Building Relationships as a Principal Through Reading

Six years ago I decided to leave my 5th grade classroom that had been my home for eleven years to become principal of the building.  I was excited for this new learning journey and challenge.  I couldn’t wait!  Then the job started, and I was miserable.  I was overwhelmed with paperwork and found myself stuck in my office more and more.  I would go days without having a meaningful conversation with a student.  The first question people would always ask me was, “Do you miss the classroom?”  I would reply, “Yes.  It is quite a bit different but I really am enjoying the new challenge.”  It wouldn’t have been appropriate to share my real thoughts. Yes, I miss it.  This new job sucks!  I spend the whole day filling out paperwork, listening to boring webinars, and attending three-hour meetings that could have been four line emails.  I spend the whole day on the phone listening to vendors pitch their stupid, test prep software or parents complain because they had to wait three minutes in the drop off line because someone got out of their car.  I spend the whole day managing the building instead of leading it.  I spend the whole day away from kids.  This new job sucks!  I had made up my mind, I was one and done as principal.  However, I had to find a way to survive the year.  I thought back to what I loved about being a classroom teacher.  It was the students and the relationships we developed over the course of the year.  The relationships I formed with my students always started with books.  It was time to apply that principle to being principal.  

Reading with Students

One of my favorite parts of the day as a classroom teacher was free choice independent reading.  I would spend the majority of the time conferring with students, but always set aside time at the end to read with my class.  I wanted them to see me as a reader and this provided a great model.  Also, I knew I needed to read a lot of books if I was going to make recommendations for them.  I decided I was going to start doing this as principal.  I blocked out 20 minutes on my calendar every day to read independently during the school day.  We added two big, comfy chairs in front of the office and some days I would use these to read.  Other days I would find out when a class was doing independent reading and ask if I could join them.  The practice immediately paid dividends.  The first day a student came up to me and said, “I saw you were reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.  That is my favorite book.  Did you know there is another Joey Pigza book?”  We spent the next 5 minutes talking about our love for Joey Pigza.  At that point, it was my favorite five minutes as principal.  

Classroom Book Talks

I noticed right away when I was reading in the chairs in front of the office that every class that went by was always checking out the book I was reading.  It didn’t take long for students to come up to me during lunch or recess and ask if they could have the book next.  They wanted to read the book I was reading.  I wanted to expand on this so I started asking teachers if I could visit their class to book talk a recent book I read.  The teachers were thrilled and the students ate it up.  My blessing on a book was golden.  The students were fighting over who got to read it first.  I always left my copy of the book and told them to return it after they were finished.  I was surprised when a student returned Amulet only one week after I gave a book talk.  I expected this to be a very popular book that would be shared by a lot of students.  I didn’t expect it back for a month or two.  I asked the student, “Oh, you guys are done already?  The class didn’t like it?”  

“Are you kidding?” he replied, “we loved it.  We checked out two copies from the library and a couple students bought it from Barnes and Noble.  Everyone has read it already.  Oh yeah, we need Mrs. Bugbee (our librarian) to order more copies of the rest of the series.”  I took my lunch to the cafeteria that day and ate with their class and talked Amulet during their entire lunch.  At that point, it was my favorite lunch period of the year.

Principal’s Bookshelf

This is an idea I first heard from the amazing Sue Haney (principal at Parma Elementary).  Sue has a principal’s bookshelf in her office that students can use to check out books.  Based on the conversation about Amulet, I knew it was time to try this idea.  I scheduled time in each classroom to explain my principal’s bookshelf.  I didn’t want it to be over-complicated or time-consuming (remember I still had a lot of three-hour meetings to attend).  The idea was pretty simple.  I put a bookshelf stocked with my favorite books outside of my office.  The check-out system was a simple black marble composition notebook and a pencil.  I told students I trusted them to check out books and return them.  All they had to do was write the title of the book and sign their name in the composition book.  They should return the book when they finished it and cross off their name.  Also, I told them when they finished a book on my bookshelf I expected them to find me sometime during the day and tell me how they liked the book.  The bookshelf was as much for me as it was for them.  I was craving book conversations and time with students.  No single practice has helped me form meaningful relationships with my students more than my principal’s bookshelf.  My bookshelf grows every year.  I have been lucky to receive grants to help fill it.  Last year, students filled three composition notebooks with books they checked out.  I talk to students every day about books they have read off the shelf.  Each year some books get lost or go unreturned but that’s fine with me.  As Donalyn Miller says, “I would rather lose a book than lose a reader.”  

These practices started the turnaround for me.  It doesn’t matter what position you hold in education, it all starts with relationships.  Once I started looking at principalship through that lens everything changed.  Education is about the students and you can’t make a difference in a student’s life without having a meaningful relationship with them.  I still get overburdened with paperwork and get lost in my office from time to time.  However, those days are few and far between now.  I simply changed my lens.  Now I can honestly answer when someone asks, “Don’t you miss the classroom?”  “Yes. I do, but I love being a principal.”