Voices from the #PrincipalProject Community

Let’s recommit to the power of listening


At the start of the pandemic, one major adjustment we had to make was accepting that the new challenges weren’t going to end quickly. For me, the hardest part has been trying to maintain a sense of consistency and community. As my team faces each new challenge, I try to bring our work back to questions like: What does it mean to be a community? Where are we now, and where can we go together?

I know it sounds rather simple, but the core of our work right now is being able to listen. As school leaders, our first reaction to new problems is often to want to fix them. We’re good troubleshooters. We know how to work on budgets, work on behavior interventions, order materials and make purchases. But right now, in the midst of problems that don’t have easy fixes, we all need to pause and put all our energy toward listening. Listen to the families. Listen to the staff members. Listen to the teachers. Listen to the students. 

When people feel heard, they feel more comfortable. When people know their concerns are being heard, they feel more ready to move forward together. This year, for me, has been a lot of meetings. A lot of coffee with the counselors and administrators, sitting outside on a picnic table with families and discussing ideas. I would sit down with the students during lunch having eaten beforehand so I could be there with my mask on listening to whatever they wanted to share.

We always go into our days with an agenda, a full docket, a lot of things on our calendar. But when that student or parent or teacher walks through our door and says, “I have a concern,” we have to pause. If we keep listening as our top priority, it’ll be easier for us to accept that we might need to shuffle our day around to make time to hear our people. There are a lot of things that we have to get to during our week. Do we have to balance that budget? Do we have to make more uniform orders? Do we have to figure out that scheduling for the school pictures? Yes. But what’s our purpose? What does it mean for us to be leaders?

We have to understand that a lot of people don’t feel OK right now, and when you don’t feel OK, you don’t perform well. Listening to concerns reminds us to keep telling students and teachers that it’s OK not to feel OK, that we can connect them with mental health resources, that they have agency, that the numbers and data are not going to be where they were in the past, that none of us are perfect right now and that’s OK. 

My purpose is creating a safe and nurturing environment that provides strong academics and prepares kids for the futures they dream of. For that to happen, students and families and teachers have to understand that my priority is them. The other stuff will fall into place; it’ll work out. By focusing on listening, we’ll learn what we need to do to create a culture of dignity. We’ll learn where we are in our school communities and where we can go together.

About the Author

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Jorge Ruiz

Jorge Ruiz has spent nearly two decades as a school leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @TeacherYorch.