I used to have an “open door” practice when it came to my availability to staff, parents, students, and community members. I now have an “I’ll come see you” practice. The “open door” practice seemed like I was saying, “I will be in my office, feel free to stop by.” I wanted to find a way to get me out of that mindset and meet people in the trenches where the action is, see what is going on in the building throughout the day, and be able to intervene, coach, or support in any way.
I always considered myself fairly visible for a principal, but fell into the rut of being in the same places at the same time each day. For example, I would start out at car rider in the morning opening car doors, and greeting parents, students, and staff. I would then make a trip through the cafeteria and down the hallway where students came in off of the bus. I then would go to the media center to be on the news show. After that, I would stop by my office to knock out a few emails, phone calls, and then try to visit some classrooms from 8:45 until everyone started moving for lunch. At that time of day, I felt like I could never find anyone so I would go back to my office. Once I got back to my office, there was much to do and the next thing I know I am looking for the intercom phone to make afternoon announcements. There were days when I would get up to leave and “bam” there was someone standing at my door. I would chat with them and then take a step toward the door and “bam” someone else would stop by. Where did the day go and how did I get stuck in my office - again?
Conventional problems sometimes require an unconventional solution. As a result, I recently made the decision to give up my office/conference room for not only the betterment of our school but also for me professionally. The idea came from a brainstorm about how I could force myself out of my office and into the classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, media center, gym, grounds, etc… A recent review of a staff survey revealed to me that teachers rated staff morale as lower than usual. I also noticed that teachers rated our administration lower as instructional leaders. I couldn’t associate the low morale to not providing special meals, jeans days and tennis shoes, or even staff recognition because we do a lot of this. The only thing that I could think of is that I was not as present or visible in the classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, etc… as I had been in previous years.
I started thinking about the purpose of my office. It is basically a space for me to work at my computer, which is a Chromebook, answer and make phone calls, which I have a smartphone for, keep files, and of course hold conferences. Well, I figured I can do all of this from anywhere in our school. Most files are electronic now, most phone calls can be handled via my smartphone, and I can always use the room (my former office) or any other conference room for meetings and conferences that come up. I also have a walkie talkie that allows anyone to get in touch with me anywhere in the building. What’s the point in having a walkie talkie, a cell phone, and a laptop if I am sitting in my office all of the time?
Another reason for this transition is to be a good role model for our faculty and staff that your space is not necessarily “your” space. It belongs to the district. People tend to get extremely attached to “their” space and stuff (i.e. classroom, office, furniture, parking space, etc…). It’s kind of like having your favorite seat at church. However, If a visitor beats you to your seat, how do you feel? (be honest!)
On a side note, I gave up my “principal” parking space a couple of years ago because I asked staff to not park in visitor parking spaces. I also made the decision to change some of the staff parking to visitor parking to provide more spaces for our visitors. Well, it did not seem right to ask staff to give up the convenience of a parking spot if I was not willing to do the same. I now have to find a parking space during morning arrival, and when I return from an off campus meeting just like everyone else. It also forced me to enter and exit the building a different way each day. This allows me to see a different part of the building and different people at those times of day.
In addition, I recently asked one of our related arts teaching assistants to teach via a mobile learning cart. She is now a “mobile teacher”, right? I asked her to give up her space for the betterment of the school. I explained to her that we will find her a space to keep her personal items. I told her we will try to find her a space to do lesson plans and other stationary work. Well, now she can use my old office because I will be mobile. There are other teachers in the building that have to be mobile as well due to the nature of their programs. I feel these people see more, hear more, and possibly even deal with more than I do as the school principal. I wanted to be out and about as much as these staff members are.
The first step for me to become a more present, available, and mobile principal was to clean out my desk and other drawers in my office of any items that were not needed (i.e. papers, files, office supplies, and odds and ends that had accumulated). I then went through my files and filed the ones that are confidential or personal into a locked file cabinet that will stay in that room (my former office). I left this file cabinet in the room for me to access as needed. My former office will become a flexible office space for people who need a space off and on throughout the week such as some of our itinerate staff, as well as a nice conference space with a television for presentation and collaboration.
My second step was to box up all of my personal belongings and decorations. These items are nice, but really serve no purpose other than to make me more comfortable while in my office. Truthfully, if necessary, I can look at these things at home where I tend to do a lot of work anyway. The work that needs to be done during school hours cannot be done in my office. I have far too many observations to complete, and new teachers to coach than to sit in my office and answer emails and phone calls. I would rather do this sitting outside of the classroom/s that may need my attention the most or in the hallways where passers-by can stop and ask question.
My next step was to find the right light-weight over the shoulder bag that will hold a Chromebook and a memo pad (sorry can’t seem to get away from that piece of technology). I also wanted to have a professional book as well as a children’s book in my bag to read throughout the day. I also have access to office supplies if needed through our administrative assistant.
My hypothesis stands that if I am more available and visible, I will be able to meet people where they are (in their classrooms, in the hallway, in the cafeteria, on the playground, in the parking lot, etc…) to provide immediate support, answers, and feedback. I will be able to check on certain students and teachers to make sure things are running smoothly and provide support when needed. These are most often the cases that need my attention, and end up in “my office” anyway, right? Being more mobile, available, and present will hopefully help staff and students feel more supported instructionally, personally, and professionally. It will also give me a better understanding of the quality of our school and what we need to do as we move forward as a learning organization.