As I will be assuming the role of General Studies Principal in a few months at Valley Torah High School, I felt it was a good idea to meet the teachers who will comprise the educational team of the General Studies department. The goal of these meetings were simply to begin to get to know the staff and for them to start to get to know me. There was no grander plan beyond simply creating an initial connection with the people I will be spending a lot of time with and working hard to support. However, I was finding that these simple meetings were presenting themselves to be challenging.
The announcement of my appointment as incoming General Studies Principal was made months ago. Prior to the announcement I had met with administrators, teachers, parents and board members many times and have continued to do so since. At these meetings many wonderfully positive opinions and thoughts were shared with me about the staff and quality of instruction. I valued all of these opinions and continue to welcome them as they represent the view of the stakeholders, which can only help me in my decision making responsibilities. However, at the same time, it created various pictures representing many different viewpoints and, often quickly presented, leaving me with smaller pieces of a much larger picture that takes time to piece together. I was concerned based on these shared opinions that despite their positive nature I would make inaccurate assumptions.
Now conventional wisdom might dictate that I should have walked into these meetings without any assumptions at all and there is a lot of truth to that. There is also not a lot of realism in that wisdom. I did not have a Men In Black Neuralyzer that I could erase all of those opinions, nor would I even if I did. These opinions and perceptions matter to me even if in this instance it was not what I needed. So, given that I could not temporally erase my mind, I decided the best thing I could do was create my own set of holistic positive assumptions to attribute to these teachers.
The goal was to think what could I assume about my team that represents the great work they are doing given that the school has clearly been growing and excelling academically. If I could generate those assumptions then I could go into these meetings assuming the best without having to piece together the various shared opinions already presented to me. I would not have to play detective trying to see which positive attribute applied to which teacher, nor would I have to think about if they met the expectations of this list. I would just assume they did. The focus would be on what I set out to do which was simply connecting.
Well, I did just that and walked into the meeting with these seven assumptions:
- All decisions our teachers make about school are in the service of our students
- The teachers are talented, want to contribute and are committed to high quality instruction.
- The teachers are life-long learners
- The teachers value the mission of the school
- The teachers believe our students can excel and achieve greatness
- The teachers are open to change and taking risks
- The teachers believe we are better educators as a team than alone
So did it work?
It sure did and much more. I was able to focus on asking questions about the needs of the teachers and not my own. I was able to find out what mattered to the teachers and not spend the time expressing what mattered to me. Although, a large part of what matters to me in this role is what matters to my teachers, so it worked out very nicely for me as well. This exercise also helped me think deeply about what I want to be true about the team I am leading. However, and this is critical, I don’t think expectations based on these seven assumptions should be created in a vacuum.
This is my list based on my experience and hopes for the school. For an authentic list to be created it must be drafted collaboratively with the teachers, admin, parents and students based on what they want to be true about instruction. Yet, until that authentic list can be created, I began with my holistic list of positive assumptions so I can focus on the task of getting to know the teachers without the clutter of other voices. I walked in assuming they were great teachers as had been told to me in many ways allowing me to see how great they truly were. Will the assumptions change? Sure. But they will change because the assumptions will become expectations that we collectively create to illustrate the culture of excellence that exists at Valley Torah. So, next time you are concerned with preconceived notions, you may want to try assuming the best and seeing if it meets your expectations.