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Lessons Learned
The Hard Way


What's the secret to the success of a strong school administrator? And how do you figure out that secret? For many, the secret is learning from their mistakes. This week, Education World's Principals Files principals own up to some of their biggest mistakes -- and, therefore, their biggest opportunities to become better school administrators! These principals share how they learned the importance of communicating, of quiet leadership, of understanding where kids come from -- and of making copies of anything ever sent to the district office, because the originals are sure to get lost!

I saw a listserv posting almost a year ago. (I think it's fiction, but it illustrates well the point of this story!) The posting was from a teacher who stopped by the principal's office one day. The conversation between that teacher and the principal went something like this:

"What's the secret of your success?" the teacher asked.
"Two words," the principal replied.
"And what are they?" asked the teacher.
"Right decisions."
"But how do you make right decisions?" the teacher queried.
"One word," the principal responded.
"And what is that?"
"And how do you get experience?" asked the teacher.
"Two words," replied the principal.
"And what are they?"
"Wrong decisions."

We learn from our mistakes. Failure is a great teacher. Those are not exactly new concepts, are not just hollow words. If it weren't for our failures, none of us would be as good as we are at what we do. When I came across that conversation a couple of weeks ago, I decided I'd pose a related question to Education World's Principal Files principals: What lessons have you learned from experience and from making mistakes? The answer was just as I'd expected -- plenty!


"Mistakes are more like opportunities for improvement in disguise."

Those are the words of Graeme Askew, principal at Streeton Primary School in Melbourne Australia. He recently told Education World that he recalled having more than one "opportunity for improvement in disguise"!

"Many years ago, when I was much less wise, I trusted the serious comments of two teachers who said, on separate occasions, that a colleague was giving a new teacher a hard time," Askew told Education World.

So what did Askew do? He spoke to the colleague that very same day.

"Not surprisingly, it was a tense meeting," Askew recalled. "The discussion was worsened by a growing suspicion that I had not gathered all the facts and had simply taken on board the first two teachers' observations."

In the end, there was no doubt in Askew's mind that he had gotten it wrong and could have avoided all the unpleasantness if he'd simply taken a different tack.

"It's a mistake I often refer back to," said Askew. "These days I like to pause, in any situation, and take time to gather information and to reflect on possible courses of action."


Careful communication could have spared some trouble for principal Lucie Boyadjian too.

"I thought increasing instructional time seemed like a good idea," said Boyadjian, principal at Glen Oaks School in Hickory Hills, Illinois. In her search for ways to increase instructional time, however, Boyadjian made a big mistake.

"I thought if I took away 15 minutes from school parties (three times throughout the year) -- reduced them from one hour to 45 minutes -- then that would create an additional 45 minutes of instructional time," Boyadjian recalled. Anything to increase instructional time!

"Needless to say, some of my more vocal PTA members did not agree with me. One mom went so far as to research 50 surrounding schools for their room party procedures and to contact university professors to get their opinions on the value of 'social time,'" recalled Boyadjian.

"I learned that effective and informative communication plays the biggest role in getting things accomplished," concluded Boyadjian. "If I had first discussed this with more individuals than I had and clearly articulated my concerns (I thought I had), then maybe it would not have been blown out of proportion. In the end, I realized this was not a battle worth fighting."

The PTA played a role in one of the first lessons learned by another green principal. In her first month as a principal, Mary Ellen Imbo had "a big hairy conflict with the PTA."

Nowhere along the way had Imbo -- currently the principal at Westwood Elementary School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma -- gotten any training in "big hairy conflicts with the PTA." So she did what she always did. She took the bull by the horns and handled the problem.

"It never occurred to me to ask for suggestions," Imbo told Education World. "Now, I do."

"I learned from that experience that it's all right to call the boss for help too," added Imbo.


That was just one lesson Imbo has learned the hard way. "I've thought of many mistakes I've made, and I don't mind admitting them," said Imbo. Here are some of the lessons she recalled for Education World:

  • "Don't trust monthly requisition reports, bond issue reports, instructional printouts. Check them out line by line!
  • Even if you have a good relationship with parents, don't expect their support when it comes to disciplining their child.
  • Take time to build trust with the staff before being bluntly honest.
  • Document every parent conference, including phone conferences.
  • Don't assume that the faculty and staff will hand in items by the deadline. They are no different than the kids!
  • Address faculty squabbles if necessary, but do it privately."


