William D. Parker of Principal Matters: What Matters Most
William D. Parker, the host of Principal Matters, a popular podcast and blog for principals and other school leaders. Join a conversation about how superintendents and principals can build trust and work together to the benefit of the school community.
SchoolCEO interviews William D. Parker, the host of Principal Matters, a popular podcast and blog for principals and other school leaders. Will is a former principal, a current executive director of Oklahoma’s Association of Secondary Principals and Oklahoma’s Middle Level Educator Association, and a published author. Join a conversation about how superintendents and principals can build trust and work together to the benefit of the school community.
William D. Parker is the host of Principal Matters, a popular podcast and blog for building leaders. With more than 300 episodes, a decade of writing, and three published books, he offers open and honest dialogues about the challenges and opportunities that principals face around school culture, leadership and communication.
We discuss how superintendents and principals can work better together, the shared experience of leading others, and how together school leaders can play offense to help everyone in their schools win by celebrating the successes within their organizations.
Will currently serves as executive director of Oklahoma’s Association of Secondary Principals and Oklahoma’s Middle Level Educator Association. His solutions and strategies can help education leaders motivate students, inspire teachers, and reach their communities.
Intro Quote: William D. Parker (Guest): The principal's role is to bear the burden of the pain that's coming toward an institution. It’s, you know, to cushion that that pain, not to transfer it onto the people that they're serving. And I thought, wow, what a what a great insight into what the role of a principal really is. Like, you're the person trying to cushion people constantly from those things. So I think keeping that in mind provides, I think, some perspective and some patience and grace. That when you're reaching out to people who are already under a million requests and all kinds of competing interests to just remember you're just one voice sometimes in the day of all the other voices that they're hearing, asking for input or feedback. And so it takes a very unique personality to be able to manage all of that.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Today's guest on SchoolCEO Conversations is William D. Parker. He's the host of Principal Matters, a very popular podcast for principals and other school leaders. He offers open and honest dialogues about the challenges and opportunities that principals are facing around school culture, leadership, and communication. William is very prolific, with 300 episodes of his podcast, over a decade of writing on his blog, and three published books. As a former principal, he brings a lot of his experience into his conversations, and he currently serves as the Executive Director of Oklahoma's Association of Secondary Principals and Oklahoma's Middle Level Educator Association. His solutions and strategies can help education leaders motivate students, inspire teachers, and reach their communities.
We discuss how superintendents and principals can work better together, the shared experience of leading others, and how school leaders can play offense to help everyone in their schools win by celebrating successes within their organizations. Let's join the conversation. Well, Will, I'm really excited to have you on SchoolCEO Conversations. Thanks for joining.
William D. Parker (Guest): Glad to be here.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Awesome. Well, I'd love for you to start by telling me a little bit more about Principal Matters, your podcast, how that got started, and what some of the things are that you focus on.
William D. Parker: Yeah. In 2012, when I was named Oklahoma's Assistant Principal of the Year,in coordination with NASSP, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, they sent me on a trip to Washington, DC. to receive that award. So I was a young father at the time. My wife and I decided to take the kids, four—three girls and one little boy—and they had a formal event planned for the night of the awards. And so I had to rent a tux, and my wife wore a gown, and the kids put on their Sunday best, and we knew they weren't going to stay for the ceremony, but we wanted them to at least be able to step in and see what was going on and kind of get a sense for why we were there. And my oldest was going to babysit them afterwards. But that evening, as I was standing in the room and listening to the stories of all of those other administrators from across the US, I had an epiphany which was: Wow, not only am I not alone in this work, but it really doesn't seem to matter where you live. We share so much in common in terms of the challenges that we face and the strategies that we need to overcome these problems. And so when I returned from that trip, Tyler, I was so inspired that I just wanted to figure out: How do I harness all of this experience, these ideas, and the lessons I've learned in my school leadership, and share them with other people?
So I began to write a weekly blog for principals that year. I think February of 2013 was my very first post, and I'm sure the only person that read it was my mother. But I started from that point on. Every week for the next five years, I was writing a post to share out. And then it was probably in year two, at the end of that process, where I decided to begin to take that content and I created my first book, which was Principal Matters: the Motivation, Action, Courage, and Teamwork Needed for School Leaders. Podcasting had become something that I started listening to on the side—just listening to mostly leadership podcasts—and I thought, this is really a great way to learn. What if I combined what I'm doing through my weekly posts blogging with an audio version?
