I found myself sitting in a dimly lit portable classroom, estranged from the school and rarely visited by anyone. I was hiding. I...was...hiding. Yes, me the principal of the school was hiding. The supposed leader of 800 students and staff was hiding in a small, unused classroom in the middle of the school day.
Hiding from what, you might ask? EVERYTHING.
You see, I was appointed principal of this school at quite a young age - 34 to be exact. Sure, when I was first hired, I knew I could do this job, and the first year was great. But over time, that changed. Perhaps it was the continual statement from parents, friends and even family "aren't you too young to be a principal?" Perhaps it was the series of catastrophic mistakes that I had unintentionally made in my inexperience. Perhaps it was trying to fill the shoes of the well-loved previous principal who lost his battle with cancer. I don't know, but one thing was for certain, I was scared and this fear had lead me to hiding like a frightened little kid in a place where he hoped to never be found.
It was all wrong
Nothing was going right. I had cut seven and a quarter teachers to meet district budget exceptions, had destroyed a long established schedule based on teaming, and had required the teachers to work more and prep less, all of which resulted in a very toxic culture. I tried to implement a number of new initiatives, with very little success. Our state testing data had plummeted, attendance issues had increased and the behavior of the students was simply out of control.
For some people when they experience fear, they run. For others the gear up for the fight. But for me, I became paralyzed. Stuck. Incapable of taking action. Similar to the dear standing on the road, frozen, unable to move as the headlights of a car come closer and closer. In a short time, my fear transformed into anxiety and eventually depression. I just did not care. I didn't want to get out of bed, my passion for life disappeared, I wanted to be reclusive and not just once did the unburdened freedom of ending it all cross my mind.
I'd like to say one day I just woke up and it was all over. That suddenly, I just had the will and the desire to fight back, to push forward, to "pull myself up by the bootstraps and move on." But this wasn't so. Nope, my ability to rebound was not an overnight change, but rather a day by day belief in a higher power and a higher purpose instilled deep within me by very caring parents.
And so it was..when you hit rock bottom, there is only way way to go - up. I prayed hard, I read some powerful books and started to put some steps into action.
First, I had to face and embrace the brutal facts. I started asking everyone for feedback. I sent a survey to the parents, I had open and honest conversations with my superiors, and I decided to follow Seinfield's festivus example, and had an airing of grievances with almost all of my staff.
Next, I had to sort out those brutal facts. What did they all mean, was there a common pattern, is there an area where if I focused on and changed this area I would see glorious success? What I realized was awe inspiring...the problem was not just me. Sure, I was the leader of this school, but I realized that our true problem, the core of many of the issues that we faced was our staff culture, which included all of us. Realizing that my perspective was not complete, I now was faced with a very interesting question: How do I tell my staff that it is not just me but all of us??? Simple, I hired a third party who came to the same conclusions and then presented it splendidly to the staff. Yup, it was like ripping the bandaid off a festering, pussy sore - but it was the first step of healing.
With our problem now out in the open, it was time to gather people together and do something about it. I started with those that I knew I still had influence with. Then, I bore up the courage to ask those who had lost faith and trust in me but had great influence with others. We formed a team, planned an outstanding agenda for a summer staff meeting. This may have been difficult, but the Law of Momentum was in effect and nearly 90% of all staff attended our June 23rd meeting, where we had fun, came together as a team, determined a new mission statement and committed ourselves to nine solid, clear commitments which were sure to replace our toxic soil with rich, dark, nutrient-filled soil.
When school started, we all reminded ourselves of our commitments and day by day took actions that bettered our culture. Gradually, increasingly, one drop at a time my confidence increased and so did my happiness. Sure, there were still moments - waking up early with a pit in my stomach not being able to sleep due to the anxiety, folding my arms across my chest as I supervised the lunch room and realizing that my pulse was double what it was supposed to be and catching myself being stressed out. Yet, with patience, persistence, and a whole lot of faith, things got better and the results are amazing.
The staff are happy, turn over was the lowest it had been in years, more students were receiving A's and B's and less receiving failing grades in the past five years, we had record numbers of teachers attending our social events, eval numbers on my performance even increased, and sometimes even doubled. And just a couple of weeks ago, Minnesota released its numbers on the state assessments and we made some incredible gains.
So, why do I share this story, you might ask? I share it because if a young kid from the small country town of Plain City, Utah who finds himself in a position that he is not qualified for, can overcome doubts and fear, you can too. I share it to tell you that on those deep and dark days, push forward. When those times of despair and depression come, hang in there and take action, even if it is baby steps. I tell you this so that you can realize the power of facing the brutal facts and enlisting others in an effort to improve. And although I don't know a single one of you well, I do know that if I can do it, you can do it and I really do believe that you can.
Now before I conclude, there might be just one more question on your mind...If things turned out so well, why aren't you still the principal? Well, that is a whole nother story, which I've titled "Going Out with Grace."