Can We Have Courageous Conversations With Our Principals?

I am always struck by passion of the principals I meet in my travels and this weekend, at EdCamp MadWI, was no different.  I was in many frank conversations with principals who had questions for me or just had really amazing ideas.  Their passion for their staff and the betterment of their school poured out of them.  As I returned to school today, I wondered; where are those conversations between teachers and principals in our buildings?  What holds us back as teachers in starting frank and honest discussions with our very own principals on a regular basis?  Fear?  Apprehension of misunderstanding?  Past poor experiences?  Or is it simply time and a strictness of protocol?  Do our home schools have a power hierarchy that we cannot bridge in the same way we do at EdCamps?  Do we walk around our schools afraid of having courageous conversations with those closest to us?

I think it is time we start those courageous conversations with our administrators.  It is time for us to realize and acknowledge that our principals were teachers once as well, and that they too functioned under a principal, with every self doubt that implies.  It is time for us to not be afraid and to speak to our principals and administrators the way they deserve to be spoken to; as human beings rather than just our bosses.

I know I fall victim to stereotypes myself;  assuming that someone in a principal job does not want feedback, does not want ideas, does not want honest discussion.  I am not sure where this idea started from but it seems to permeate many schools.  Perhaps the very role of principal means there is a glass wall between us.  Perhaps it is their sheer busyness that creates a natural distance.  I am not sure but we must discuss, we must reflect, and we must have conversations that push the boundaries much like we would with our colleagues because even though principals are in leadership positions they are still our colleagues as well.

While I know many principals tread water all day, floating from one fire to another, there are still many moments for us to discuss and reflect together.  I think we need to bridge that unspoken gap that exists between teachers and principals and somehow find a way to grow together, rather than the more typical path of us versus them.  We must approach our every day as we would an edcamp; there to learn, there to think, there to connect.  It is time we give our principals a fair chance.

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10 thoughts on “Can We Have Courageous Conversations With Our Principals?

  1. Another terrific post Pernille. I could not agree more. As a principal, I love to engage in conversations with my teachers and love when they ask the question "why?" I believe if you ever want to have any influence among your teachers, answering “why” is the most critical question you'll ever address. I have found that teachers who are willing to have these "Courageous Conversations" are the teachers who are constantly pointing me in the right direction. As a principal, it is important to embrace and foster such conversations because many times they lead to positive change! Thanks again for this post and stay connected! Shawn

  2. Mr. Boylen says:

    Great post Pernille! This is truly a central issue with the direction and motion of a school and its staff. The leadership can have such a profound impact on the overall culture and climate of a school. If there is only the concept of collaboration without the honest actualization of it, the school will run like a business with a manager using a top-down model of authoritarian rule. This is not the best climate for a place meant to edify learning and cooperation. This type of climate tends to stifle all dissent and at the same time most question, and as a result, most new or different answers. It is not always possible to work this courage into the managerial model created by the management of a school and its administration, though I agree it is vitally important. Strength to confront a bully is not easy if you are the bullied. Sometimes the empowerment needs to come from outside in order to act as a catalyst of change and courage. Thanks for promoting courage and a commitment to the education of our future in me and others.Scott

  3. Ben Biddle says:

    Some of it may have to do with time. As a high school teacher, I see kids for 40 minutes every day. I see the principal for maybe 40 minutes a week, and that time is in a group setting. Yes, we're all busy. But developing trust in a relationship takes time and investment that generally should come from the top down. How often does a student approach a teacher with ideas for change? Why should it be any different when we're adults?

  4. pmdewitt says:

    Pernille,This such a great post. As an elementary school principal, with a few fires to put out, I do have an easier time talking with staff than my high school admin colleagues. However, I work with an awesome staff who are not afraid to speak up and engage in conversations and I know that is due to the trust we have all built together.Thanks for such a great post.

  5. Thank you for a great post. It made me reflect on my relationship with the teachers at "my/our" school. It is a two way street for these discussions to happen. It is about creating a trusting relationship with teachers. Teachers need to know that their principal is there is help/assist/console/celebrate. Take care.Brett Gruetzmacher@BGruetzmacher

  6. Chris Wejr says:

    Thanks Pernille. After your post, I am left wondering "how am I creating the conditions for these deepr conversations to occur"? I know that I am not available nearly enough to staff due to meetings, etc and I generally see teachers as they are teaching so how can I create the time for this important dialogue to occur?Lots to think about!

  7. Joey says:

    I hope so… That was a comment I heard about edcamp as well that there is no such thing as a teacher or admin there, it is just about passion for learning. I am grateful for teachers who will hold me accountable in this way. One of the struggles I've had as I transitioned to being a principal a year and a half ago was it almost seemed like I wasn't allowed to engage on this level. When you're a principal, statements you make tend to be conversation Enders when you intend them to be conversation starters, Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  8. Lyn Hilt says:

    This post really made me think, Pernille, and it's true that teachers willing to take risks in their classrooms need to have these conversations with administration, and that school leaders need to be more approachable in order for them to feel comfortable enough to do so. It's one thing to say "We're all in this together" and then proceed to engage in top-down decision-making without consideration for the ideas and passions of teachers. A question I have for you- what, then, if the principal is the innovator? The one willing to take risks? What advice would you have for how that principal can approach these difficult conversations with teachers who are unwilling to change and grow? Similarly, it's often difficult for principals to speak out against traditional practices, over-testing and reliance on standardized testing data, scripted programs, etc. to the central office supervisors, since when it's a "district-wide" mandate all principals are charged with executing plans similarly (even if they disagree). There is a real need for autonomy at every level of education.So, you see, the 'disruptor' in the system, be it a teacher, principal, parent, student, or superintendent, faces a lot of pressure as you describe in this post. Difficult conversations need to occur among a number of levels in order for change to occur.Thanks for sharing this!

  9. I have been mulling over these comments all week since I wrote the post. I am truly excited to see principals saying that yes we can have these courageous conversations but then I don't know where to go from there. How do we show staff that it is ok to approach principals with new ideas or vice versa; how do we show principals that it is ok to be innovative? I think time is an issue, many teachers simply do not see their principal enough or staff meetings are used up with managerial things. perhaps if we had a monthly conversation modeled by a staff member or a principal? I am just thinking outloud here.

  10. Great post. I am assistant principal at a high school, so we regularly meet with department chairs to talk through decisions affecting the entire school. But sometimes I just eat lunch with my teachers to get feedback on issues where I need their insights. The best decisions we have ever made have come as our admin staff meets with our teachers. We also meet with students too–talk about creative ideas!William D Parkerwww.williamdparker.com

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