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What Have You Learned the Hard Way?

There's only one thing more painful than learning from an experience, and that is NOT learning from an experience.  

A couple of years ago my family and I were at a friends house for a 4th of July barbecue and someone brought fireworks. The list of goods included bottle rockets, Roman Candles and sparklers (which are more my speed). 

Out of the corner of my eye I happened to notice that the teen was attempting to light a Roman Candle in the street. He was struggling to get the lighter lit and was lighting the candle with the fuse pointing towards him and the crowd. See where this is going?

When the fuse finally lit he held the candle towards the sky, like he saw everyone else, however he had the lit fuse facing towards him. It was like watching a movie as I thought, is that right? I yelled for him to turn it around. At this point others noticed what was going on and yelled as well. He looked at us and dropped his hands, luckily pointing the rocket away now. Unfortunately it was pointed at the basketball game where five teens were loving life including my son who was kicking the soccer ball through the crowd. Then a rocket went off and everyone scurried!

Realizing there was an issue he dropped the candle. There was a sigh of relief until I realized, there are still three rockets left. When it hit the ground it rolled slightly and now was facing right at me...well not just me, remember, my daughter was behind me in the hatch of the car. 

As a rocket shot I moved to my right, skipping over the flame, ending up behind a parked car. A second fireball shot, again I jumped, staying behind the car. 

That was the last one. As I looked up I noticed my daughter, alone, in a fetal position in shock. I went over to check on her and she said, “I need to go inside”. I walked her in, said I was sorry I wasn’t next to her, and felt like a massive failure. 

As charter school leaders we face Roman Candle rockets every single day. 

  • Ineffective employees
  • Upset parents
  • Broken HVAC systems 
  • Compliance letters from the State
  • Bills we cannot pay
  • Irrelevant board member requests
  • Student attrition
  • Teachers who quit without notice

The list is never ending for some. 

However, nothing was more clear to me than the similarities of the antecedent that brought this nightmare to a reality. The adults spent a few minutes teaching him how to use the lighter correctly and light the fuse of the bottle rocket. However, there was no teaching on the Roman Candle. Just a faulty assumption that he will figure it out. 

If we would have spent two minutes reteaching the teen on how to light the candle, where to point it and the safety steps to take, there is no story to tell or harsh learning that takes place. Instead, I have had hours of anxiety and anguish thinking of all the ways I failed that young man, my daughter and myself. 

Just a two minute conversation and this mess would have been avoided. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, this is how many principals act as the instructional leader of their school. They place a dangerous weapon in the hands of the unequipped and assume the adults will figure it out because they have a college degree, a license, went through 60 minute training during the teacher workdays and “got a follow up memo”.  As a result, teachers work in isolation, forging their own methods of practice behind classroom doors left to invent their own knowledge base, unexamined, untested and typically not in alignment with their colleagues. 

In Michael Fullan’s Breakthrough, he noted that “The flow of schooling is disrupted when there is a lack of alignment and coherence. Teachers and staff receive mixed messages when no one direction is pursued and communicated consistently overtime. When there is alignment there is a much greater likelihood of sustained progress." 

As I look back on my time as a principal, and now as a business owner, I regret the decisions I failed to make more than the wrong decisions I made. As you prepare for the upcoming school year take the time to write out responses to the following questions to ensure Roman Candles are not firing at you:

  • What worked last year? Why did it work? What specific strategies or people made it work?
  • What didn’t work last year? Why didn’t it work? When did you notice it didn’t work? What were the indicators?
  • If you had another chance to make something right, what would you change?
  • What employees made the biggest impact last year? 
  • What initiative or program gave the best return on investment? 
  • What were the “significant” happenings, events, trainings, and experiences that provided the stakeholders with energy, hope and faith in the future? 
  • What activities, tasks and responsibilities consumed the most energy and resources? How will you address these in the upcoming year?
  • How did you ensure as an instructional leader that every classroom was teaching to its highest student?
  • What did we do, as an organization, to ensure we were exceeding expectations with our families and students?

Leadership guru, John Maxwell shares, "Experience isn't enough, it is evaluative experience that will make the difference in your growth."

Once you have completed your reflection, begin to create yourself a "learned-list". These are items you will not repeat in your leadership. Your second list is a "Ta-Da" list. This is a list of items that brought joy, spark and energy to you and the team. These are items you will begin to focus more on. 

Leadership is a choice, you can spend time each day teaching and reteaching adults the skills required to meet the goal or you can continue to allow the adults fire rockets at you and lick your wounds wondering what went wrong.

This blog was written by Dr. Tom Miller, Executive Director with the John Maxwell Team. Tom specializes in improving the leadership of principals, teachers and students. If this blog added value to you, please share with your team or a colleague. If you like to listen to audio lessons, check out our Principal Office Podcast. 


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