Sometimes Things Happen

“When you base your life on principles, most of your decisions are made before you ever encounter them.”

Not long ago, I read that the most underlined sentence in all of Kindle is the following, from the wildly popular book, The Hunger Games:

“Because sometimes things happen to people and they are not ready for it.”

What might it look like to be ready? One way we can look forward proactively is by looking backward reflectively, learning from our past experiences, including both our successes and failures. Another way we can “be ready” even when we have no idea what is about to happen is by basing our lives on principles, as the above quote suggests. In our book, The Principled Principal, Anthony McConnell and I make the case that educators, including all school leaders, are more apt to respond well to the unexpected when the way they operate professionally is guided by core values, or principles.

When our day-to-day actions as professional educators are grounded in core principles, it results in a kind of comfortable predictability that those we lead (whether students or colleagues) come to recognize and appreciate. We are not acting one way today and a totally different way tomorrow. We do not say yes to one person or idea in one instance and no to a different person with a similar idea in another. We also are careful to not say yes to one idea and yes again to another idea that completely contradicts the first one. Indeed, principled educators are consistent in their decision-making processes and, ultimately, their decisions, ensuring a culture in which all staff and students become aware that “this is the way we do things around here.” Such a culture dictates that we base our decisions not on whimsy, nor the flavor-of-the-month, nor on the person asking; rather, we base these decisions on what is best for our students and our school as a community.

Spontaneity can be a good thing, especially in schools and classrooms. Over the course of a long school year, it is important for both teachers and administrators to find ways to break from routine and allow for spontaneous joy. Surprising our kids--or our staff members--with lessons, meetings, celebrations, and events that break with tradition or the daily grind is an excellent way to keep teaching and learning exciting and of reigniting passions. Yet, there is also something to be said for predictability. The word--at least in my mind--carries with it connotations of boring and dull. Yet, at least in certain ways, being a ‘predictable” teacher or administrator can be quite comforting to those we teach and lead.

Last year, I served as an interim school administrator for a few months. Something happened on my second day working at the school that was, honestly, the most elevated situation I have come across in over 35 years of public school service. I walked into the office from morning bus duty and was confronted with a potentially explosive and dangerous situation involving a disturbed and distraught adult. To be honest, I was taken by surprise and for just a moment could not even comprehend what was happening. In a way it was like the line from The Hunger Games: Something was happening and I was not ready for it. Yet, in another way, I was prepared even though the situation was completely unexpected and quite unsettling. I was prepared (as were the few colleagues who were also there) because I had already adopted principles which guided the way I behaved whenever coming across such situations and we immediately acted according to these principles (de-escalate, try to connect, enact all emergency procedures, stay calm, etc.) once we realized what was happening. Although it took awhile, everyone involved behaved based on core principles and eventually the situation was resolved as smoothly as humanly possible.

Schools, on the whole, are some of the most joyful places on Planet
Earth. There are times, however, when our schools and classrooms are places of stressful, even tragic, situations, often when “things happen for which we are not ready.” We cannot prevent every such situation from occurring, but we can prepare for the unexpected, in part, by basing our lives on principles so that when the unexpected does happen, we can respond in the best possible way. Several years ago, clinical psychologist Meg Jay delivered one of my favorite TED Talks in which she discusses another event one can prepare for well before it happens: getting married. She makes the case that, “The best time to work on Alex’s marriage is before she has one.” Just because marriage, work, and kids are happening later in life doesn’t mean you can’t start planning now. Another example that comes to mind is the infamous incident in which pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) miraculously landed an airplane on the Hudson River in New York. Although he could never have fully anticipated this situation, in actuality, he had spent a lifetime preparing for it. Sully had made the decision of what to do well in advance of the 208 seconds during which he had available to him to act. Likewise, just because we can never know when something unexpected is going to happen in our classroom or school, we must still prepare for the unexpected by basing our lives on principle. Making decisions well in advance of having to actually respond to the unexpected is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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