Seek First to Understand

I was fortunate to visit the opening days of school for two 2017 UVEI Principal Intern Program graduates last week. These schools are quite different: one a middle/high school and one a small rural elementary school. Demographics aside, I was struck by the feeling of hope coming from the administrators, teachers and students. I stood near to Laurie Greenberg, now the assistant principal at Mt. Abraham, as she and her colleagues greeted incoming seventh graders for their first day of orientation. The energy from all parties was palpable. The start of the new school year is the start of a new chapter where you can, as an educator and as a student, take what you learned last year and build on it. In a sense, you have the opportunity to become a better you just from the opportunity that a clearly delineated beginning and end of a school year offers.

In spending time with Laurie, I reflected on her ability to connect with her colleagues and students and her practices to cultivate these relationships. Her goals for the year are to focus on building trust by deliberately creating opportunities to know and understand those she will be working with. Here are a few of the ways Laurie plans to make meaningful connections this school year:

  • Greet students at the door each morning and throughout the day
    This is a small gesture that speaks volumes. It says to students, “I care that you are here and I notice when you are not.” It gives Laurie time to assess a student’s demeanor as he or she enters the building.  Recognizing that names are the strongest connection to identity and defines them as an individual, not just a student attending the school, Laurie is making an effort to learn students’ names as soonquickly as she can..

  • Look to recognize and nurture what inspires students
    Laurie had all students write down what inspires them. Her plan is to read these carefully to understand students’ experiences and build on them in a deliberate manner. By understanding that learning is about engaging and reflecting, not just taking in information, Laurie hopes to strengthen her students’ social and emotional experience in school.

  • Share something of yourself
    By directly voicing her hopes and dreams for her role as assistant principal at Mt. Abraham, Laurie allowed students and staff to better understand what she values as an educator.

  • Learn the culture
    Laurie has now become a student of the culture at her school. She is purposefully seeking to listen more than talk and question more than answer in order to better understand the history and context that inform the culture of her school.

  • Respect and honor teachers
    By having a clear understanding that teachers are the true lever of change,  Laurie is developing an understanding of the staff as individuals and collectively. When talking with staff, Laurie actively listens and engages in the conversation, both verbally and nonverbally. It is easy to see that she cares about what the person she is speaking to has to say. There are no phones, no texting, no side conversations present; it is clearly the most important thing happening at that moment.

  • Cultivate trust
    The more interaction the parties have over time, however, the more their willingness to trust one another is based upon the other party’s actions and their perceptions of one another’s intentions, competence, and integrity (Brewster & Railsback, 2003). Laurie plans to deliberately demonstrate this by seeking frequent interactions with students and staff. being accessible, leading the learning conversation, demonstrating real interest, valuing all points of view, celebrating learning, and involving others in decision making.

Joe Mazza, author of Advice for Educators Wanting to be Principals, advises the following: “Too often school principals are hired and feel a sense of make change and immediately show that we can do the job as the new principal. The fire should certainly burn as the new leader, but channel this energy into listening to your stakeholders, take good notes, and learn the history, culture, and present state of the school community.”  Being a leader who focuses on developing trust means being a leader who seeks first to understand. It is clear that Laurie Greenberg is just such a leader.

Commentary by Nan Parsons

Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  For other commentaries by Nan Parsons, see: