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I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned (Opinion)

There is tired and then there’s “educator tired.”

More meetings, more conflicts to mediate, more data to collect and analysis overload, and more staffing decisions—the to-do list is exhausting. By springtime, most of us are operating on empty tanks while battling a seasonal-affective slump carried over from the winter.

With some degree of consistency, we can predict the times of the year when staff morale is highest, as well as the months when you can expect teachers to be crawling toward the finish line of upcoming school breaks. I heard a person once say, “If we can predict it, then we can influence it.”

Like many principals, I’m an optimistic person by nature. But in mid-February, I felt myself struggling to change my heartache of stress into heartfelt joy.

When I analyzed why I was feeling this way, it became clear that I wasn’t living my “why” for working in public education. I was drowning in meetings that discussed adult issues instead of being focused on student learning and the experience of being a student at my school.

After consulting with a colleague, I decided to change how I was spending my time at work. That small change had a huge impact on my ability to refocus and feel fulfilled.

Several years ago, I participated in a principal challenge for which I shadowed a student for a day. It was an amazing experience that allowed me to better understand my school from a student’s perspective.

As I reflected on how to reenergize several months ago, I decided to try this activity once again at my new school—but with a twist. I wanted to help bridge the divide between students and adults. This time, I offered my students the opportunity to be principal for the day by following me as I made my rounds with classroom visits and staff member meetings.

My request of the students who joined me was simple: 1) Get parent permission, 2) be responsible for the work you missed in class, 3) communicate with your teachers that you would be with me for the day, and 4) write up a one-page summary of the events of the day and your reflections.

To my surprise, I was flooded with student requests. Just the idea of having a shared experience with the students we serve was uplifting. I marveled at the idea that students would want to know what my job entailed. It was a great way to connect and build kinship between students and the leaders that serve them.

What I imagined would be one day with one student shadowing me evolved into three days of multiple students per day participating in this activity.

Here are some of the lessons from the students who joined me:

  • Students and staff have a right to speak up, even if they are the only dissenting voice.
  • Keep an open mind when people bring concerns to you. The importance of growing from mistakes was highlighted.
  • Treat everyone with respect, no matter their position.
  • Communication should be two ways, not a monologue.
  • Make time to help others.

They enjoyed seeing the authentic and positive relationships that occur between administration and students and staff, but I was just as happy to learn from the students. They shared that they were surprised to see how well staff got along with each other behind the scenes, as well as with students in the hallways and classrooms. Our first shadow-the-principal day was March 14 (aka Pi Day in the math world), so the students had a chance to eat pie while talking with teachers in the math workroom.

My “apprentices” also enjoyed hearing a student share his idea for completing his Eagle Scout project that provided diabetic kits for students in need. He and I brainstormed various ways to complete the project, as well as how to market and sustain it in the years to come. The students later commented that they were surprised to observe an administrator working alongside their peers, generating ideas together.

Besides circulating throughout the school and speaking with a number of students and staff, the apprentices and I discussed ways that artificial intelligence could be used to facilitate teaching and learning in a positive way. I always find it enlightening to hear students’ technology ideas, including for AI use—for example, to assist with study tips or to organize their notes—were as innovative as I had heard from any presenters.

Finally, we ended the day by taking a stroll around the track at our football stadium. I shared that I like to go outside as much as I can to exercise and gather my thoughts. I try to do that once per week as part of my self-care routine. The students shared that they were pleasantly surprised to hear me prioritize that type of activity and that they thought their peers would benefit from such an activity as well.

I’m proud of my students for taking a chance on being a leader for the day. Students in 2024 have so many pressures facing them, so accepting one more thing can be a daunting task.

Here’s a challenge for everyone reading this article: Make time to prioritize your own “why.” This is especially important as we enter the final marking period of the year, when emotions tend to run high and stamina tends to wane.

Fill your tank with the kind of energy that inspired you to enter our profession. Look for the moments in your school on a daily basis when you can be kind, learn something new, build a new relationship, and spend time with those that brought you into a career in education—your students!

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