So that's how it began. I just started taking what I was writing already and then recording it as an audio version and sharing it out with people that were subscribing to my blog and my newsletters. And then, over time, that turned into interviewing other leaders. And now we're 330 episodes later, and I checked this morning: 980,000 downloads. And Principal Matters Podcast has just become a great way for me to, every single week, share out content with leaders on the work that principals do. And not just principals, but aspiring leaders, experienced leaders, district leaders also can share their stories there, too.
Tyler Vawser: That's amazing. Well, congratulations on so many episodes. I don't know that most people understand the work that goes into a podcast, especially to have over 300 episodes, and the dedication over a long period of time. So I really respect that, and congratulations.
William D. Parker: Thank you.
Tyler Vawser: Well, I'd love to talk more about your main audience, which is principals. And at SchoolCEO, a lot of our focus is on superintendents, but I'm particularly interested in that relationship between principal and superintendent. And of course, you've had that role of principal, but I'd love for you to talk us through your experience. But then also get into what you're hearing from your audience about what their relationship is like with the district, with the superintendent, and to start to get into some advice for superintendents on how to make that relationship better for principals.
William D. Parker: That's such a great question and there are so many different competing interests. So let me first just talk about the first part of that question, which is the principal and superintendent relationship. Every district has its own culture and climate. And so I know from the work I've done and the work you do, Tyler, that sometimes you're talking to superintendents whose districts are so large and the administrative teams that they have are so large that it's almost like being the mayor of a small city, or in some cases, a large city. So that superintendent may be so far removed from those principals that they have several people underneath them who service and train and support those principals and roles like assistant superintendents, deputy superintendents, or directors of secondary or elementary education. So I know that looks different from place to place, and this is not always true, but a common rule I've seen is the smaller the district, the closer it seems the superintendent and the principal's relationships are. And the larger the district, the harder it is to maintain that closeness.
But regardless of that, I think there are some practices that I've seen in each of those settings, because I work with principal in rural and suburban and urban settings. I work with a lot of public schools, but I also work with charter and Catholic schools right now as well, that are a part of the schools that work with me directly through the work I do in consulting with Principal Matters. And so the first thing that I would say is that most relationships where I see principals and superintendents having healthy relationships are relationships that are built first on trust. That I know that you understand my work, and that by saying you support my work, that doesn't mean that I never do anything wrong, but it just means that I know that you believe in me and you trust me. That when I'm making a decision, I'm making it based on the best interest of students in the school community, and that it's based on the shared values that we have as a school community. So that superintendent’s values and that principal's values align in a way that I'm representing the same position you would be if you're standing here, or that I would be if I was in your shoes, to the best of our ability.
Now, I know that sounds pie in the sky and ideal, but I'm saying that is the ideal—that there is that trusting relationship. And what I've discovered is when there's not that trusting relationship, then there's dysfunction, because the principal can only do so much in leading and influencing his or her school if they don't have that kind of trust in the people that are supporting them. I've seen it from both directions. I've done this work long enough that I have a lot of friends who've gone from teaching to principalship into superintendency. So now they're seeing it from a different perspective. I have enough friends who are on the other side of that that work with superintendents. I've been a principal under several different superintendents, and so in my own experience, I've seen how that works, too. But that dynamic of trust, I think, is most essential.
Tyler Vawser: How do you do establish that trust, especially with new principals coming in or if the superintendent changes? What advice would you give to a superintendent who's coming into their role for the first time? They're new to the district and let’s say they have five or six principals reporting to them. Are there shortcuts? Or what advice would you give to them to be able to make that connection with principals quickly and establish that trust and support?
William D. Parker: That's a great question, and I'm going to address it in a couple of ways. I'm really careful not to use the word shortcuts, because building trust usually doesn't happen quickly. But I do think there are things that you can do intentionally to build trust. And that's where I want to focus the answer to that question, Tyler, which is: I think you first build trust with intentionality. What I mean by that is you only prioritize what you've actually scheduled. And so what I like to tell leaders is: If you intend to build trust with other people, then you actually have to begin to look at your calendar and your schedule and figure out when am I actually going to prioritize the time and put it on my calendar that I'm going to be with this person? Whether I'm hosting them in a meeting, I'm setting up specific times every month that we're meeting as a leadership group, or I'm scheduling time where I'm actually in buildings and building that trust one-on-one with someone on their own campus. And so I think that intentionality is a part of it.
