My 3 tips for when the leadership road feels rocky

Last year, I celebrated my 10th year as a school administrator. This year, a family move took me across the country, and I’m now serving as director of principal development for my new district. Every principal I support, from brand-new leaders to veteran administrators, knows that the principal role can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult. When I look back on my experience as a school leader, one of the most important skills I learned was figuring out how to lean into the challenges.

In times when your principal journey feels rough, it may seem like all you can do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But I’ve come to realize that those are the times when it’s wise to stop walking – for just a moment – and generate the vision, energy and understanding you need to smooth your path. 

Here are my 3 tips for when the road gets rough:

+ Tough moment? Take a pause to center empathy.

Being a school leader can feel like the most fulfilling job in the world because on any given day, you have the opportunity to impact the lives of children. But when you’re the principal, some days will bring challenges that feel especially tough because they’ll involve conflicts between the people in your school community – and those people are right at the heart of your “why.” Whether it is a conflict between students, or staff, a family, or member of the community, resolving the conflict and restoring and rebuilding relationships are some of the hardest parts of the job. Whenever you sense frustration building up around you – or inside you – I recommend making it a habit to pause, breathe and remind yourself to center empathy.

Let’s say you have a student who’s struggling to self-regulate, and the teacher and the family are struggling to communicate about supports. By the time that conflict reaches you, everyone’s frustrated. That means you need to provide a reset before you can seek a resolution. Whenever I felt that shared frustration in the room, that was my cue to pause and get really intentional about centering empathy and to seek understanding in the discussion moving forward. That’s how I reminded myself that my first step shouldn’t be seeking to solve the problem, but seeking to support the people experiencing the problem – because those people were part of my “why.” By making it a habit to pause and center empathy as you tackle a tough situation, you’re also making it a habit to seek understanding and move forward in a way that that honors and values everyone involved.

+ Tough month? Draft a daily “Get-To List.”

We leaders start each year with big plans to inspire teachers and students, and when complications arise, you may feel a little less successful as a leader or a little less hopeful about what you can accomplish for your school. For me, that shift happens during what some educators call DEVOLSON: the “dark, evil vortex of late September, October and November.” In my first fall as a principal, I didn’t have a leadership practice to sustain my energy and inspiration, and there were many days when I felt discouraged. I reached out to my superintendent, who helped me identify my priorities – because when you feel stuck, let your priorities serve as your guide. That’s when I created my “Get-To List.” It’s a quick list of the things you want to get to daily to stay in line with your priorities – and it’s my number-one tip for refilling your leader cup every single day.

I can’t recommend this practice highly enough, especially for new leaders, and I hope you’ll scroll down to the bottom of this post, grab my template and make a list of your own. When you see your list on your desk first thing in the morning, it connects you with the principal you want to be that day and every day. And if you start to see yourself leaving items on your list unchecked, that can remind you to take back space in your schedule for the things that matter most. It’s such a simple practice – but because it keeps you in close touch with your fundamental leadership priorities, it can keep you in close touch with your leader identity, energy and inspiration.

+ Tough season? Look back to move ahead.

Five years into my leadership journey, I found myself struggling to see whether I was making a difference – and I started to wonder if I even wanted to be a school principal. I told myself that before I made any decisions about the path ahead, I needed to reflect on the path behind.

In doing so, I realized that when I first became a teacher, I had built my practice on joy. In my classroom, I had tried to make learning feel fun and exciting for my students. For example, we’d wear silly hats to make poetry come alive or act out scenes from the novels we were reading. We’d play games to review material and debate silly topics to study persuasive writing. (Tacos vs. pizza was always a heated topic.) But after stepping into leadership, I thought I needed to be more serious and “down to business,” so I literally boxed the hats up and put my teaching materials away.

In looking back and reflecting on my experience as a teacher, it was then that I realized what was missing from my practice as a principal: joy. And after reading books like Lead Like a Pirate and Lead with Culture, I realized what I needed to do: unpack my boxes and rediscover my passion and joy.

That’s why I decided to wear my silly hats again – and start each day as the principal by greeting our students (and staff) with something to talk about. As silly as those hats were, they reconnected me with the importance of building an inspiring learning culture for kids – and that renewed my belief in the importance of my work.

You may not have started your educator journey with a stack of silly hats, but I bet a few artifacts from your classroom days still resonate, whether they exist in a box or only in your mind – a few letters from families, a book that transformed your practice, a memory of your students’ first “lightbulb moment.”  If you’re in a season of doubt about your role and your impact, I encourage you to take time to revisit those classroom days – and invite your first-year educator self to inspire your leader self.

Leadership will always bring us new challenges – and the truth is, we became school leaders because we want to tackle challenges! As a principal, I wanted to be the innovator, dreamer, strategizer and problem-solver my students and staff deserved. In every tough time, it meant a lot to me to keep bringing the determination and vision my school needed, and I’m sure you feel the same way. I’m so proud to be part of a community of leaders who push through every challenge, but I know that over time, putting our heads down and pushing without a pause can make us feel discouraged and doubtful about the value of our role. 

That’s why I hope my strategies will encourage you to carve out space to reflect, reenergize and renew your principal vision – whether it’s a moment’s pause, a daily practice or a deep reflection. That’s how we can keep thriving as leaders – and that’s how we can keep making a difference.

Below, you’ll find an example of my daily “Get-To List.” Click here to download my template and create your own.