Lead From Your Feet, Not Your Seat

By Jessica Cabeen

For far too long, elementary, and more specifically, early childhood, leaders have been looked down upon.

The hierarchy of leadership positions almost looks like the opposite trajectory of a student’s school experience. The most prestigious positions are those in the central office, then high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, and then—early childhood centers.  

Principal licensure programs don’t necessarily debunk this perception.

Think about it: how many early childhood courses do you need to take to be a licensed principal at a pre-K–3 level?

And if you’re a secondary school teacher, when was the last time you observed or taught at a pre-K/K level to know what to look for or what to do

The answer is this: stay out of your office.

Staff, students, families, district leadership, and the local community’s first impression of the school district are essential if you want to reflect the mission and vision of your school.

And what that first impression looks like—well, that might surprise you because it starts and ends with the leader—and what that leader is doing. 

Defining the role of a leader from pre-K through third grade starts with redefining where the leader does the work.

Leading the school from outside of your office—where the students are—shows everyone around you that you are ready and willing to help with the work. And in the world of early learning, everyone can always use an extra hand. 

Using your leadership position to get into the thick of it shows that all jobs are important and ensures that all students have a  positive start to the day. Your presence makes it a priority.

Lead with creativity.

A few years ago, we were concerned about the parent drop-off space at our school, which was getting overly crowded. With some creative thinking, we created a drop-off lane for parents where we would actually help the child get out of the car so that the parents could be on their way.

During the initial start-up, I was out helping with traffic flow and looking for holes in our plan. 

And then I just—stayed.

Each morning, for thirty minutes, I am out at student arrival. Rain, sleet, or snow, I love helping students out of the cars, greeting them off the bus, and saying hi to parents as they drop off and go.

During the year, we change it up. On Fridays, I bring out our karaoke machine so students and parents can dance their way into the school.

In December, we have a  Salvation Army bell-ringing station so we can model caring and giving toward others during the holiday season.

And, of course, on Halloween, I am out directing traffic in full costume.  

The important thing is that I’m out there leading—on my feet, rather than from my seat.

Learn alongside your teachers and students.

Becoming a great leader also means learning about and engaging in classroom learning. Try to model learning practices alongside teachers whenever possible.

During a class, read aloud and work with the students based on learning you’ve done yourself in your PLC meetings.

Taking professional development into direct teaching experiences and modeling your learning allows you to recognize teachers and the work they are doing for their classrooms while providing high-quality learning experiences for students. 

Find opportunities to take the reins on teaching in big and small ways.

Every November, I teach two twenty-five-minute music lessons a week to prepare students for leading the holiday program in December.

From February to May, I teach small groups of students in our school's Coding Club.

In both of the above examples, I find ways to weave strategies into my teaching to support and enhance learning targets.

Finding ways to practice what I preach also allows me to gain a deeper understanding of what teachers are trying to teach every day—so I’m connecting not only with students but with their teachers as well.

Start small and go from there.

Find a need in your school, and commit to filling it. It might be morning playground supervision or one grade-level lunch every day.

Whatever it is, schedule it into your day and treat it like you would an important meeting. Building routines and finding ways to be visible and valuable in the work will benefit your school and help you to build relationships with those around you. 

Tweet, tag, blog, or text.

Start a list to build on every day. Documenting your learning holds you accountable for the work and also provides others with opportunities to see creative ways to fill a need.

Using your own school hashtag or Twitter account is a great way to reflect on the week.

In our Friday Focus, I include pictures from Twitter to highlight things that happened during the week for everyone to see.

If I need ideas for creative ways to be in classrooms, I look at the #PrincipalsinAction or #KidsDeserveIt hashtags to see what other leaders are doing to push themselves out of the office and into the school.

Texting pictures to parents is a great way to showcase learning and build relationships with parents and students.

Shadow another principal.

Find another leader you look up to and ask to shadow them for a day or even an hour. This is an incredible way to build your PLN and find new ways to be visible during the school day.

For inspiration, I once drove to the Twin Cities area and observed two of my mentors: Mark French (principalfrench.com) and Brad Gustafson (@GustafsonBrad).

While their demographics, size of the school, and ages of students were different than my own, finding good practices—by great leaders—gave me great ideas, no matter what the context.

I loved observing the interactions they had with staff and students—how they managed to be visible and connected while getting the other “stuff” in their day done, and their commitment to high expectations for all was seen in their actions and interactions.

Be where the learning occurs.

To be a great leader, you need to be where the learning occurs! Becoming a true school leader is not about looking the part—it is about doing whatever you must to meet the needs of your school. 

School leaders who spend their days in the office answering emails and phone calls aren’t in the trenches seeing the good, developing others, and sharing the great work with others inside and outside the school walls.

They aren’t leading from their feet. 

Some days, being in and out so much can be exhausting. Supporting all stakeholders is a big job and one that doesn’t necessarily end when the school day is finished.

But working with the staff every day and trying to be out and about demonstrates the commitment toward learning that we want everyone to have. Knowing that is the expectation makes the work exciting and fulfilling.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

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