The districts that I've worked with where I've seen the most trust built use that kind of mindset because that's what I tell principals that they have to do, too. And when I was in the schools, this was my task. If I wanted to build trust with my teachers, I had to schedule time to be with them. If I wanted to build trust with my students, I had to schedule time to be with my student advisory group. If I wanted to build trust with parents, I had to schedule time to be engaging in community activities with parents. And so you schedule what you prioritize. And you can have all kinds of great intentions, but they don't actually produce trust until you've actually been with someone. A good friend of mine years ago told me this equation: Time spent equals relationship built. And he would say that over and over to me. Will, time spent equals relationship built. You can't just want to build relationships with someone. You actually have to spend time with them to build a relationship.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I love that. A very simple equation that makes the point. That's really good. You mentioned earlier you have friends and colleagues that have been principals and moved into the superintendency. What do you think they struggle with the most when going from being a principal to being a superintendent? What challenges do you see popping up for those people?
William D. Parker: Yeah, well, I've heard different responses to that question when I've asked it, so let me first say that I have talked to many superintendents who have told me when they've made the transition that there are parts of their job that are so uniquely different. Whether it's board relations, which is the first thing that I hear that is so uniquely different than what they did when they were leading a school. Or whether it's budgeting and finance, which is also something that's a huge part of what superintendents are managing. And then, of course, strategic management that's organizationally centered, not just one campus centered. So those are things I hear from my friends who have made that leap.
I think that one of the challenges that I see, though, when I talk to superintendents, is they recognize that when they're stepping out of that work, that there's also things that they're not doing anymore that were very, very difficult, that principals still do. And so I've had a lot of superintendents tell me, Well, these are my new responsibilities. But there are some things my principals are doing that I used to do that were the hardest parts of my career. And I really respect the fact that I'm still working with leaders who are managing things that are so difficult.
Now, I was a secondary principal and a high school principal. And maybe I'm saying this because of that high school principal experience, but I'm just telling you my experience and that is: In talking to superintendents, many of them have often said Being a high school principal was the hardest position I've ever had in my career. And so I just think it's important for people to recognize that principals appreciate the fact that their leaders understand the difficulties and challenges of their work, that they trust them with sometimes the needed autonomy to make hard decisions without always having to call them. But they also appreciate knowing that you will call if there's a situation that you need to bounce off of them, or that conversation could be helpful.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really interesting. One of the things that we've been talking about at SchoolCEO is that on one hand, you have a superintendent that is responsible for—to put it in our language—the district brand. And they’re really responsible for a pretty complex organization that has different buildings, has different leaders, has different needs. Like you mentioned, the finances of it, the organizational structure, all of those pieces. And yet, when you look at your end customer—again, to put it into marketing language—the students and the parents, they are more closely connected not with the district or the superintendent, but often with a principal and the principal's leaders that are working most closely with families.
And so the reason I bring that up is we've just been thinking about that a lot, right? We're often talking about how school leaders (superintendents) really influence how people think and feel about their districts. And it's not lost on us that while there are lots of activities and communications that can be done, it is really important to involve principals in building that district brand and the connection between families and students with the district. I think sometimes the biggest title often gets the most attention. But the principals are really the ones that are on the ground, and in some ways are closer to the levers or the dials—to mix analogies here—to influence how the superintendent actually wants the district to be seen and how he wants parents and students to experience that district.
William D. Parker: Well, I agree, and I want to speak to the role that principals can play in branding and customer service and marketing. But there's a thought I don't want to lose, and this is the one I think I was trying to remember before you asked this question. So if it's okay, Tyler, I want to add one more thought about that principal-superintendent relationship and that is that one of the hardest things principals and superintendents have to manage in their relationship is balancing the competing interests that are played within that relationship.
And so for school leaders this is going to be no surprise. But I'm just going to say it out loud because I think it's an important distinction: School leaders often manage mandates that are coming to them from the district. They're also managing mandates that come to them from their state, and they're managing guidelines that often come to them from the federal level. And sometimes they're managing community expectations, not to mention the expectations of their teachers, students, and parents. So when you have all of that mix of competing interests that are informing or communicating back to you what you may or may not be doing well in the service of that community, it can often feel paralyzing.
I actually was sitting in a room in Washington, DC. several years ago and there was a researcher from George Washington University who had spent a year and a half looking at the work of the principalship. And so he was giving all of this feedback to the room on the difficulties of the role, the retention and retaining principals, the pay of principles. At the end, he opened it up for questions and so I raised my hand and said, What was something that surprised you in the research you did with principals? And he smiled and said, I've never encountered a profession where someone might have to ask themselves on the way to work each day: What rule or law might I have to break today to do my job well? And I just laughed out loud because I had never met anybody who was honest enough to say that. But it speaks to this sometimes overwhelming responsibility that leaders have with all these weighing interests. So I think it would be helpful for superintendents to remember that the principal is often that middle manager person who's receiving all of this input, and they have to filter that back out to their teachers and kids in a way that doesn't overwhelm them.
I heard someone say recently—I think it was a podcast that This American Life did when they had partnered with the National Association of Secondary School Principals—and I don't remember the principal they were interviewing, but I remember the quote because she said: The principal's role is to bear the burden of the pain that's coming toward an institution, to cushion that pain, not to transfer it onto the people that they're serving. And I thought, wow, what a great insight into what the role of a principal really is. You're the person trying to cushion people constantly from those things.
So I think keeping that in mind provides some perspective and some patience and grace. When you're reaching out to people who are already under a million requests and all kinds of competing interests, to just remember you're just one voice sometimes in the day of all the other voices that they're hearing asking for input or feedback. And so it takes a very unique personality to be able to manage all of that, and even the best of them—and I'll include myself in terms of someone who felt good at my job and enjoyed the work—but even the best of leaders don't always do that perfectly. And sometimes that pressure can cause you to lose your patience or to say something you shouldn't. So I just think it's important for superintendents and for principals to both realize superintendents manage those competing interests at one level and principals manage it at another. But they're both constantly wrestling with these competing interests to try to do the job they're doing.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I think that's a good example, right? Create some empathy. You're both in different roles, but you're both doing something similar. The stakeholders might be different, the stakes might be different, but you're both serving as leaders and trying to help those who are under your leadership to get through the day better, to be better at their jobs. And your job is to, like you said, kind of cushion those challenges as they come down unfiltered.
William D. Parker: And I'm glad to use that as a segue into branding and marketing and customer service. I think that's an important context before I answered the question. Which is that at the same time—and this was a passion of mine as a principal. In fact, I wrote my second book, Messaging Matters, which was a focus on how to inspire students, motivate teachers, and reach communities, while I was still a principal. And so this book actually came out in 2017, the year that I decided to transition from, well after the publishing of that book, I had the opportunity to transition into the role that I've played in the last five years as an executive director for our state Principals Association. So now I've spent five years just serving principals. But when I was a principal, I had such a passion for trying to make sure that I was communicating to my community, on behalf of the school, the positive things that were happening on a daily basis among my teachers and my students. Because I recognized that what usually hits the news first, or social media, are the negatives. And if I only let the negatives drive the conversation of what was happening in my school community, then the negatives own the narrative. And so it doesn't mean that negative things didn't need to be honestly and transparently addressed. It just meant that if that was the only thing people ever heard, then that's all the perspective they're ever going to have.
And so I tried to adapt a mindset as I stepped into school each day, and I asked myself these kinds of questions. And I don't know if this is going to help leaders, but I'm just telling you my lived experience. But as I stepped into my school each day, my question was, Why am I here? I'm not here to just put out fires and solve problems and keep people safe. I'm here because there are students who need to learn. There may be situations where something's broken that needs to be fixed. There may be a situation where I discover something in our system that needs to be tweaked. I want to make sure that I provide opportunities to restore relationships. I want to make sure that I create an environment where students can learn. This is my purpose. So while I'm stepping into today, I'm going to be looking for things that have to be corrected or have to be confronted or have to be addressed, because that's my role.
I'm also going to be looking for what are those things that are happening that if someone knew it, they'd be like, Oh, my gosh, that's amazing. Oh, my gosh, look what that student's doing. I had no idea that teacher had that kind of lesson happening today or that this project was going on out in the AG barn, or that this science project was being conducted by my science students, or that these students were tearing down small engines in the shop class, or that these students were performing at such excellence in the drama room. Or whatever it is. But as I'm walking through the school, I tried to switch my eyes into that mode of What am I seeing right now as I'm walking along? That should be something that my community knows is also happening.
So I began to catalog those things. Sometimes I would do what I call Kudo emails, where I would just walk through the school for a quick passing period or during an instructional hour, and I would just jot down four or five things that I saw right as I would walk across campus. And if I could sit down on my phone or grab my desktop, I would just write a quick email and say, Kudos, these are five things I just saw as I was walking across the school. And I would mention those things just like what I said. And then I would say, Thank you for being engaged in learning today. This is an amazing school to be in.
And as I compiled those kinds of narratives throughout my days, shouting out things to my school, I also created systems so that if there's something happening in your room, or if there's something happening with your team or with your club, or with your band, send us a photo, send us a quick blurb. And we designated one teacher in our building who is one of our computer teachers—so he was tech savvy—to be that person. You could send it to me, the principal, but CC the teacher because he's going to collect those things, too. And he had a group of kids that helped put together their own student newsletter. So they would compile those things. Every week, they would compile all of the different things that were being shouted out through the school and put it together, and then they would send it to me. Because in my school, it was small enough—we had 750 students. I have a background in language arts, and so I would do some quick editing and proofing to make sure that it was good, and I could borrow that and send out my weekly newsletter to parents in the community. And by the way, here's this week's newsletter on the happy things happening in our school. And so that's just an example, Tyler, of the intentionality that I tried to focus on in my principalship so that I was owning the narrative of what was happening in my school. And yes, my district had its initiatives and its narratives and its priorities, but I was hoping that by demonstrating those ongoing successes that were happening among students and teachers, it would drive the narrative in a way that was positive. And it did.
Now, I'm not naive. Social media can hijack a day just like that if someone gets on a story that's negative. But in my experience, what I discovered was that, especially for my parents who appreciated getting a hold of that information, we would tie our student information system, the email addresses that we had, to sending that out. And I know Apptegy provides, by the way, all kinds of ways to do this beautifully. And so I'm giving you the way that I hacked my way through all of those systems that you guys have created beautiful systems to help principals and superintendents do that.
But in my case, what I discovered was when I would step out into the community, before I started doing that, I would say the majority of the time when someone came up to me at a community event, it was because they wanted to tell me something they were concerned about. And that's my responsibility to address that. But it's sometimes discouraging when the only time you have a conversation with someone is if they want to complain. But what I discovered, as we consistently did that week after week after week, was that the majority of people that would come up to me at community events would come up to me because they wanted to talk about what they had just read. So they were already having a conversation with me before they saw me. And there was something in there usually about somebody that they knew, their child or a friend's child. And so the conversation would start off with: Oh, I just saw the post that you made about the great event that the girls softball team hosted. That is so cool. And so then we had something positive to be unified around before anything else came up in the conversation. I don't know if that answers your question, but I think that principals definitely should be playing a role in the narrative that's coming from their schools.
Tyler Vawser: It definitely answers my question. I think you put it beautifully. And I think one way that superintendents, but in particular principals can lead is to help other people have eyes for the positive. Right? And ears for the positive, to really see and hear what things are going right, because it's very easy to just tune into the negative, and especially if you're being reactive. Leaders are often getting pulled into things where there is a problem and you have to fix it. And I think it's tempting to look for those opportunities and just always be looking to fix instead of looking for what's right. And actually, I think schools are doing this fairly well, which is this idea of positive psychology. Even teachers demonstrate this day in and day out with their students. If a teacher is only telling students what they're doing wrong, the learning curve is going to be not great, right? But if the teachers are pointing out the positive things, even among mistakes, that student's more engaged. And the same is true between principals and teachers, superintendents and principals, and then even the broader community.
And I think that's something that we've seen, right? When you see school districts that are doing really well and they have good community buy in, parents are engaged, students understand that there's a larger mission and vision behind it. The reason for that is because they're talking about the positive things and reacting to positive news, not reacting to negative news.
William D. Parker: Can I tell a quick story that's been helpful for me when it comes to trying to keep that mindset of focusing on positivity? I'm a storyteller, so this might seem like I'm going off topic, but I'm telling this story for a reason.
When I was a kid, I grew up in northwest Tennessee. My whole career has been in Oklahoma, but I was a Tennessee boy growing up. My dad was in the military when I was born, but then moved us back to the farm when I was a child so we lived there until my teenage years. Then he went back in the military. I lived in New York and Virginia, but they still live on the farm that I grew up on now, even though my parents are retired. And where we lived, it was so far out that if you walked outside at night, you could just see the night sky so beautifully. I mean, the Milky Way was just as thick and gorgeous as you can imagine. But my dad had a telescope and he would let us look at stars and planets and the moon. And so I have this vivid memory of being a boy looking at the moon through this telescope. But what I didn't recognize until I was older and learned this in science is that no matter how great that telescope was, there was only one side of the moon I could see. Because there's only one side of the moon ever visible to the Earth by the way that it orbits around our planet. There's only one way to see the other side of the moon, and that is if you get in a spaceship or you send up a satellite to orbit around it. Then you can see what the other side of the moon looks like. But I can't see the other side of the moon from where I'm standing.
