How lunch duty became a cornerstone of my leadership

As a principal, I spent lunch periods in the cafeteria whenever possible. It was a place to deepen connections – and a fertile ground for surfacing feedback and data. I’d sit with a student and say, “Tell me about your experience at this school, in this class, with me as your principal, and put a number to it – 10 being the most amazing review and 1 being, ‘El-Mekki go back to principal school. You’re the worst principal ever.'”

No matter what number the student gave, I would respond, “Okay, what would I have to do for you to upgrade that score by 2 points?” They shared their idea, and I said, “All right, I’m going to ask again in a month to see if I’ve implemented anything you’ve wanted.” 

The conversations served multiple purposes. They were a way to be inclusive of student voice and an avenue for students to practice advocating for themselves. They were a sign of respect, indicating that the students’ voices were heard and that I wanted to earn something from them.

Often, a student’s experience in school may be the opposite: They have to earn everything in class. The chance to go to the bathroom, to have a “Dress Down Day,” to go on a trip, to take home good grades. In these conversations, I flipped this and said, “No, I’m going to earn something from you. I’m going to earn your trust.”

As school leaders, we need to maintain relentless curiosity about the way students experience our schools. If we recognize that people are the experts of their own experience, we can’t tell students, “Well, this is what you feel at school.” Instead, we need to ask: “How are you experiencing school?” “How are you experiencing my leadership?” “How can I improve your experience?”