Recently I was speaking to school leaders at Okaloosa County Schools’ Summer Leadership Academy in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.
I decided to combine my travels there with an opportunity for my family to stay at the beach. My wife and I loaded up all four kids in a Dodge Caravan, and we hit the road. We had a lot of fun putting our toes in the sand, playing in the waves, and just being together.
It takes 13 hours to reach Ft. Walton Beach from our town in Oklahoma. So we also had lots of time for thought, reflection, music and podcasts. We also had much to talk about as a family. My children have always known their dad as either a teacher or school administrator. And this past week after I made the announcement that I will be the new Executive Director for OASSP and OMLEA, there were lots of conversations about how the new job may affect our lives and schedules.
Looking at Lessons from the Past
As excited as I am about the ability to connect with principals across the state in support, professional development and advocacy, I’m also a little nervous as I think about moving away from the familiar. Leaving my school after ten years is bittersweet. My second daughter, Mattie, is still a junior at Skiatook High School. And after a decade of serving as both assistant principal and principal there, I have developed many meaningful relationships.
On the flip side, I am glad to have been a part of a school I still love. Sometimes you see leaders stay in positions longer than they should. Whether it is because they lose the fire and passion for their work or they are simply wearied from the journey, we all run the risk of losing sight of the purpose in our work that keeps us positively motivated.
This morning as I was enjoying a run down the trails near Skiatook, I was thinking back to the last twenty-four years I have served in schools. It’s crazy to think that half my career was in the classroom, and half working from the principal’s office. I tried to think about the number of times I have managed discipline scenarios with students or the number of teacher observations, evaluations, meetings, interventions, or parent conferences I managed.
I remembered the number of evening games, events, concerts, activities, homecomings, and dances I supervised. And then there are the countless state reports, federal surveys, accreditation documents, budget requests, and paperwork for personnel requests.
Just for fun, I did some quick math. On a slow day during my years as an assistant principal, for instance, I may have managed fifteen to twenty discipline scenarios a day. Over ten school years, that is somewhere between 27,000 to 30,000 student discipline assignments. Just student discipline alone requires a lot of conversations, parent phone calls, negotiations, and follow-up conversations with teachers.
Of course, our duties as school leaders include more than discipline. Our plates are always full of options. Just like me, I’m sure you have also been told by others, “I could never do your job.” Whether or not that is true, I like to remember that just as exercising for the first time causes you temporary pain, doing new work can be hard at first until you train your mental and emotional muscles for the lifting and stretching. Over time, you find that the day-to-day interactions became easier to manage.
At the same time, no matter how much experience you have, you also never stop being challenged or needing to grow.
3 Takeaways for Your Own Journey
As I look toward my new responsibilities, I wanted to share some essential lessons from my twenty-four years that I want to take with me. And as you think about the year you are preparing to face, here are some takeaways from my own experience that may help you too:
1. Never stop looking for ways to keep growing.
We all need coaching. Even the most elite athletes in the world are constantly seeking the input of their coaches and mentors. Why would we as school leaders expect to grow any differently?
As I’ve reached out to other leaders, read good books, searched for new ideas, and surrounded myself with strong mentors, I have found more and more places where I have needed to grow.
As an educator, I know you have the same commitment to being a life-long learner. It is humbling to admit that we never figure it all out. We never “arrive” in our work or in our lives. So stay teachable. When you do, new doors open all the time for discovery, creativity, and opportunity.
2. Never stop remembering the motivations and purpose of your work.
Even as I face a new season of responsibility in supporting principals and schools, my purpose for helping others must remain essential. Helping students will be reflected more indirectly than directly now. But keeping that purpose essential to the support I provide will keep my work meaningful. When you step into your school each day, what is the driving motivation that keeps you fired up about serving? How are you keeping your main purpose in mind while you are leading others?
3. Never stop reflecting on ways you can invest in other areas of your life.
If you want to remain fresh and effective in your work, you must also remain fresh and effective in your life. How are you practicing good habits of health, nutrition, rest, family, and spiritual growth?
These priorities can’t be set aside when we work. Our commitment to them is intricately tied to how effectively we will perform and give to others in our work.
Why Leadership Challenges Are Worth It
This past week I have had lots of emails, texts and messages via social media from teachers, students, parents, and colleagues wishing me good luck in my new journey. As I was reading through emails and messages this week, I wanted to share one Facebook message with you one from a former student.
This young man was one with whom I had lots of discussions, discipline, and challenges with during his four years of school. So my heart was warmed when he sent me the following:
“Mr. Parker, I saw you are moving on to bigger and better things and it made me finally want to speak my mind about how you have changed my life. Out of all of the teachers and principals and leaders I’ve had over the years I’ve grown to see that you were the most influential in my life.
I was a troubled youth to say the least and you always seemed to show me attention and ask questions about my life. Back then being young and naive I always took it as an annoyance. But as an adult and father I have really grown to understand and appreciate the time you spent with me, even when arrogantly unwelcomed.
Somehow through some extraneous perseverance you seemed to get me to talk about my family life and my problems at the time and I never really realized how much of an impact that made until my adult life. You showed me that talking about your problems is the best way to start the process of solving them.
I just wanted you to know that i think you are a great man and out of the many lives I’m sure you have made a difference in, mine does not go unappreciated. I want to say thank you for your patience with me as a youth and thank you for being a great role model even if the ones you influence the most don’t understand it yet. They will. Thank you, sir, and I hope you find great success in your new position and in your family’s future.”
Let’s Wrap This Up
As my family and I headed home from a week at the beach, we brought home memories of waves and sand. We also had some great family time with extended family who joined us there. The road home was a long one, but the memories we brought with us made it worth the drive.
Whatever journey you are facing next, take some lessons from the ones you’ve already been on. Don’t forget to always look for ways to grow, keep your motivations in perspective, and take time to invest in all areas of your life. When you do, your work is more than just a job. It’s a calling. Remember that as you serve others, you are making a difference in someone else’s life. And that’s why what you do matters.
Now It’s Your Turn
What are some takeaways from your own leadership journey that you can pass along to rest of us on ways to keep growing? Think of one step you can take today to invest time in your own growth so that you can keep benefiting others along the way.
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