I think it was during college, I had a campus leader that I was talking to one day and he said to me, Will, do you realize that leaders often can see more of the moon than other people? And there's another side of the moon that a lot of people don't see. So when a decision is being made, for instance, people judge that decision because they can't see the whole moon. They only see one side of the moon, or the issue. So keep that in mind, that it's your responsibility as a leader to show them as much of that moon as you can so that they have a better perspective on why you made a decision.
I've tried to apply that truth in my teaching and in my leadership because I think sometimes we get really frustrated with people who we assume should just know why I made a decision. Or they should just know that this is going on in my school or I’ve told them already, or Why don't they know? It's on the website? Or whatever excuses we make for why people don't know. And I think it's actually better and healthier and more helpful to just pause and remember: No, they don't see the whole moon of what's happening in your experience. And so as a leader, you have both a privilege and a responsibility.
You have the privilege of actually seeing more of your school than anybody else. You do. You get to go places teachers never get to go because they're teaching while you get to walk the school and see multiple instructional activities happening at the same time. You get to be witness to student events and sporting events and just amazing situations that nobody else has the opportunity. You get to see that part of the moon. You also get to see parts of the moon of the school that nobody should ever see. Difficulties, conflicts, things that should be held confidential because they may be a crisis that a family is going through or a student's going through. So a leader, and a principal especially, sees more of the moon of their school than anyone else. And so with that privilege comes this huge responsibility to protect the parts that should not be shown, but also to showcase the ones that you do get to see that other people should know about. And so you can hear the passion in my voice.
Tyler Vawser: It's a great example. I think it's a fantastic story and an example I'll steal from you.
William D. Parker: I just think it's so important. That's why I think branding and marketing your school is an important part of your responsibility as a leader, because you see more the moon. So why should you not let other people see it, too?
Tyler Vawser: There is a challenge there, right? I love how you put that. But I think one of the challenges for a leader at any level is what we were talking about earlier. On the one hand, you're trying to cushion your people from maybe some of the darker sides of the moon that you don't want them to see, or that would distract them from their role and give them stress. And on the other hand, letting them see those things, which provides more motivation, gives them more purpose, and sees how their work fits into the larger picture.
William D. Parker: Yeah, I remember talking to a new principal. I think this was probably last year. We were doing some training together. I was training him on some techniques and teacher evaluation and observation, and he said, Man, just this morning, Will, we had six kids who did something really bad, and I had to contact parents and we had to issue discipline, and it consumed my entire morning. And I said, Man, I bet you're exhausted. And he's like, Yeah, it just drained me of my energy. And I said, How many kids do you have in your building? And he said about 600. And I said, So what percentage of your kids today took your time for that discipline? And he was doing the math. And I said, So what percentage of your kids were actually doing all the things they were supposed to be doing, which matched the values and the goals of your school?
And he just smiled because he was getting the point. That here's the small, tiny percentage of my kids that consumed half my day. And I said, So your role as a leader was you protected the rest of those kids from that situation, so you can manage it respectfully and with dignity and with those families. But when you get back today, why don't you think about a way that you can also say something back to your school community congratulating the wonderful ways that kids were performing throughout the day, and just thank them for being such great kids. Because those 98% of kids that are doing all the right things, they often don't get any attention at all because you're spending your time just putting out the craziness.
I'm saying that as somebody who spent 14 years managing that kind of craziness, and nine of them as an assistant principal. So I did a lot of student discipline, more meetings than you could ever imagine, where you've got kids crying, parents crying, I'm crying, all those things happening. But my responsibility was not just to those kids that I was managing discipline for. It was for all those other kids that were doing right that day. And then trying to welcome those kids who had made mistakes back in so they could do right as well.
Tyler Vawser: It's a great reframe for that principal. Right. And actually, I was about to ask you about changing the narrative. You've used the word narrative a couple of times in this conversation. It's something I hear a lot in K-12, this idea of changing the narrative, shifting the narrative. But I think it's not lost on me that we have our own narratives in our own minds, and there are times when we need to shift our own narrative about how we were spending our day or the value of that time that principal was giving. Interesting.
So, on that topic, I'm curious to know what is a narrative that you see a lot of principals struggling to change? That could be with their teachers. It could be with parents. It could be within the broader community. But what are those narratives that they're working on shifting? Where do they get stuck? And maybe for those that are successful, where does that success come from?
