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How to Let Your Values Guide You as a School Leader (Opinion)

Self-reflection is an essential part of the leadership journey. One of the biggest challenges school leaders face is the disconnect between their actions and core values. When this disconnect occurs, they may find themselves leading haphazardly, without a clear sense of direction or purpose.

Feelings of mental exhaustion and burnout can easily seep into the picture, which is when you most need a mindset alignment. By maintaining a solid connection between values and work, you can ensure you are leading with purpose and clarity.

School leaders are shaped by many rich personal and professional experiences that teach them what effective school leadership looks, sounds, and feels like. As a school leader, you should always look to other principals, assistant principals, deans, and others in leadership positions for examples of what to do and, very often, what not to do.

Reflecting on past experiences as teachers, instructional coaches, deans, or assistant principals can help principals reconnect with the emotions and motivations that led you to school leadership. Speaking as a former district and school leader, I recognize that our experiences as students in school, how our students’ families felt about school, and our own children’s experiences with school can influence how we engage as school leaders. Those experiences shaped us as people and educators.

These reflections reinforce a leader’s reason why. It can be easy to forget that “why” while immersed in the work, but reflection can help keep us motivated and moving forward, especially during challenging times. Reflective practice is necessary to grow, evolve, and lead with confidence as a school leader.

For example, growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, my family and I were rich in our beliefs about school and the value it could bring to our lives. In my mother’s eyes, school and education were the golden ticket to help break the cycle of poverty, and, as a result, she was very strict about school. She also instilled the importance of commitment. Our belief was that following through on commitments was an indicator of character.

When I became a leader, I found myself bringing a lot of my family values into my leadership and had to sort through the realities of fairness and leading justly. I’ve carried the value of school and commitment throughout my life.

As a principal, I realized how my value of commitment became a challenge with how I led early on in my career. There was a pattern developing in how I reacted to teachers each time one would come to my office to share that they couldn’t handle teaching and “quit” on our students.

I took it personally. I mean, after all, these are our students. How could you leave them like that?

As I became more self-aware of my emotions and the how and why of their existence, I realized those expectations were bringing negativity into the space. My conversations then shifted from judging those teachers unfairly to listening and responding with empathy and support. I led with my personal experiences, which shaped my values as an adult; the personal influenced the professional.

Without developing the practice of reflection and a willingness to receive feedback, I could never have evolved as a school leader.

Reflecting on the values that matter to us most is an important step in that evolution. Sometimes, this can feel like peeling back layers of an onion, and the revelations may be painful. However, the more you ask yourself why and peel back those layers, the closer you will get to identifying your true values—the things that drive you as a person, as an individual, as a family member, or as a leader.

This process can be uncomfortable, but if there are no feelings of discomfort, your self-reflection is not being done right. To begin understanding yourself and evolving as a school leader, I encourage you to start with L.O.V.E.—list, organize, value, and evaluate.

List your core values, the ones closest to your heart and mind.

Organize those values by theme. This is where the discomfort may emerge. Ask the question why for each theme. Get to the root of why the core values are important. This may bring up some painful memories or possibly joyful ones. Understanding the why of your values is important here.

After deep reflection and introspection, think about how those values can show up in leadership actions. For example, after peeling back the layers, you may identify that honesty is a core value because experience has taught you that honest people are reliable and trustworthy. You may then reflect that value in leadership actions with transparent communication about budget, district messaging, systems. It will become an expectation and commitment to be transparent with staff at all times.

Each week, take time to evaluate how your value-led actions and decisions are aligned with core values. How does it feel when decisions or actions are made in opposition to values? Take note. Commit to actions that create self-awareness before taking action or making decisions.

Our values are shaped by our positive and negative experiences, which eventually shape us as individuals. Identifying those core values is essential to establishing one’s leadership style.

As school leaders, it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget to check in with ourselves. That’s why it’s important to set aside time on the calendar and prioritize reflection. The more time is prioritized, the more opportunity we have to align our values with our leadership. We have the power to choose when and how to invest in ourselves to let our values guide transformational leadership practices.

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