Three Conversations for School Administrators to Have This Summer

John Norlin · July 10, 2019

Summer! A time for administrators to reflect on the past year, unwind, rejuvenate (hopefully), and begin looking ahead to what the next year will bring. Some administrators need time to completely disconnect for a while before digging back into the intentional planning of the next year, while others begin strategizing and planning right after the last student walks out of the school on the last day.

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Whatever approach one takes to this incredible work, it carries with it a moral imperative to create a better society by serving staff and students each and every day by infusing strong systems of support, vision, and love. It is not hard to see the purpose in what administrators do. They get to lead and manage the greatest and most impactful work in the world. It may very well be the most purposeful profession there is (I am biased here of course), but where else do you get to see your actions having such a powerful and lasting impact than in education? Educators are changing the world every single day by serving our future community and world leaders. Staying connected to that purpose is not an easy task and requires a great deal of reflection and reminders. One of my favorite quotes by author Samuel Johnson is, “We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught.” 

So below I offer three conversation starters for school administrators to have this summer. One is for SELF, one is for your TEAM and one is for your STAFF. You can use these to get the brainstorming going or to dig into some difficult discussions you need to have before next school year. I have had these conversations with thousands of administrators and educators internationally and know how important they are. See if any of these add value to your summer planning. 

Three Conversations for Administrators 
1. Attitude Reflects Leadership (SELF)
Recently, I enjoyed reading the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book would tell us that, if you are experiencing a lack of staff buy-in or poor staff morale, you should first look at your own actions and leadership. Attitude reflects leadership. Even though the reality is that almost every building has certain staff members who are “energy vampires,” you don’t need to get every staff member bought in to have a positive and motivated staff culture and climate. There is nothing that sucks the life out of a motivated and driven staff member than an administrator who is not leading with a strong purpose and vision. Your staff needs you to lead them. Your staff needs you to hold yourself and others accountable to the mission that has been set. Your staff needs you to fight tooth and nail to remove the obstacles that are in the way of them doing what they do best!

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Conversation Topic - How would your staff rate your performance? If they would rate you high, what is it that you need to keep doing to stay there? What do you need to do this year to keep things fresh and new, while holding steady to the core principles that make your building a great place to work and learn. If they would rate you low, what do you need to change in your own personal performance to set the tone for everyone else in your building?

2. Leadership is Different than Management (TEAM)

One of the most simple, yet powerful lines I remember from my Master’s Program in Organizational Leadership was around the difference between leadership and management. Simply put, we lead people and manage things. This means that you could be a great manager of systems, paperwork, evaluations, etc. and still be a terrible leader if you are not doing the relational work. I have met many people in positions of leadership who say, “I’m not that kind of leader” in reference to doing the relational work. Given the difference between leadership and management, we might as well be saying, “I’m not leading, I’m only managing”. 

Conversation Topic - How are we as an administrative team intentionally balancing the management needed to make a school run effectively with the more important leadership work of connecting with students and staff?

3. Culture is Behavior...Whose Behavior? (STAFF)

The word culture along with climate are two words that are thrown around a lot in schools, but I don’t know if everyone is thinking the same thing when it comes to what those two words mean. In our CharacterStrong Educator Trainings, we would define culture as behavior and climate as a feeling. In author James Hunter’s book The Culture, he shares, “Culture goes much deeper than a mission statement...culture is how group members actually behave, repeatedly and habitually.” The key question here is, “Whose behavior?” The answer is: Everyone. No matter what mission statement or set of values are hanging from your school walls, culture is how people actually behave. We have more control over the culture of our school than the climate. However, when we intentionally go to work on the staff and student behaviors that we want to see, we create the overall climate (feeling) that we want in a school where people want to be there versus feel like they have to be there. We are all responsible for the culture in our school. 

Conversation Topic - How strong is our current staff culture? If the number one way that we are going to teach strong social-emotional learning and character development is to role model it, what behaviors do we need to hold ourselves and others accountable to more so that we create a positive school climate?

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John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.