As I have moved into a new building this year, my new job has been challenging me physically, mentally, and emotionally. This does not mean that it has not been a positive change that has pushed me to grow, but it has been exhausting. Although I am in my sixth year serving as a building principal, there have been many firsts in a new school — new expectations, new staff, and new challenges. As I have worked through some of the firsts, I am reminded how much I enjoy working to support others in improvement.
Over the years, I have learned one very important idea in my quest for growth and improvement — I do not need to have all the answers.
I have realized that people ultimately do not want, or need, answers. People want situations to improve, they want to see themselves grow, but they do not need you to do it for them. What people really need from a leader is better questions, and then support to find better answers.
Teaching is hard, there are many complications that come with leading a large number of students through daily lessons in efforts to gain mastery. Showing up in a leadership role and giving answers to how you personally would improve or attack a problem does nothing to make teaching easier, because these are not your problems to solve. Answers might provide temporary fixes, but few provide long term solutions. Much like the adage: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Here are a few of my go to questions when I am trying to get someone to a place of personal discovery. These questions are ones that I feel help teach people to fish.
What do you think should be done? Most of the time, people ask for help prematurely. They have an idea of what should be done to address the issue or solve the problem, but are not confident in their decision. When you ask what they believe should be done, most people give you a very viable idea to address whatever issue is at hand. All they needed is the affirmation to go for it.
How can I help or support? This question completely changes the context of their problem. To answer, the person is forced to analyze the problem, determine how they would react, and then respond to how support can be given. Usually, the person solves the problem on their own without your help; and then you have built a better relationship with them as now they associate you as person who is willing to support them through the processes in the future.
That makes me think about a time when I… Here is how I handled that situation… Is there a part of that you think might work for your situation? If the first two questions have not helped the person start to work through the problem on their own, an example may need to be given. Just like in good teaching, examples and analogies can help give insight into a challenging problem. The more information we can supply, the more the learner will have a chance of making sense of where to start working on their issue. If we share an experience that is similar to the person’s situation, people can usually come to a solution that might address their problem. Often when looking through a different filter, people see things that were not necessarily clear when looking at their own needs. It is important to use a similar situation, not the same situation. I want the person to apply the concepts to a new situation, not copy the solution that I found.
And, When you try that let me know how it goes, I would love to hear the outcome? Finally, I like to offer follow-up support. Sometimes people will come back on their own to debrief, other times I have to seek them out to ask how things went. Either way, continuous support is offered. Situations or problems in education are rarely one time learning events. Every situation provides an opportunity for growth, our job as leaders is to support others to maximize that growth, especially in difficult situations.
Asking better questions teaches those we lead to fish by helping them support their own growth. Solutions are best found together not given in a top down model, and opportunities for growth should never be delivered as a one size fits all model. If you feel like you have all the answers, you place a ceiling on learning. I have come to learn, my advice is not as good as I think it is anyway.
Ask better questions, find ways to support learning, and trust that people can improve themselves. This is the path to being a better leader!
Keep learning; keep growing; keep sharing!