Stepping Out of the Boat

“Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

– Matthew 14: 29-31

Who knew that being a principal could be so stressful? Like most principals, I entered the role with a belief that the people I would be serving would welcome my approach to leadership with open arms.  That does happen on many occasions. You can read stories and FB posts about the joys of leading. They are all true. But there are other stories to be told about leadership that I would like for aspiring leaders to know so they will be prepared for what the role truly entails. There are moments when you have to remind yourself that you are not part of an action film where the script is written in a way where your livelihood is threatened, your reputation is attacked, and people you trusted in your inner circle betray you in critical moments. The plot has multiple sinister twists that can’t be predicted. There are tense meetings, long conference calls, angry parents, difficult staff members, shortages of resources, and the ever-present push to increase student achievement.  There are triumphant tales of overcoming and miraculous saves where the underdogs come out on top. In the book of Matthew we read the account of Jesus appearing to men in a boat while they are surrounded by a brutal storm.  Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” After he gives the command, Peter steps out of the boat, on faith, and begins to walk on water. Only when he looks around at the storm surrounding them does he begin to doubt and sink. He had enough faith to step out of the boat and walk on water briefly, but he became distracted by everything happening around him that he quickly began to sink. Like a courageous and well-intentioned school leader, Peter had enough faith to take steps forward while everyone else remained in the safety and comfort of the boat.

Lesson 1: It takes faith to take the first step

Though he was criticized for having “little faith” that eventually led to his sinking, he had to have some faith to even take the first step. In examining this account from the lens of a school leader, I see the many times I criticized my leaders for their missteps in the midst of a raging storm.  Never forget that it takes enormous courage and faith to assume the responsibility for a school. Over the years, I’ve been absolutely guilty of holding my leaders up for scrutiny, but I had no idea how much they were balancing all while living their lives beyond the school.  Every principal has a shelf filled with books on leadership and best practices in public education. We pull from business texts on team building and books of motivational quotes. We draw from multiple sources to charge ourselves up so that we can energize those we lead each day.  Within months of taking on my role as principal, I realized that like Peter, principals don’t walk on water. They walk through it!

I was determined to lead my school in the way I wanted schools to be led when I was a 5th grade teacher at Monte Sano Elementary in Augusta. I wanted to close the door to room 216, teach my 24 students, and go home to my wife and infant daughter.  My interactions with the principal were limited.  Why? Our roles were so different and my job was to teach my kids, not to assist in leading the direction of the school. I wanted to stay in my lane and I appreciated the fact that she stayed in hers. When she gave our grade level a task, we figured out how to get it done without any pushback.  We wanted her to be pleased with our work and our level of commitment to her leadership.  Now, we did have our share of difficult parents who seemed to find the proverbial fly in every bowl of soup we served. But we were usually able to appease these parents with a few explanations and reasonable adjustments. 

Lesson 2:  Fear will sink you

The daily walk of being a principal in an urban school comes with the expectation that we can literally step out of the boat and walk on water in the midst of a storm.  Peter’s fear caused him to sink.  The best leaders can become captives to their own forms of fear.  Education is a very political profession and principals naturally think long and hard about how the decisions they make will potentially impact their career trajectory.  I’ve found that those who truly make a lasting impact in the profession operate from a place that is far removed from this fear of failure. They move with confidence and always in the best interest of the students they serve.

What would surprise most people about the role of the principal is the number of people who actively hurl threats at you about what they will do if they don’t get their way.  Everyone seems to have an agenda either for their own interest or that of their child.  Sometimes those agendas are great in that they provide a benefit for the entire school in the form of a strategic partnership or a school-wide event that all students can enjoy. Things take a turn when policies are enforced, because inevitably some parents take issue with the policies applying to their child.  On the one hand, we have parents who want strict enforcement of policies against other people’s children, but when their child commits an infraction, they want to suggest that the teacher or the school has a vendetta out against their seven-year-old child.

Should I Call the Board?

Ayana was one of the most unruly students in the 4th grade. Her father, Mr. Watkins, was in law enforcement and while he understood that she was a very difficult child, he always attacked the school when we held her accountable for being rude, uncooperative, or disrespectful to teachers and her peers.  His favorite line was, “Do I need to call the Board?”.  I’d heard it more times than I cared to remember.  It was a veiled attempt to issue direct threat to our due process and to my leadership.  The comment was hurled at teachers and at me during conference calls.  On this particular day, Ayana had been very rude to her Spanish teacher and refused to follow any directives that were given. I called Mr. Watkins as my assistant principal sat in my office.  I placed the phone on speaker.  I explained to Mr. Watkins that we had issued Ayana one day in ISS and she refused to go.  I explained to him that her refusal would result in an out-of-school suspension if she did not comply.  “I didn’t get a write up…now do I have to go to the board to get a write up?” Here we were again with the veiled threats. I said, “Mr. Watkins, you have every right to contact the board, but let’s not continue to move away from the issue at hand. The real issue is your daughter not complying with school and district policies. You continue to bring up this idea of calling the board when we have these discussions and I want you to know that it does not change our level of expectations.  I am going to continue to hold Ayana accountable.”  He paused and said, “Mr. Mountain, I don’t have a problem with you, I’m just frustrated with the system.” He then apologized and continued the conversation in a much more sensible tone. Confronting the threat directly as opposed to ignoring it seemed to deflate the power of it instantly. 

