My 1st Year in High School - Done!!
When I was in university, I had a recurring dream where I had to go back to high school to finish a course!! Since I was a high school student, I have been back as a counsellor from 2008-2011 and then I was back this year. Its like my recurring dream had come true...
As it turns out, I survived my first year as a high school principal at Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School in Sherwood Park, but not without some challenging experiences along the way. This year was such a different experience from my previous 5 years as the lead learner in a school. My first three years as a principal was at St. Martin’s, a Catholic K-6 in Vegreville. At St. Martin’s we served around 270 students and we had lots of parent and community involvement. I was then assigned to Holy Redeemer for two years, a very small 160 - 185 student school pre-K to grade 8 in the hamlet of Ardrossan. This was a school with one class per grade, many young teachers and no assistant principal. At both schools our success came through developing relationships with staff, parents and students and really connecting with the school community. I had the pleasure of getting to know all of the students and staff very well and to be involved in many activities. But this year, things were different.
The first difference about ABJ is size, its a really big school with just over 1400 students grades 9-12. Along with the students comes a staff of just slightly less than 100. On the surface, one would think that with so many people, there would be so many great chances to build relationships, but I actually found it to be the opposite. Because of its size, there are so many layers to leadership for the school to function well. As a result, the opportunities for me to get involved with programs, staff, students felt more limited, and I had to trust that other leaders were making those connections. In some ways, being the principal of ABJ felt lonely! As I walked down the hallways and greeted students, I often felt like I didn’t know many of them and that really changed the experience for me because I was used to knowing everyone in my school.
The other big challenge was trying to stay on top of emails and communication in this large school setting. Because I want to build connections and get to know people, I would rarely take time to sit in my office responding to emails - I would save that work for the evenings. Instead, I would try and get out and visit classrooms, chat with staff and students, watch lessons, and handle challenges. In so many ways, the school could be quite exciting and I would sometimes perch myself behind the secretaries to see what fun issues would come into the office each morning, instead of checking my emails. Being in a very busy environment is difficult for someone who struggles to stay focused on one task like me - so I always had 100 plus emails to work through each night after my kids went to bed. This really cut into my blogging practice, but I still felt like it was a better way to engage at school.
Another challenge was dealing with high school in general - high school courses come with BIG stakes as students use their grades for scholarships and entrance requirements for post-secondary. As a result the teachers have all developed practices to help them best serve their students as best they can with their goals of courses and grades. Teacher are very passionate about their subject areas and classroom practices. This meant for me spending more time trying to learn how I can serve them and our students. This process takes time, energy and perseverance. Developing trust and a deep understanding doesn’t come quickly and requires patience and curiosity. At the same time, I tried to balance this with implementing a few new practices designed to serve students and help unify practices across the school. This was also difficult, because for every staff member that thought an idea or change was fantastic, there was someone else on staff who felt the exact opposite. Again, I found that many iterations and sticking to principles seemed to be the best way forward, along with courage in myself to see things through.
The great news is that we were able to develop a number of ideas, policies, strategies to help us in the upcoming school year. We were able to take the time needed to really work out some ideas and collaboratively plan a few changes, to set us up for the start of the new school year. I am also really excited to get back into the classroom after a year away, as I will teach a section of psychology 20 in the first semester! I am really looking forward to that!
Thankfully, I was blessed with a great admin team in this first year at ABJ. I had three amazing assistant principals who were excellent collaborators, supporters, challengers and friends over this first year. It made a big difference for me as we journey together in this challenge of school leadership. Along with a great admin team, the school staff were also great to work with and get to know. I was consistently impressed with our staff’s expertise, energy and commitment to their students. They really are an outstanding group of educators and they taught me so much. I am looking forward to another year as I continue to grow in my practice as a high school, school leader!!!