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Principals Search for Words to Rally the Troops

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Want to get the year off to a good start? Looking for the words to motivate your staff? Here are the messages a few of your colleagues plan to pass along to "the troops" at the start of the new school year!

When I was a first-year teacher (1974 -- yikes!), I have fond memories of a little talk given the day before school started by the town's superintendent. He was a very low-key guy. His message was as straight-forward as he was:

"Don't be afraid to fail. If you don't fail, that means you aren't trying new ideas, new lessons, new approaches, strategies, and techniques."

It was a simple message, but a powerful one -- one that stuck with me, one that guided me, and one that inspired me when, ultimately, I did fall on my face.


Do you have a message that you'll be conveying to your teachers at the start of the new school year? That's the question Education World posed to principals. In this story from "The Principal Files," we offer a handful of ideas from principals willing to share with the hope that their ideas might help others organize their opening day messages, excite their "troops" for the tasks ahead, or build morale. Or -- better yet -- perhaps what one principal has to say here will spur in somebody else a new idea that will help set a positive tone in some school for the year ahead.


Dee Manitzas heard countless opening day messages in her 23 years of teaching. And she's given a few as a principal too!

Like the superintendent I mentioned in my opening, Manitzas, principal at Accelerated Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, believes failure can be a good thing -- as long as educators have a fix in mind in case the idea fails.

In her remarks to teachers at the start of each school year, Manitzas also addresses the "failure" theme as it relates to Accelerated Middle's 145 at-risk sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students. "I encourage my staff and teachers to look at our students not as failures, but as students you haven't reached their potential," says Manitzas.

Each year is a 'clean slate,' she adds. "I tell my staff 'Don't dwell on last year's problems. Treat every student as a new student without baggage.' I remind them that they ask the same thing of me."

Last year, Accelerated Middle's scores on state-mandated tests were down from the year before. "This year is going to be an exciting year for all of us at the school. We have another chance this year to make these students successful -- and we will succeed!" will be Manitzas's rallying cry to her staff of eighteen. "And if one approach isn't working, we'll find another way to be successful."

Another simple message that Manitzas repeats each year is a powerful one for teachers to carry throughout the year: "Always treat the students like you want your own children treated or yourself treated."


"I encourage my teachers and staff to take risks," says Lucie Boyadjian, principal at Glen Oaks School in Hickory Hills, Illinois. "I emphasize this in the beginning of the school year, but the message is extended repeatedly throughout the year at staff meetings and in weekly bulletins and individual conversations."

"Encouraging risk-taking suggests it's alright to try something new or different without fear of administrative repercussions if it doesn't work," says Boyadjian. "The world has changed and so must we. If we don't seek alternative or various ways to improve instruction and learning then we will not grow as the resourceful individuals we are intended to be."

"Of course, I encourage my staff to seek my assistance whenever necessary to help facilitate their undertakings," adds Boyadjian.

Principal John J. Stone agrees.

"I try to instill in my staff the desire to try new things," says Stone, principal at Rindge (New Hampshire) Memorial School. "If they can justify why they want to try something such as a new approach or technique and can explain to me with documentation that it is sound I say to them 'Go for it!'"

"I try to encourage creativity and the desire to try without worrying about failing or feeling like a failure," adds Stone. "But we all must be willing to abort our plan if it isn't working."


Ron Tibbetts, principal at the Henry Barnard Laboratory School at Rhode Island College in Providence, remembers a message given by a superintendent many years ago.

"The message was from Dr. Seifert," he recalls, "and the message was 'Don't expect George to do it.'"

"What Dr. Seifert was saying," Tibbetts explains, "was that if there is a topic that needs to be explored, or a direction for curriculum that needs to be investigated, or anything else that needs to be accomplished, don't wait for someone else to do it. Do it yourself."

Don't expect George to do it!

Tibbets encourages every member of his teaching staff to take the lead -- or share in that task -- on some issue that they feel strongly about.

While back-to-school messages must also focus on important issues of budget and educational reform, "there is a more solemn thought that sticks in my mind from meetings before the school year begins," adds Tibbetts. "Each year, our college president takes a couple of minutes to remember faculty members and others who have died during the past year."

It's a very fitting tribute.


Dr. Peggy George, a retired Arizona principal who now teachers future principals at the college level, always searched for a handful of famous quotes -- or quotes from famous people -- that might in some way provide a focus and a motivation to her staff. Such quotes make great food-for-thought, and they can help educators understand that they aren't alone; that others have walked this turf before and given it some thought!

As part of her opening meeting, George will probably share and embellish on a few quotes that might help to put staff issues in perspective, encourage staff, and help everybody recognize the importance of shared responsibility for the organization. George will probably involve teachers in small group discussions of the quotes. Discussion questions might include "What does this mean to me?" and "What can I do to make this happen?" Among the quotes she's considering for this year's kickoff:

"We can't wait for the storm to blow over. We have to learn how to work in the rain."
--- Author unknown

"Form the habit of saying 'Yes' to a good idea. Then write down all the reasons why it will work. There will always be plenty of people around you to tell you why it won't work."
--- Gil Atkinson

"I do not go to a committee meeting merely to give my own ideas. If that were all, I might write my fellow members a letter. But neither do I go to learn other people's ideas. If that were all, I might ask each to write me a letter. I go to a committee meeting in order that all together we may create a group idea, an idea that will be better than any of our ideas alone, moreover, which will be better than all of our ideas added together. For this group idea will not be produced by any process of addition, but by the interpenetration of us all."
--- Mary Parker Follett, The New State

Quotes also played a role in the back-to-school message that Thomas Beckett, principal at Westminster Primary School in Western Australia, shared this year with his staff.

