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  • Writer's picturerobertthornelltx

The Best Advice I Was Ever Given

Where do ideas come from and what makes them stick? Reading and Reflecting

When I first began school administration many years ago, one of my principal mentors shared with me a little secret I have tried to carry with me every single week since. She told me that you will ALWAYS be busy and there will ALWAYS be more to do, but you must be intentional about your own learning. If you are not, the times will pass you by. She encouraged me to put an hour a week on my calendar to READ and REFLECT. This may have been the single most important and impactful advice of my entire career.

Invest in Yourself

I learned early on to stack the professional journals/magazines that came in the mail or the book I was trying to get through, on the corner of my desk and I would have an hour each week where I shut my door and tried to study. Now an hour a week may not seem like much time to some people, but at the same time many campus administrators reading this may be thinking "that's impossible!" I will admit there were some weeks that were missed, but I have been able to form the habit and make it work more often than not.

"We are all just one book away from learning everything we need to learn about any particular area in which we choose" - Hal Elrod

Setting aside personal learning time is not selfish and certainly not an escape from the "real" work of a principal. It shows a commitment to learn and improve and it can also model the type of learning you hope to inspire in your students and staff. Even before I accepted my first principalship, I knew I didn't want to be average, I wanted to be the greatest principal ever! While I am sure I fell way short of that goal, I believe the advice of reading and learning made me better. It exposed me to different things and grew my curiosity. It made me a dreamer as my imagination drifted to what "could be" at my schools.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling selling book Outliers, made popular the concept of the 10,000 hours rule of practice to become an expert. He studied some of the world's most successful people and determined that their success had one distinct common characteristic: consistent practice (10,000 hours?). Gladwell's rationale is that by committing to learning and practicing enough, anyone can become an expert in their field. The reality is, not many of us have 10,000 hours to practice being a principal, but we can carve out time to invest in ourselves if it is a priority. Fortunately, Rob Nightingale has done extensive research on Deliberate Practice and his work advocates one hour a day can make you a true expert in your field in as little as six months. Even an hour a day might seem like more than you can handle, but I encourage you to start small and build your stamina. The key is to plan for it and be intentional about what you are reading. I would encourage reading about things of which you both agree and disagree. A true expert can intelligently discuss any issue from multiple perspectives.

Make Learning Stick with Reflection

Almost anyone that I have worked with has seen me doodling in a journal from time to time. Long before smartphones or even laptops, I was carrying a journal around with me to write my "to-do" list, to record my thoughts and ideas, and sometimes to just help me get through a meeting. Over the years I have recorded thousands of quips, quotes, and ideas, many of which I am still waiting to implement. I cannot count how many times I have flipped through an old journal of mine and come across a brilliant "new" idea.

Advice that I often share with aspiring administrators is to keep a journal about the job you want (often their own principal) and as you witness someone doing that job, jot down challenges they face and visualize yourself and how you would respond and why. This is a valuable professional learning activity. I consider my journals the artifacts of my work and I refer to them often when I am stumped on a particular problem or looking for a fresh reminder of something I once perceived important enough to write down.

It has taken me quite a while to develop my own personal system of learning to take the ideas in my journal and make them a more useful resource for myself and others. My concept is simple really; what I have learned to do is combine my weekly (often daily) reading with my journals. On my calendar, each Friday morning is an hour I refer to as my "weekly check-in". It is at that time I take my notes from the week, link articles I have read and enjoyed, add quotes from books with page numbers, etc. and I put them into a running reflective document. This allows me to synthesize and reflect on my week and capture the best or most impactful ideas. This is this final piece of reflection that makes my learning stick!

"One of the clearest barometers of curiosity is how often you share ideas and insights with others. A hallmark of discovery is bursting with excitement to tell people what you've found. Frequent enthusiasm about communicating knowledge is a sign of intellectual engagement. " - Adam Grant

Finally, as an educational leader, investing in yourself should come with a purpose. Presumably, that purpose is to help your students, staff, and school be the best they can be. Your learning should be shared with others. Not as mandates, but as collaborative discovery discussions. In the quote above, one of my favorite authors, Adam Grant, shares how important it is for a curious learner to share their discoveries. I would add that that curiosity is contagious. When you learn more, you want to keep learning. And when your stakeholders see and hear about your learning, they want to learn more too!

My recently published book, Inside the Principal's Office, serves as somewhat of a summary of many ideas and thoughts I have had over the years and I wanted to share them with other educational leaders. In it you will find a collection of ideas about how a principal can be intentional with their learning and activities. Some of them worked really well and others I haven't yet gotten around to implementing. I know this, none of them would have happened had I not followed the advice of a wise mentor and begun reading and reflecting. It is never too late. Invest in your learning this week for one hour and see where it takes you.

"Many people wish they had started sooner. Almost nobody wishes they had started later." - James Clear

1 Comment

Traci Logue
Traci Logue
Sep 15, 2021

I once asked you (during an interview) what one piece of advice you would give an aspiring admin. You told me to keep a journal, and to read, write & reflect. Well, my first year as an AP, I filled several Mead composition books with my day to day challenges, inspirations and learnings. Also sticky notes, sketches, things that made me laugh, things that made me cry, and the best days to eat in the cafeteria.. I also made sure that I read something professional every week. This practice has stuck now, 8 years in, and I have lots of appreciation for those wise words you shared with me several years ago. Thank you Dr. T.

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