I Shall Not Be Moved

Ms. Brinks had 3 sons who attended our school. Whenever she came to the school, her mother was always present and did most of the talking.  Ms. Brinks just looked on with a scowl, never saying too much until she just couldn’t contain her emotions anymore. When this happened, we’d witness her emotional outburst and talk her through it. She was the parent who wanted what she wanted when she wanted it without regard to processes and procedures. On this busy afternoon, we were managing our dismissal line in the front of the school. There were over 200 cars on a typical day coming through the front circle.  She pulls up in a red sedan, parks in the circle and gets out of the car. She storms in to the front office, ignoring the fact that her car is now impeding the traffic of our dismissal process.  Once in the office, she begins to demand to know where her oldest son is, forgetting that he’s signed up for tutoring on Tuesday afternoons and is in a tutoring session.  My staff assures her that we will find him and send him to the front.  We ask her to please move her vehicle so we can continue with our dismissal process.  She says, “I ain’t movin’ my car till yall find my child”.  My assistant principal offers to move the car for her while she waits inside. She refuses.  

The next day the saga continues as we receive a call from the district because the parent has filed a complaint saying we were “extremely rude to her”. Now, instead of meeting with the teachers I’d planned to meet with to discuss instruction or returning calls from parents, I’m gathering the statements from witnesses so that we can provide a narrative of what actually happened in the front office the previous afternoon.  I’m asked to call the parent back and to discuss the incident.  I agree to make the call because I’m hopeful that she had calmed down and is in a completely different emotional space.  That was not to be the case.  As I open the call I ask, “Ms. Brinks, is there something I can do to assist. I know we had an issue yesterday at the car-rider circle and I just wanted to reach out. Is everything okay?”.  She says, “No, it’s not okay. I have an issue with Mrs. Brant and I don’t want her on car rider duty in the afternoons. She doesn’t know how to talk to people. She wasn’t professional.”  She goes on to say that Mrs. Brant asked her to move her vehicle, as she should have.  Now the parent is demanding that I remove Mrs. Brant from this duty station so that she does not have to interact with her. She then said, “Am I gonna have to call your supervisor?” In my mind I’m thinking, “How in the hell does she have the nerve to demand changes in our duty schedule? You were the one who left your car in a loading area, but now you’re making demands of us. Unbelievable.” But I couldn’t say this because it would not be the politically correct thing to say.  I had to keep my head in the game. I had to be diplomatic…as long as I could. It tried, believe me I tried. But I’m not perfect. I’m human and I can only take so much.  So then I say, “I understand you were looking for your son and we put the wheels in motion to find him. He was in tutoring. But Ms. Brinks, let me be clear, you were wrong to leave your vehicle in the circle during dismissal. It was uncalled for and Mrs. Brant did her job and asked you to please move your vehicle. I asked and my assistant principal asked.  Now you are asking me if you should call my supervisor. That doesn’t frighten me at all. I stand behind how we handled things yesterday and I hope you understand that we will not change our processes intended to protect children for your convenience. So make the calls you need to make, because we are going to continue to work in the best interest of our students.” My assistant principal looked like she was about to have a heart attack. She couldn’t believe what I was saying. Ms. Brinks was silent, then she hung up in my face.

People expect principals to be perfect and show no emotion.  They expect us to be the passive brunt of personal attacks without ever flinching or displaying human qualities. This is unrealistic and damn near impossible. Walking on water is not always possible but walking through it means that you stand on what’s right. It’s gonna get messy and you will come out of it tougher than you were when it all started. You stop worrying about appeasing people who are as wrong as two left feet.  You get on with the business of leading and feel good about how you handled things because there’s too much at stake to entertain foolishness for hours each day. You go home, kiss your wife and kids and have a wonderful evening.  You rest well at night knowing that the decisions you make and the statements you make are grounded in what’s fair and good for kids.  You defend your people at all costs so that they know you’ve got their back.  You take whatever heat comes down from the top because at the end of the day all of the calls come directly to you.

Soundtrack to this blog: Don’t Rock My Boat by Bob Marley

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