"I spoke to my staff about the need for lifelong learning, about how teaching was changing rapidly and how their jobs would change in the future," says Beckett. "I recounted a proverb that I read in an Indonesian train, which I thought summed up my views on teaching: 'Learning from a teacher who has stopped learning is like drinking from a stagnant pond.'"

That proverb now hangs in the staff room at Westminster.

And principal Sylvia Hooker plans to share a message this year with her staff at Central Middle School in Newnan, Georgia. Hooker's message sounds like something that Mr. John Bartlett would be wise to pick up and add to his quotation encyclopedia!

"Dare to bridge the gap," Hooker will say. "Dare to bridge the gap between old and new; young and old; past, present, and future. Dare to help every child excel, for it is only then when you have dared to be the very best educator you can be."


Lynda M. McCarty has been principal at The Martins' Achievement School in Sacramento, California -- a school for teenage boys with special needs -- for the past five years. This fall, she's leaving that position to pursue new opportunities, but she has a couple favorite -- and universal -- messages to share that any principal in any school might relate to.

One of those messages is pretty clear and simple: "Education is about the kids," says McCarty. "Caring for the kids."

"If you are in this business for any other reason, you might as well get out," says McCarty. "School should be a place where people care enough to never, never give up [on students]."

"Teachers need to know how incredibly important they are and they need to get up every day answering the call of opportunity, not responding to an alarm clock," adds McCarty. "Teachers who forget how powerful they are and who forget to engage in learning themselves, in the pure joy of the process, are teachers I will lose."

Indeed, it is that constant desire to learn that inspires her second thought. While taking a college course this year, McCarty read a book by Dick Richards called Artful Work: Awakening Joy, Meaning, and Commitment in the Workplace. That book spoke to McCarty. Its message, she says, is a powerful one that applies to any teacher, any student:

"As the artist creates their work, the work creates the artist. We are poems in the making."

"No other profession seems more like art, to me, than teaching," McCarty explains. "For me, it has always been very important to be sure that teachers who work with me know how profound, complex, and influential their role is in the lives of children. Good teachers are artists who grow in dimension, as professionals, with every moment that they practice their magic."

For students, the message is the same: "You are a poem in the making," she told her recent graduates. "Some of you are still working here, thinking of the best words. What is important, is that every choice you make, every effort you put forth, becomes part of you. As artists, you are creating your work. And the work is creating you."


For last year's opening meeting, Karen Linden -- principal at Oliver School in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) -- adapted a poem from Mary Madden's Gifts: A Prayer for Catechists. Linden copied the poem on special "ocean" paper and glued a little seashell to the bottom of each sheet.

A small excerpt from the poem, "Seashell," reads:

You are probably wondering why you have been given a seashell. It is a gift to you to help you reflect on another gift you are about to receive -- your students. Let's take a few minutes to consider what the shell can tell us about them.

Maybe your shell is fragile, delicate, and easily broken.
So are your students. Handle them kindly and with care.

Maybe your shell looks beautiful.
Each student in your class has a special beauty.
Discover it and help others to notice it and appreciate it...

Maybe you noticed that your shell has pieces chipped away or broken off.
Some students have had difficult experiences
that have chipped away their positive self-image and broken their spirit.
Help to rebuild their self-image and rekindle their enthusiasm...

The shell you have in your hand is unique.
It was carried to shore by the ocean just for you.
What will you do with it now that it is yours?
Each student in your class is unique, too.
Each one is in your hands now.
What will you do with your students now that they are yours?

"A great dialogue took place about how we work together to meet the needs of all students," says Linden.

This year, Linden will use another sea creature to set the tone for the year -- the starfish. She'll give each teacher a gold starfish pin -- a symbol of hope, optimism, and determination -- and a starfish poem. Another interesting discussion is sure to ensue.


I'll leave you with a couple last thoughts, these from Gary Cardwell, principal at Crockett Elementary School in Wichita Falls, South Dakota.

In his pre-opening remarks, Cardwell will encourage his teachers to look for the positive attributes of every child and to realize that children learn in different ways. "One must remember that you teach children a subject and you do not teach the subject," he says.

In closing, he adds, "I stress that education is the cornerstone of the modern world and that teachers are the architects of the future. When you teach one child, you touch future generations forever."

A great thought on which to close this story.


Has this week's story from "The Principal Files" been of value to you? Education World would like to continue presenting stories that have practical value to principals, stories such as this one and the one we presented last month, What Qualities Do Principals Look for in a New Teacher? If you'd like to participate, it's really quite simple. Just sign up by following directions in the Calling All Principals! story. You will receive one monthly mailing of a question aimed at the interests of principals everywhere. (Note: Assistant principals, vice principals, directors -- join the crowd!) There is no obligation to respond. Respond only if you have something to say. Remove yourself from the list at any time. So c'mon, join the fun. See your name in print on Education World, "Where Educators Go to Learn."

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Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006, 2015 Education World


Originally published 08/17/1998
Last updated 06/17/2015