer a round of applause for the bus driver and chaperones.

The bus pulls into a school parking lot that is packed with anxious parents.  The kids tumble off the bus with their faces still smudged from falling asleep on teammate’s shoulders or dewy bus windows.  After the last car has left the parking lot you make a beeline for home and your bed with the intent to sleep until someone pulls you kicking and screaming into the waking world. At the moment your eyes close your phone rings and some sense of moral obligation you wish you didn’t posses causes you to answer.

The parent at the other end of the line may be yelling before your hello is finished or he/she may sound calm but confused.

Jovon came home from the trip with a t-shirt that says “suck it” in big pink letters.  He says his teacher knows he bought it.  I don’t know what you allow at that school but in our house we don’t tolerate this nonsense.

It could be a student’s obscene t-shirt, a missing phone,  or unexplained bruise but the lovely ending to your trip is now a royal mess.  At this moment you come to two enduring understandings about your job.

  • In school leadership the perfect day is a myth.
  • I am tired of learning from experience.  I want to anticipate problems before they happen.

At the KIPP Summer Leadership Institute I often have the pleasure of trading stories with Kelly Wright (founder of KIPP Adelante and KIPP’s Senior Learning Officer).

Kelly suggested the following performance task for prospective principals or teacher leaders.  Walk a city block.  Then describe everything you need to think about with a group of kids and teachers on that trip.  Do the kids know how to react to the lingerie in the store window or the homeless man begging for change?  Do the teachers know how they are going to shrink the double line into single file to get around the construction?  When the kids ask to go into the trinket store does the teacher know why he or she is saying no?

I tried something similar with leaders on my staff in the cafeteria.  I’d pull someone to the corner of the room and ask:  what do you notice? Is there an animated discussion about the class novel going on anywhere?  Do you see which kids are working on homework?  Is he working due to diligence or because he hasn’t made friends?  Is a popular kid turning his back to a shy student in order to share snacks with a friend two tables down? Is the table left over from the Honor Roll assembly going to get in the way of the milk cartons?

Noticing opportunities and obstacles in any situation is a critical habit of the mind and senses for a school leader.  It’s a close cousin to the withitness we strive to teach our teachers for the classroom.

What other ways have you tried or can you imagine trying to cultivate this kind of noticing in teachers and leaders?

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