A Parking Lot Fight that Pushed Us Forward

A Parking Lot Fight that Pushed Us Forward

Two employees got into a parking lot skuffle right when I was walking by. Chests puffed. Words and phrases got sharp. Tension was on the rise. Both of them are passionate. They are committed to our school’s mission.

Caught off gaurd, I made a quick decision to keep walking. While surprised in the moment, I reminded myself that these two would find a healthy way through whatever conflict they are having in the moment. That had to. It’s who we are.

I concluded they needed some space to do it. And they didn’t need their boss stepping in to take sides. So I kept walking.

On my eleventh step in the opposite direction, I heard something that warmed encouraged my soul.

“Hey. This isn’t going how I want it to,” one said to the other. “Let’s start over.”

“Hey. This isn’t going how I want it to.”

“Yeah…..Lets” the other returned serve. Within minutes the conversation was over. Both were back to baseline. And all three of us continued serving students and families, in the parking lot at dismissal.

At the root of their argument was something very small: Whose responsibility it was to open the gate for cars on a minimum day?

The implications of their resolved argument was something huge too, for a couple of reasons. 1. We are becoming a healthy school culture where conflict is expected, and compromise is pushed for. 2. We are further than where I want us to be from being a TEAM where leadership is distributive and ownership is shared.

1. We are becoming a healthy school culture where conflict is expected, and compromise is pushed for. Conflict should be expected, even embraced, in organizational cultures that are pushing hard towards improvement. It is evidence that team members feel safe enough to bring their best ideas, and beliefs to the table. Conflict is also an expected dynamic in any family, team, or organization where lives are lived out in a shared space. Patrick Lencioni, in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” points to healthy conflict, as an essential dynamic of healthy teams. Where conflict is disallowed, compliance is an expectation, divergent ideas are squashed, and unhealth blossoms. Team members go underground with their complaints and their brilliant ideas. People get ‘cagey.’ And everyone suffers.

Navigating conflict in healthy ways is important for sure. But seeing conflict happen in the open, followed by repair and reconciliation, is a thing to celebrate!

2. We further than I want to be from being a team, where leadership is distributive and ownership is shared. I long to lead teams motivated by a compelling vision for equity and empowered to make decisions that will bring us to that reality.

In this instance, both employees deferred to the rules, and a boss. Neither had explicit responsibility to open the gate. In fact, the procedure hadn’t been articulated at all. But instead of jumping in to address the immediate need, both employees deflected to the other. They wondered about the letter of the manual. And they got tangled up with one another.

Employees who embody mission, exhibit ownership, and assume trust, don’t have to think thrice about small things. They make decisions that are in the best interest of the students and then reflect on the outcomes at a later point.

In unhealthy school organizations, all decisions big and small have to come from the lips of the school leader. People act skittishly and fear making a wrong decision. This isn’t who we want to be.

“I am so proud of you!” I affirmed one of the employees in the skuffle. “You recognized that things were getting elevated and suggested a do-over. That is generous, mature, and healthy. That is who we are!”

“Let’s also revisit this at our next check in.” “You are a leader on this campus and don’t need an okay from me to open that gate. I trust you to do what is right for us.”

And so we continue to push towards a healthy organizational culture that has space for conflict and trust for good-faith decision making across the team.

Squeaky Wheels and Squawking Principals

Squeaky Wheels and Squawking Principals

This past school year, I’ve learned that my learning community depends on me to be a ‘squeaky wheel.’ But I need to be careful of becoming a ‘squawking principal.’

As the leader of a relatively small school in an enormously large school district, I’ve had to grow in my ability and willingness to advocate, call out for help, and present data that demonstrates our need for critical supports. Here’s what it has looked like for us this year:

  • Compiling data and trends that demonstrate a drastic increase in newcomers and, thus, a need for added support (personnel and curriculum) from the Office of Language Acquisition.
  • Firmly and politely asking for special consideration to open up another classroom, after all on-site remedies have been exhausted.
  • Bringing in district level architects and safety personnel for advice and support to address safety challenges
  • Voicing displeasure about a board vote to close a pre-school
  • Coupling requests for facility improvement, on the heels of self-help volunteer work days to better our learning environment.
  • Respectfully pointing out inequities in the level of arts programs, compared to neighboring schools, by communicating a desire to grow arts in our community.
  • Anchoring every single request in the stated vision of our school district, “To see quality neighborhoods in each and every school.”
  • Choosing to make first contacts with key personnel in person or over the phone ahead of the incoming email request.

I’ve also seen and experienced where disproportionate and inartful asking can undermine critical relationships and push away partners. Here’s what this might look like:

  • Venting to Human Resource personnel about contractually binding processes that are already in place.
  • Voicing needs in the form of complaints.
  • Neglecting to thank district staff when they have ‘gone to bat’ for us.
  • Failing to recognize that partner schools and leaders are facing similar limitations.
  • Ripping off emails riddled with critique and demands.
  • Becoming the leader that district support staff avoids in a large gathering.

We know that teachers who are “warm demanders” get the most out of their students. This principle applies to principals too.

Be the squeaky wheel. Your learning community depends on your voice.

Avoid being the squawky principal. You’ll likely see limited resource increases. And your reputation will may just limit the supports your students desperately need.