The Brave Administrator’s Playbook for Upping Their Game Each New School Year

By Amy Rodriguez

The journey of an administrator is rarely linear – often, one runs in circles just to meet the needs of the day. In my ten years of administrative work, I’ve done my own share of running around: mentoring, “dean”ing, complying with regulations – the list goes on. And across the decade and the school communities I’ve called home – from communities of poverty to affluence and everywhere in between – the same issues for administrators surface. While administrators often do everything we can to be all things to all people, we often carry the load alone, preferring to shoulder the load than to burden our communities. I’ve done it, and I’ve witnessed any number of (incredible) colleagues do it. No matter how seasoned or dedicated the administrator, something almost always falls through the cracks, taking away from our real job: nurturing our entire community. The wheels keep spinning and the cycle begins again, but they don’t have to: focusing on professional growth is one way to become a more efficient and effective administrator for the coming year.

Pathways to professional growth

To move our schools forward sustainably and efficiently we must also consider our own professional growth as administrators. Professional development is not a compliance-driven practice for educators nor should it be for administrators. Yet how often have I reflected on a year gone by wondering how could I have found and fostered more opportunities for professional growth? As we head back to our school communities this fall, the following are four ways I plan to foster my own professional development and offer them as an opportunity to share and hear from others.

1. Re-committing to our core values. Each school has a set of core values, but spending time to solidify what these values look like in action make them both concrete and actionable and ensure that we are putting our proverbial money where our mouth is. Bringing in the wider community to help clearly define these values ensures everyone is on the same page and is vested in working towards these shared goals. For example, in our school compassion and empathy are viewed as pathways to authentic learning. Defining what these values look like from varying perspectives of students, staff, faculty, and administrators helps us see examples of our values in action. Having a defined value of compassion and empathy ensures that when Taylor articulates their frustration with their friend in lieu of blowing up or fighting as a result of a new advisory initiative that provides support around providing safe spaces for students to express their feelings, there is concrete evidence that these school values are more than lip-service. What’s more, this provides an opportunity to give feedback to Taylor how they demonstrated empathy in wanting to have a conversation with their friend rather than assuming wrongdoing.

2. Planning support. With values clearly articulated, supports are needed to bring values to life. Support for me includes reaching out to trusted mentors and collaborators who push me to be more of an active listener when teachers or parents express concerns, rather than wanting to fix the problem immediately. It also allows me to see areas where I can improve my practice and communication with others to be a more successful building leader. In this way, professional development as an administrator is a model for my students and teacher colleagues about the value of growing together and being open to changing for the better.

3. Commit to leveling up in at least one new area. Sometimes reflection on our core values pushes us to try something outside our comfort zone. A value of empathy and compassion can be made more concrete by observing and documenting student, staff, and faculty behavior. Mentors can give much needed perspective as we grow these values alongside our school community. But often times we need to push beyond what and who we know to truly level up. Each year I attempt to visit places where these values are abundant. Seeing new schools not only allows me to meet new colleagues but demonstrates these practices in action and helps create a community of support.

4. Asking for (and taking) feedback. As principals we often lean towards perfectionism: we want acknowledgement for the hard work we do and how it immediately impacts students but we don’t want to acknowledge our struggles in the process. To get into that space of perpetual improvement, however, it’s so important we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and seek feedback for improvement. When I struggled with embracing empathy while giving critical feedback to teachers, I reached out to my superintendent and a trusted principal friend. Both encouraged me to talk less, refrain from over-contextualizing the feedback, and keep students at the center of every conversation I have. Allowing myself to be open that my practice needs growth enabled me to engage in difficult conversations, ultimately allowing me to be a stronger advocate for children.

While the shape of the educational landscape is ever-shifting, recommitting to our values helps us gain clarity upon what it is that is important to our school community. Identifying who amongst our trusted colleagues will serve as a mentor or partner means you’ll have an impartial supporter to push you to try harder and be better than you were before. Committing to improving in at least one new area each year and then seeking and taking feedback on your growth ensures that you are not only a model of continual improvement to your colleagues, but an advocate for all students.

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Amy Rodriguez is a Principal in the New York City Department of Education. Connect with her at [email protected].

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