Monday, July 7, 2014

Patience: A Principal's Pal

Although I have a bunch of strengths and weaknesses as a Lead Learner (aka - the principal) one of my biggest initial challenges was accessing patience when I needed it most. I had the tendency to react to situations, often with an emotional layer, and thus would create new problems because of my less than patient and reflective reactions (this is still a problem for me sometimes). But here is the reality my friends... no educator, let alone principal, can be successful with kids if they aren't patient. That is the bottom line!


Fortunately for me, becoming a father in 2004 helped me develop some levels of patience that never existed within me. After Paul was born I started to see that if I was going to be successful as a parent I needed to be patient, reflective and logical whenever possible. Paul taught me what really matters in life and even though I have been sleep deprived ever since he was born (almost ten years my friends) I was suddenly able to access some amount of patience with greater ease than ever before. Unfortunately, I was still struggling with dipping into the patience pool while at work. I am not sure if it was about maturity or experience or what but being patient at work was not as easy as being patient with Paul at home. Fortunately, as a result of a very difficult situation, that all changed in the spring of 2008...

It was Friday, May 2, 2008 when the call came at 7:30am. Initially I didn’t answer the call but then my secretary came down to my office and explained that it was the mother-in-law of one of our teachers and she insisted on speaking with me. This teacher, Mary (not her real name), had just returned to school the day before from a three-month maternity leave. Her son, Joey (not his real name), was born in late January and she struggled with whether or not to return at all that school year but because excessing was a possibility, she needed to maintain her seniority. I assumed the call that morning was to share that something had unexpectedly come up with the baby and that Mary wouldn’t be able to come to work. After congratulating the woman on the birth of her first grandson, I asked how I could be of assistance and she quietly responded, “Mary died last night.” 

Needless to say I was in shock and all I kept muttering was how sorry I was for her family and for Joey. This was the most challenging experience I had as an educational leader thus far in my career. This 31-year-old young mother who had just returned to work the day before was now dead and it was my job to figure out how to tell the staff, her fourth grade students and the community. How could I explain that this young woman we all loved and adored had died? We had all seen her the day before and she was beaming and looked to be in perfect health and now she was dead.

After allowing myself about 30 minutes of crying in silence, I immediately started developing a plan of action. I was only in my second year as an administrator so the first person I called was one of my mentors – a principal of 30 years. He dropped everything he was doing and came right over to my building to help me enact the plan. I started by calling the central office administrative team and informing them of her death. I then announced that there would be a short emergency staff meeting at the end of the day. Next I spent about an hour walking around the building and visiting classrooms like I did everyday. Walking around the building that day felt surreal and I struggled to fight back the tears. Luckily it was a bad allergy season so I chalked up the red eyes and sniffles to my allergies and no one questioned me. 

Slowly, throughout the morning, members of the district administrative team started arriving in our building for support. In retrospect, although I appreciated them being there, I think their presence raised concerns among the staff because they rarely visited and certainly not as a whole team. With the help of two of my colleagues I drafted a letter that we sent home to the families of Mary's students explaining that she had died. Being that we felt death was handled differently within the various cultures represented in our community, I asked that the families please explain to their children over the weekend that their teacher had died because we would start the day on Monday with a class meeting where the children would have a safe space to share, reflect, emote or just sit quietly if necessary. I then had our Main Office staff make contact with one family member of each of Mary's students to ensure that they knew about the sealed letter coming home in their child’s backpack that day and that they would be certain to read it and address its contents. 

Before I knew it, the end of the day had arrived and our entire staff was gathered in the library for our emergency meeting. After thanking them for juggling their Friday afternoon schedules to be together, I uttered the following words, “Somewhere along my studies I read that a community is defined by the way it handles tragedy and adversity. Well, today, we must handle a heart breaking tragedy and my hope is that it brings us together as a community so they we can rely on each other’s strength to come to grips with this devastating news - Mary died last night.” 

At that moment I learned about the importance of patience at work, especially when dealing with tragedy. On that spring day, I didn’t allow myself to react; instead I tried to respond in a patient and thoughtful way. On that spring day I learned that being a principal was rarely about addressing my needs but instead it was about supporting our entire community in a patient and gentle manner. On that spring day I learned that patience can be a principal's pal and necessary best friend.



  1. Courageous post Tony. I'm so sorry for the family, the school and the community. You're correct that patience is a pre-requisite in being a successful educator. I stress patience and kindness each day. Thanks for the story, you pulled at my heart strings today.

  2. My Patience Post was going to be about waiting until the end of the day to eat a Snickers. So...thanks.

  3. Tony,
    You continue to amaze. This is a very powerful post. Thank you for the reminder of patience and thoughtful decision making. Dealing with loss is so incredibly difficult, as we have experienced similar situations at one of my schools. Very well done, my friend.