From the Education
World Archive

Did you enjoy this article from Education World's P-Files series? Our Principal Files principals have shared their thoughts on other hot topics for school administrators. You might want to check out some of the other stories in the series:
Julie McCann, principal at Western View Middle School in Corvallis, Oregon, has learned more lessons than she cares to remember. But it was difficult for her to recall any one. "I don't know if it is my orientation to mistakes or my ability to save my sanity, but I can't recall a specific [situation] that stands out," she told Education World. "I wonder if it's because I view everything as a learning experience. I am never satisfied that I made good decisions. They could always be better."

However, a multitude of errors made over time culminated in McCann's coming to one important conclusion: "The school is not about me. ... It's not my school, it's their school. The school is about the students, families, and teachers. What we get accomplished must be the work and vision of the teachers implementing [our vision for the school] and the parents supporting it."

McCann recalled her efforts at a previous school. "We struggled through implementing a school where 'Everyone Teaches, Everyone Learns,'" she said. During her years at that school, she was asked often by staff "Where are we going with this?" The staff felt she had the answer. "They didn't believe me when I said I had no idea -- wherever our learning takes us," she recalled. "We created an incredible school where student learning drastically improved and has sustained over an 8-year period."

The best leadership is from behind the scenes supporting and promoting teacher leadership -- that is the lesson McCann has learned in spite of, and supported by, the many mistakes she has made. "If you can leave, and the great work carries on, that is the best tribute."


Jeff Castle is the principal at Collins Lane Elementary School, a pre-K through grade 5 school in Frankfort, Kentucky. He learned a lesson very early on in his teaching career, one that has stuck in his mind and guided him as he's moved up the ladder to the principalship.

Castle's first teaching job was at a small (150 students), poor, rural school. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his War on Poverty from the porch of the grandparents of one of Castle's students.

"I was a first-year teacher, filled with dreams and aspirations of making a difference when I walked into that classroom of 27 third- and fourth-grade students," Castle recalled. "In particular, there was a student named Michael who exhibited some behaviors I'd never witnessed before -- behaviors I found extremely annoying."

At that time, corporal punishment was actively used in that school, and it was an expectation held by the parents of the community that spanking be employed. As surprising as it sounds to him today, Castle recalled times when he took the parents up on their suggestion and used paddling as a consequence.

"I closely monitored and documented when I used this rather barbaric form of punishment," he told Education World. As he began to analyze the data in the log, he couldn't help but notice that Michael had been exposed to the paddle more often than any other of his students.

"This began to concern me, and I decided to talk this issue over with one of my colleagues who was a strong member of this community," Castle said. "After I spoke with my colleague, the only comment she made was that I needed to go with her after school one day and then my concerns could be addressed."

One afternoon, following a particularly strenuous day, Castle accompanied his friend on a trip through our community. "I was abhorred by the deteriorating nature of homes and, in some cases, the lack thereof," Castle remembered. "I witnessed my students coming out of old school buses that were family sanctuaries and was mortified to have actually witnessed a family routing through trash to find their evening meal.

"As we began the last leg of our sojourn, we came upon what appeared to me to be sheds with pieces of tin siding leaning against each other. The only indication that this was a family dwelling was a makeshift smoke stack that had black smoke rolling out of it. That explained the intense smell of coal that I smelled on Michael's clothes."

As he panned this tenement area, Castle noticed a small, frail boy with matted blond hair and no shirt, socks, or shoes. Of course, it was Michael. He actually lived in one of those shacks with his mother, father, and three siblings.

"My explanation was sitting directly in front of me," said Castle. As he drove out of the hollow, the only response he could muster was tears. "I cried as my heart broke for this child ... and from that moment on, I never punished him with the same ferocity that I had once used. I only hugged him and told him that everything was fine. How could I punish a nine-year-old child who didn't know where his next meal was coming from?"

It was a powerful lesson, a recognition to Castle of the mistake he'd made in punishing Michael and others in that class. "I learned that before I disciplined students, I must first know where they are coming from," Castle explained. "I must remove any barriers to learning that they may have, then try alternate methods in order to manage behavior."

"That was one learning experience that made a difference in my life," added Castle.

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Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 07/18/2000 Last updated 05/26/2009