On the first morning of school as a high school principal, I stood outside the front entrance, enthusiastically greeting my students as they came for the first day of instruction. While I had worked as an intern on a middle school admin team during the prior year, I had never been a full-time vice principal. You can imagine the combination of emotions I was feeling as students streamed past. I had high aspirations for my own performance and for the learning of my students, combined with genuine nervousness. I was now responsible for the success of an entire high school.
My morning contemplation was interrupted by a high pitched scream. As I quickly scanned for the source of the commotion, a young man walked past, blood across his face. I was quickly forced from a disposition of friendly meet and greet to one of gravity and concern. I spent the next 90 minutes investigating, interviewing (or perhaps more accurately, interrogating), and processing those involved with what turned out to be the first fight of the year. The day pressed on, filled with hundreds of interactions with students, parents, and staff. Some conversations required a spirit of understanding and empathy, others necessitated I be more decisive and directive. This affective roller coaster was a daily experience.
After six weeks, I was exhausted. Every statement I made was open to public scrutiny, and every decision carried with it implications for my leadership practice. On many evenings, and occasionally accompanied by tears, I would come home and slump on the couch feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the leadership task before me. My typical spirit of confidence and enthusiasm was under serious bombardment. I lived with the relentless sense that my students needed more from me and I was struggling to deliver.
One afternoon, as I supervised after-school dismissal, the principal of the school that shared our campus came to talk to me. Perhaps sensing my struggles, he asked me how I was doing. My short response of “I’m hanging in there” belied a deeper feeling of inefficacy. Thankfully, this veteran principal ignored my superficial response. “You know Daniel, it wasn’t until my third year that I realized that being a principal is an impossible job. Once I reconciled myself to the fact that I couldn’t meet everyone’s expectations of me all of the time, I was able to focus on the most important things to move the school forward.”
Principals, like teachers, always live with a nagging sense that their best is not enough. In our most under-resourced schools and in the lives of our most challenged students, our fledgling efforts may indeed fall short of what is truly needed. Yet we persist in the face of that difficulty. Our students have no choice but to persist, and we must match their resilience with a professional commitment to push through our challenges and feelings of self-doubt until we possess the skill and perspective to doggedly focus on what matters most.