William D. Parker: That's a really good question, Tyler. And I'm not sure there's just one answer to that. Because I think that depends on the community and the time and the place where you are because every community has its own things that happen. I will say this, that I have seen a shift in the last year or two. There are some folks within communities, because of the crazy political climates that we're in, that I call pitchfork parents. They have just decided that no matter what a school does, they're ready to light the torch, grab the pitchfork, and they're going to call the media and they're going to do something to be as disruptive as they can, to complain about whatever's happening in their school communities. And again, they’re a very small number of people in a school community, but they can be so loud and distracting to the work that schools are trying to do in serving kids.
And so where I've seen school leaders handle that correctly—and I'm not saying anyone does it perfectly—but where I've seen school leaders handle that well are school leaders who will respectfully engage and address the concerns that are coming from the pitchforks and sometimes from legitimate concerned parents. I'm not trying to put everybody in the same categories. But when I've seen them do it well, is that they address and answer those questions in tandem with not ever taking the focus off of the student success that's happening every single day in their schools.
I'll give you an example. I was privy to a board meeting several months ago where there was some media presence and some upset parents. The superintendent had designed that meeting in a way to address those concerns, but had also decided that evening to ask every principal in the district to send success stories, some student groups, and some folks that could represent organizations to just highlight to the board that night. It was probably ten to twelve different highlights of great things happening across the district just this last month. And the room was full of children and parents there to just celebrate their kids. So you had this one little row of upset folks that were there to raise the issue that they wanted the media to be talking about, which they have the right to do so. It's a public discourse. But you had the room full of people that were there to celebrate children. And I thought what a beautiful way to do the responsibility of addressing concerns while not taking your eye off the ball. Because it's like in sports. You can spend your entire night playing defense, but if you never score a goal, you don't win a game. And so defense is being able to respond to the concerns that people have appropriately. But offense is celebrating and pushing toward the successes that are happening and reminding people that this is why we have school and these are the things that we champion for students and these are the reasons you should want your child in this community school.
There's probably somebody listening out there right now that either is appreciating this or is like maybe thinking that Will's just being pie in the sky. I'm just telling you from my own experience and the experience I've seen of other leaders that the leaders who seem to be able to hold on to that energy and that positivity are the ones that will not let the politics of the day, or whatever the issue is that week, drown out the wonderful things that are happening in that school community, which need to be the forefront of every conversation that we're having about our schools. And it doesn't mean we ignore areas that need to be addressed or improved. We have to be brutally honest about areas where we need to see improvement, in student reading or in test scores or growth. But you can't do that at the expense of this success that you're also experiencing.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it's really well said. Your podcast, Principal Matters, talks a lot about growth and well being, and I think that's something that is often lost on leadership. We talk about growth within teachers, we talk about professional development, we talk about obviously helping students. But what advice do you have for principals and even superintendents that are burning out or have burned out? Because a lot of your podcast digs into that, which I think is really helpful and a real service to leaders that are struggling.
William D. Parker: Yeah, I wrote a book. This was actually something that was published right before COVID called Pause, Breathe, Flourish: Living Your Best Life as an Educator. And that was a title that my publishers helped me coin because what I was trying to put together was a book to address just that, Tyler.
Often when I'm working with teachers and principals on their own school improvement, or their own strategies, inevitably we come up against this, which is: Man, Will, I'm really struggling with my own health, or my own emotions, or my own motivation, and so what can I do to make sure that I'm not burning out? And I always tell them my story. I'm a talker, Tyler, so at some point you're going to say, As we wrap up the show…so that you can tell me to stop telling so many stories. But I was a teacher for 11 years, and then I moved into school Admin. It was the second year of my school Admin experience that I was running on empty. I was up early every morning working on my emails and goals and lists before I ever got to school. Then I would get to school and I would run all day long and work with students and observe teachers and do school discipline. Then I would stay afterwards to do school activities. I was not getting home until late in the evening and often, with four young children, my wife was either putting them to bed by herself, or if I'd get home it'd be barely in time to see them before they got to bed. Then I would pull out my laptop and I'd work through the night, because I just wanted to make sure I was being a good principal. I wanted to make sure my teachers always had answers to their questions and that no rocked was left unturned.
