GUEST BLOG: Dirty Hands

by Mark Hennes | Jan 08, 2018

Quote of Note
"We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead."
- William Arthur Ward

This week’s Guest Blog is written by is Dr. Peter J. Aiken. He is the Superintendent of Manheim Central School District, and passionate about preparing his students for a world that gets crazier by the day. His core leadership tenet is that everything rises and falls on relationships. Originally from Oakmont, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, he now resides in Lancaster, PA, with his wife and four kids. An avid reader, you’ll often find him running and ruminating after a great read. Connect with him on Twitter and tell him your favorite leadership book at @pj_aiken.

I received a text message from my brother the day before school started for this year.

It read, “Go after greatness this year. And get your hands dirty while pursuing it.”

His text caught me a bit off guard. He knew that I hadn’t changed jobs, so what does getting my ‘hands dirty’ look like in an educational leadership position? How could I approach this school year differently, with more of a mindset of getting my hands dirty? Equally important: what was the ‘greatness’ I was supposed to pursue? Mine? My staff’s? The students’?

These thoughts were swirling in my mind, as I visited our new elementary school for the first day of school. This past year, we realigned our attendance zones and consolidated from three elementary schools to two. To put it in perspective, the last school year our largest elementary school had about 400 students. This year, our new elementary school had blossomed to over 725 students.

Arriving around lunch time, I walked quickly down the silent corridors to the school’s cafeteria. I pushed open the doors and was nearly shoved back by the loud noise that hundreds of elementary students can make. They were shrieking and laughing as they hugged, greeted, and shared stories of the best summer of their lives. They crunched carrots and sucked empty milk cartons as they ate.

An army of parent volunteers pointed and shouted, attempting to maintain order. They strode from table to table making sure everyone was eating, and monitored the trash cans and utensils bins making sure things went in the right place. At first glance, it almost appeared there were equal adults to students.

As I stood in the cafeteria surveying this scene, my attention was drawn to the food line. There, in the midst of the student line, was the building principal demonstrating his expectations for how to line up and proceed with the lunch period. Not far from where he was, the assistant principal was working with a different group of students on where to sit and how to behave while in the cafeteria. Periodically, each principal would grab an errant, new parent and orient them as well. After some quick instructions, the principals launched these volunteers towards different corners of the cafeteria to spread the expectations and grow the school culture.

This is ‘getting your hands dirty’ in action. Often times, as school leaders, we can issue edicts from behind a computer screen. It is easy to ‘tell’ the way. It is not always easy to ‘show’ the way. As these two leaders’ actions showcased, if we are willing to get out in front and allow our words to become actions, we don’t have to share our leadership philosophy. People will see it. And seeing is believing. How can you be a more hands-on leader (aka ‘get your hands dirty’)? Try these tips:

• Get Out Of Your Office. Try to spend less than 60 minutes in your office each day. Yes, you’ll miss some phonecalls and some emails might get returned a bit late, but being out and about will bear fruit in the long run. While you’re out, be sure to ask your staff questions and practice really listening to their answers. You’ll likely solve little problems before they become big problems, saving you future headaches.

• Get In The Classroom. Teach a class. Demonstrate a new instructional practice. Substitute for a day. Our business is about teaching, so you need to show that you can do it, and do it well. Dirty hand leaders model “Follow Me”, not “Go There”.

• Get To Know Your Students. Learn your students’ names. Don’t miss arrival and dismissal times. Offer abundant hugs or “high-fives” to every student. Get in the cafeteria during meals and rainy days. Think of your students as your clients, and find out from them how your “service” team (teachers) are doing.

• Get To Know Your Support Staff. Serve food in the cafeteria. Help empty trash or mop the locker room sometime. Find out what they know that you don’t. Whose room is a wreck or the most orderly at the end of the day? Who’s generating the most trash?

Have some other thoughts on tangible ways that we as edleaders can get our hands dirty? Share them below in the comment section.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.