5 Easy Ways for School Leaders to Develop Quick Wins with Students

Do you remember your school principals? If not, why not? If your principal did not leave a lasting impression on you, were they effective? I doubt it.

I remember my elementary principal, Dr. Crandall, because he chased me home from school on more than one occasion. Albeit, I only lived a half block from the school. I had a habit of running away from school when things did not go my way. I can still see him running down the street in his matching vest and dress pants. Dr. Crandall left a lasting impression on me. He was relentless and I knew he truly cared about my well-being.

I have no recollection of my middle school principal and I only remember my high school principal by name. I rarely saw either one of them. Unfortunately, both principals are remembered for being invisible.

When I became a principal I made sure that every student in the buidling knew who I was. I didn't want there to be any questions about who was leading the school. Leaders are recognizable in their communities. You know who they are and what they stand for. Leaders are on the front line. They do not run and they do not hide. Great leaders will always be remembered.

Principals are provided with an opportunity to build relationships with their students. However, many students do not want to interact with the "old guy" who sits in his office all day. He's the guy who makes an appearance in the teacher's lounge only to fill up his coffee mug. Before anyone can stop him he dashes back to his office. He's rarely visible and students have no idea about what he does all day. Leader? No.

So how can school leaders sell their leadership skills to the student body? There are 5 quick and easy ways to make an impact and develop quick wins with your students.

1. Don't forget where you came from. Believe it or not, you were a kid at an earlier stage of your life. Go back in time. Think about what was important to you when you were in school. What made a lasting impression on you? What qualities did your favorite school leader possess that impressed you the most?

Although times have most certainly changed, kids are still kids.

I took a page out of Dr. Crandall's book and chased many kids during my principal career. I needed to send a message that I was a relentless leader. I gained the respect of many students who had previously been allowed to run away from school without consequence.

How did I win? Word travels...

Students would say, "Our principal is crazy! I saw him chasing kids through a field and he caught them and brought them back to school!"

I sacrificed my shoe shine by running through fields and backyards, but I sent a clear message to my students. They knew I would take extreme measures to ensure their success. I wanted kids to know I was relentless. I was not going to settle for mediocrity. Kids want leaders who will go the extra mile. They will test you.They want to see just how far you're willing to go. What will you do to make them a believer?

2. Be a kid again. Have you ever witnessed grown and mature adults who become easily frustrated by kids? I witnessed these occurences in my school every year. Kids were being kids and adults did not like it. Ummmm...they ARE kids! They don't act 40 years old at age 15.

So what can you do? Go back in time and be a kid again. Put yourself in the kids shoes.

Yes, the food fight in the cafeteria was innapropriate. You know it. The kids know it. So what are you going to do about it? Give the kids a consequence and move forward. Take time to share your food fight experiences (as a participant or witness) and laugh with the kids. It's an opportunity to remind kids that you were a kid at one point in your life. You will be viewed as more than a principal. Through the eyes of your students, you become human.

I was labeled a no-nonense principal by many people in the community. But my students said I was the coolest principal they ever had. I learned it is possible to be both. Schools can maintain structure and discipline while establishing an environment where kids are allowed to be kids. After all, we were kids too. Right?

3. Meet kids at their level. School leaders often pride themselves on being smart. Obviously, there was someone that believed in our ability to lead schools. But do we really need to prove how smart we are when addressing our students?

Kids don't want a boring monotone principal who fills their heads with educational jargon day after day. What makes sense to you as a principal may not make one bit of sense to your student audience. Go for the win. Meet kids at their level. Go outside of your comfort zone. Kids want to know that you can relate with their experience.

On countless occasions I dressed up in crazy costumes to get my elementary kids excited about our school goals. A 6'4" black principal dancing around in a Blues Clues costume is definitely one way to meet kids at their level. I also remember swinging into an assembly on a climbing rope dressed as Captain America. My mission was to create enthusiasm, but it was also a way for kids to see that I can be a little crazy too. You often win with kids by demonstrating that you have a few "loose screws".

Talk in kid appropriate language. I enjoyed walking up behind kids at their locker and listening in on their conversations. High schoolers think they are so cool. But I enjoyed letting them know I was cooler. I listened to their conversations. I took notes on their teenage terminology. And at just the right time I would use their words in the appropriate context to create a buzz around the school. "Do you know what Mr. Gaither just said to me?" I lived for those moments. Crazy? Maybe. An easy win? No doubt about it.

4. Make yourself visible. Sounds simple doesn't it? But school leaders get stuck in the office. Once there, it's hard to get out. One sure way to lose credibility with kids is by staying away from them. Kids enjoy interacting with their school leaders. It suggests you care about their well-being.

Go to classrooms EVERY day. Ask kids questions about the lesson. Be a participant in the lesson. Show kids that you are engaged in the content being taught.

Serve as a hallway monitor during class periods. This is a great time to catch up with kids. Stay on the move and interact with as many kids as possible. Take time to shake hands, acknowledge high performance or say something to get a laugh out of one of your students. Your visibility sets the tone for creating a positive school culture.

Pull up a chair at the lunch table. Talk in kid language and find out what you can learn from your kids. Share a funny story with the table group. You are looking for an opportunity to gain credibility. You are more than a principal. You are human.

5. Ask questions and deliver results. Ask kids about how you can make the school a better place. School leaders usually review parent and student satisfaction surveys, but why not humanize the process by simply asking questions directly. Pull a few kids into your office. Let them know you value their input. Take notes on what they tell you. One thing I learned as a principal, kids have no problem telling you what you can do to make things better for them.

I was monitoring my lunchroom one day when I asked a group of students for their feedback. I wanted to know what I could do to improve their school experience. Within a half-second they said, "You can talk to the lunchroom manager about improving the food options!" I took notes. I went back to my office and called the district food service manager. Within a week, the manager came out to my school to meet with the same group of kids who wanted to see change in the food service. I called the kids to my conference room and I said, "You want change? It's on it's way". The kids couldn't stop thanking me for providing a platform for their voices to be heard. It started with a simple question and turned into a big win. For me, that was always the goal. Win.

School leaders can become entangled in so many things that really don't matter. But relationships with students do. Students are constantly observing your behaviors. They notice your presence. They listen to how you communicate. They look to see if you are human. Are you real? Or are you putting on a show?

I have to admit I was a school leader that put on a show at every opportunity. But it was a good show. I wanted my students to know that I had been a student too. I wanted students to know that I was capable of meeting them at their level. If I needed to go into "crazy principal" mode, I was ready and willing.

My students knew I never forgot where I came from. I had the ability to immediately tranform myself into a kid at any given moment. I thought like a kid, talked like a kid, and spent my day being visible to my kids.

The best leaders go back to their roots. And when you go back in time...you will be reminded of what you were looking for in a school leader.

And in the end, you win.

By Michael Gaither

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