But what I didn't realize was the effect it was having on my own health and my family until that night my wife sat down beside me when I pulled my laptop out after the kids went to bed, and she said, Will, can we just talk? So I closed the laptop and I said, Sure. And she said, The kids and I have decided that you're a dad and a husband on the weekends only. The rest of the time the school owns you. And she said, In fact, you have become a shell of the man that you used to be. And that was a hard thing to be told. But she didn't say it with bitterness or resentment, just like resignation. Like, this is just the new life we live. And so she went to bed, and I stayed up and when I opened my laptop up, I did not work. I wrote a letter of resignation, and I explained in that letter the difficulties I was having in balancing both my work and my family and the need that I had to figure out a better balance. And I took that letter the next day to my office, and I put it in a manila folder, and I set it on the corner of my desk, and I made a pact with myself. I said, I'm either going to begin to rediscover some of the practices that I need to take care of my own health and my family, or I'm handing in this letter. I'm going to find a different career. I'm going to hand in this letter at the end of the year if I can't figure this out.
Now I can't say I found the magic bullet. But what I began to do was I had a new mindset, which was each day as I stepped in and woke up in the morning, I had to ask myself, before I opened my laptop or work, What can I do to do a little self care? Maybe that's spending some time in devotions, or setting up my running shoes and doing a quick jog around the neighborhood, or actually eating a healthy breakfast. When I get to school today, maybe I'll pause. Instead of running down the hall with a piece of pizza in my hand, I may actually find a colleague and have lunch together. And then I gave permission to some of my other colleagues to hold me accountable. So I had a friend who would stop by my office and say, Hey, Will, your family needs you more than school. Go home now.
And so I began to create these accountability measures and new habits, and I talk about all that in this book, Pause, Breathe, Flourish. Because really what I highlight in the book are 10 specific areas that include your health, your family, your relationships, your spirituality, your finances, your resources, your mentoring, your legacy, your joys. I just try to talk about the lessons I've learned because I believe that if you're not reflecting on each of those areas consistently, pausing and just reflecting on what's an area that I've not been paying enough attention to? Because I don't believe in balance. I think that perfect balance is a fallacy. What I believe in is intentional reflection, taking time to just pause and ask, Okay, where's an area where I need to pay more attention? And where's an area that I need to take some time here to reflect and take better action? And over time, I think you begin to find more balance.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, you've used intentionality a few times, and I think that's really key. Intentional with yourself, intentional with family, intentional with your community, and pointing out all the good things that are happening. I think you have to be so careful of those activities that happen by default. Right? It doesn't take someone special to point out what's not going well or to just kind of burn the candle at both ends. It takes someone special that can be intentional, know what this moment is for, be able to see the positive things, know how to highlight that, and then refocus on the next moment and what that's made for.
William D. Parker: Yeah. When I received that award in 2012—and I told you that story at the beginning of the show—when I was standing there with my family that night and the kids… it’s an emotional memory I’m having right now, Tyler. When I'm standing there with my kids that night and looking at my beautiful wife in her gown and I'm realizing that I could have left that career, but instead I had to reengage with those things that were more important, scheduling time to do other things in my life besides work. Because here's what I've discovered: When I'm taking time, for instance, to take care of my personal health—and I like to run and I wasn't running, I had gained 30 pounds, I had high blood pressure. But when I started taking time to start exercising again and focusing on personal health and eating better and spending time with people again, what I discovered was even though that took time away from work, I had more inspiration, more creativity, more energy to do the work. And so sometimes we push away the things that are helping us the most because we think we're going to get more done. It's the opposite. It's when we focus on those things that are more important, then they give us the motivation and the inspiration to actually do the hard work of caring for others.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, really well said. Fantastic. Intentionality. I think that's the word for this episode. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Will. I’m excited to share this episode.
And for those of you that are principals and working with principals, I would really encourage you to check out Will Parker's Principal Matters Online. It's a great podcast with a lot of different topics. I am excited to dive even deeper into it because I found that a lot of what you're talking about is similar to SchoolCEO, where you're talking about things like recruitment, talking about culture, talking about branding. But then you go deeper into some things like self care and how do you take your own leadership, personal leadership, seriously, and not just organizational leadership.
William D. Parker: Well, I would encourage people to just reach out. If you go to my website at williamdparker.com, you can hit the subscribe link. I send out a weekly newsletter. I would love to be able to just send out weekly content to some of your folks, too. Tyler, I know you have an amazing audience of leaders and I would certainly love to connect with them and any of the things I do with school leaders because I lead academies for leaders, I lead masterminds for leaders. I do some executive coaching for leaders, too. So if there's anyone out there that would like to connect more with that work, then you can find me there.
Tyler Vawser: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much.
William D. Parker: Thank you, my friend. Appreciate you.
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