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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

Stop, Look, and Listen



Slow down and take time to really stop, look, and listen to the sounds you hear in your school hallways. You will be surprised at what captures your attention. You will learn far more about your school from the things you hear in those moments than from almost anything else you do.

What gets your attention during the school day?

In the hectic day-to-day life of a school principal, is it the crisis situation that makes you take notice? The angry parent? The union representative? A call or visit from the superintendent or a member of the board of education?

Chances are all those things get your attention.

But there are probably many other important matters that slip below your radar. The distractions of daily life in a school can get in the way of any principal's ability to really stop, listen, and notice the routines, sounds, and structures that contribute to an effective school operation.

I hear about those distractions all the time from those I mentor. They describe their days as jam-packed, full of stress and interruptions, and with little time to stop and really take things in.


When my mentees complain about their hectic schedules, I try to take time to instruct them to look at the interruptions in their day as opportunities instead of stress-inducing distractions. If you can really learn how to make time to stop, look, and listen, you will most certainly gain insight. Best of all, you will capture some truly important events in your school.

For example, I share this strategy with my mentees (and now with you): Stand in your school hallway when the day is done. What do you hear? Then stand there when teachers are teaching and students are learning.

  • What special hum or buzz do you hear then? Do you hear chaotic noise? Or do you hear sounds of active learning? Do the adults speak harshly or do you hear nurturing and motivating adults interacting appropriately with children?
  • What do you hear when teachers are moving their students from place to place in the hallways? Are those sounds what you would want me (or your boss) to hear?
  • What does the cafeteria sound like? If you were wandering by the cafeteria with a visitor during lunchtime, would you be embarrassed by the structure of the cafeteria and the level of sound that emanates from it?
  • What do you expect to see during routine classroom walk-throughs? Have you trained your ears, eyes, and mind to look for those things? Do you scan beyond the obvious, and view things from the perspective of an outsider? Or are you in a hurry to complete the task so you can get on to other things?

    If you're not taking time to notice "the little things" -- or if you insist you don't have time to take time to notice those things -- you might consider walking through your school with your mentor or a colleague. Look and listen as he or she reacts to the routine activities and business of your learning community.


    A principal's responsibilities, and the time it takes to complete important duties of the job, are unlikely to diminish. However, effective scheduling of appointments and meetings, prioritizing important tasks, and empowering others can help you to avoid distractions that add to stress and get in the way of being able to take time to notice what's really going on.

    And while you are observing what's going on in your school, don't forget to take time to observe what's going on in your office. A brief observation of routine business in the office can provide additional insight into what you are seeing and hearing throughout the school. Staff and students react to what they observe from their principal. If the principal is harried, there will be signs of agitation throughout the school. If the office is calm, the sounds from the hallways will echo the same. The principal sets the tone -- loud or soft, fast or slow, stressed or laid-back.

    To set a positive and effective tone in your school, first spend time gathering baseline data and reflecting with your mentor. Then, compare that assessment with how other professionals perceive the sights and sounds in your school. Most important though, as the leader of the school you must take time to describe and teach the expectations that you want to see, hear, and feel. It won't do you or anyone else any good if you become upset when you observe things happening that you have not addressed or for which you have not established performance standards.

    Above all else, when things do go well, be sure to stop to take time to celebrate those successes. Praise goes a long way in reinforcing what you want to see and hear.

    When you effectively stop, look, and listen, what you are really saying to people is that I am here for you. That is something we must never forget. And something worth taking time to stop, look, and contemplate.

    Paul Young, Ph. D., is the executive director of the West After School Center in Lancaster, Ohio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA). He served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in 2002-2003 and retired from Lancaster City Schools in 2004. He is an author with Corwin Press,, and School-Age Notes. He and his wife, Gertrude, a music teacher, live in Lancaster.

    Article by Paul Young
    Copyright © 2008 Education World®