Association of Washington School Principals
Volume 2 – 2020-21
Fostering Connections from Afar
Sometimes the smallest gestures can have the biggest impact
Jake Tyrrell
Assistant Principal at Olympia High School, Olympia SD
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Engaging Families and Communities
There is a scene in the movie, “Apollo 13,” that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. One of the oxygen tanks has exploded and the CO2 levels in the lunar module are rising quickly. In order to bring the astronauts home safely, a dozen engineers at mission control must figure out how to build an oxygen filter out of the limited materials they can find onboard. The lead engineer nestles up to an oversized drafting table littered with random items and holds up a large cube and a large cylinder. With the music swelling behind him he says to the team, “We have to find a way to make this…fit into the hole for this…using nothing but that.” That’s what it feels like to be an administrator during COVID-19. Oh, except I’m blindfolded, and can’t see anything on the table. And materials on the table change, sometimes by the hour. And also the table is on fire. Hyperbole aside, I love “principaling” because it is active, creative, and relational. We work tirelessly to nurture relationships with our staffulty, and right now our hallways are bereft of the high fives we have been dishing out for years. After 300-plus days of empty buildings, our teams are yearning for those personal connections. Our teachers need to feel that from us! We have to believe that we can build the filter out of scraps. The paramount job should be to coach with care and conviction because a confident teacher is an effective teacher (Hattie, Visible Learning Plus). That takes some bravery! Consider the kaleidoscope of confusion that is any large meeting on Zoom. Engagement is now viewed as an option that some refuse. My training taught me how to present to a crowd, and how every positive moment solidifies social bonding by releasing oxytocin in the brain. As an administrator stumbling my way through the last calendar year, I’ve often felt like Michael Scott from “The Office,” when he tells the camera during a private managerial aside, “I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.” How do I build confidence for others when I don’t always feel deeply-rooted in my own work?
As an administrator stumbling my way through the last calendar year, I’ve often felt like Michael Scott from “The Office,” when he tells the camera during a private managerial aside, “I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.
Like most things that trouble me, I found an answer written somewhere on my office walls. Scanning for a quick minute brought my eyes to this little nugget, “Kindness, like calmness, reassures followers and maintains their confidence.” I have no idea where I picked that up, or to whom it can be attributed, but the sentiment is perfect. Like my 9th grade English teacher taught me many years ago, the time is always right to be authentically appreciative. (Thanks Barno!)
With that in mind, here are five things that you can do today to foster more meaningful connections with your staff, students, and families from afar. 1. Send a card.
Or better, order some custom ones. I purchased some simple cards from Vistaprint (This is not an ad…unless Vistaprint wants to talk about an endorsement, in which case…hit me up!) and it makes me feel a little bit like Danny Ocean (of “Ocean’s 11”) every time I write a quick note on personalized stationery. Remember that feeling when you’d get a note in the hallway in middle school? That doesn’t have to stop because we are adults! Plus, getting mail is fun. Put pen to paper instead of sending a text. Drop a line to parents, kids, and colleagues-- especially the ones who you haven’t spoken to in a long time. If you’re down for an extra challenge, send a note to a colleague you haven’t officially met, but look up to. Our world is smaller than it seems. Reach out and tell someone they are appreciated.
2. Start an email series for your staff.
Mine is called “It’s Just a Wave” because (a) it’s a lyric from an outstanding John Mayer song and that makes me happy, and also (b) to remind everyone that there are ups and downs in our business and both are emotional and both are temporary. Sometimes it functions as a vehicle to offer a word of support, or make a philosophical point about education at large. It also allows me to do something with those notes I make in my phone when I hear something on a podcast that makes me go, “Oh! That’s like school!” Formatting it differently from email is important too. It’s not another piece of business to be read and filed away. Staff have told me that they save these for the end of the day when they are drained and want some good vibes for the next day.
3. Send a video to your families.
You can check out our series, “The Hello Show,” on YouTube. Every time we film I have a blast! I didn’t know how to use YouTube or iMovie two years ago, but that’s what Google is for! People need to remember we are still here. One of my mentors, (Dr. Kathi Weight, Superintendent, Steilacoom Historical School District) aptly told me once that if we don’t tell the story of the people in our schools then someone else will write the story for us. Who better to be CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer) than an administrator?! I haven’t been on campus at Olympia High School with kids for a single day, and yet, when a student came to the window last month she referred to me by name. Dumbfounded, I asked her how she knew me. She said, “From ‘The Hello Show!’”
4. Visit the homes of your kids and have a chat.
Remember last year when many schools did yard signs for their community? This is the same idea. We have our teachers nominate students to be recognized and every Friday our team delivers a yard sign, a letter, and a small goodie bag (donated by our booster parents) to a half dozen students who should be recognized for their commitment to their education in the face of substantial adversity. Moreover, we try to make it a point to stick around outside and chat for as long as is comfortable. It’s nice to give our families the chance to make a happy memory.
5. Take care of the people who take care of your kids.
Your staff needs SEL too. The Headspace app is free for educators and I’ve found that many times people just need an invitation to be honest and vulnerable, even if it’s not with me specifically! Another useful tool I’ve found is called Impact Deck. These thought prompts are perfect for small breakout rooms at your next staff meeting. The things that bring a team together usually present as initially insignificant. It is our job to make time to take time. Encourage your staff, perhaps by modeling vulnerability, to reflect and share without the burden of an academic agenda.
The best leaders are living examples of the culture they seek to develop in the service of others. In the midst of our long walk back to the schools we miss we should humbly acknowledge that we simply cannot control everything. My wife, a middle school counselor, reminds me often to “water the flowers, not the weeds.” She’s right, and you can connect and appreciate others authentically, even in the midst of an ever-changing year. Choose to spend time every day thanking people for their role in making our schools awesome and you’ll soon manifest the culture you seek to lead.
Jake Tyrrell was a high school English teacher before becoming an Assistant Principal in 2015. He has always had extraordinary leadership mentors who encourage and motivate him to this day. A proud graduate of Washington State University and St. Martin’s, Jake loves doing anything active and spending quality time with his wife Melissa, their two kids Avery and Grayson, and their fish Damian Gillard.
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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2 – 2020-21