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11 Things Your Child’s Principal Wants You to Know

Hear it from an educator who's been there

Kirk Wheeler

Published on: September 04, 2018

principal and teacher

How well do you know your child’s principal? Do you ever wonder what's really on their mind? 

With nearly 35 years in educational leadership roles, I've partnered with many parents, coached dozens of teachers, developed hundreds of school policies, mentored other school leaders and worked through countless challenging moments. I've learned a lot along the way!

Here's a list of 11 things I want parents to know.

Skinned knees and bruised egos are good things. 

Failure can be a good thing. As kids face new challenges, they gain resilience and self-confidence by overcoming adversities and making it through the rough patches. 

My job isn’t to protect your child from every bump in the road. I don’t need you to be a bulldozer parent that clears away obstacles or expects the school to ensure each day is smooth sailing. I need you to trust me and then work with us to build your child’s confidence and capacity by meeting challenges. 

Your child IS, in fact, extraordinary. But sometimes extraordinary looks pretty ordinary. 

As a parent and principal, this one of my most deeply held beliefs: All children are exceptional just the way they are. Yes, it is important to grow, learn and improve — and you should encourage your child to do all those things! However, sometimes we make children feel as if they need to change who they are in order to earn our collective love and support.

Everyone has gifts and talents. And each of us plays in the world in different ways. I want my students to work hard and be their ordinary, extraordinary selves!  

Edgework matters. It really, really matters. 

Encourage your child to step into the unknown. This is where the real learning happens. Whenever we are on the edge — the edge of our capabilities, the edge of our knowledge, the edge of our confidence — we are in a place of potential growth.

However, that edge is not always an easy place to be. In addition, understanding where our edges lie takes self-reflection, good coaching and real work. Being too far over the edge creates fear and anxiety, and causes us to retreat to the familiar. Too far inside, away from the edge and in our comfort zone, and we are no longer learning and building confidence. It’s that simple and that hard.

Hard work matters, too. 

Let’s be realistic. There are so many different pathways to success and contentment. Students should know that school and the world of work are just that: Work. Hopefully, these are joyful experiences, but children do need to learn that “putting their noses to the grindstone” is a huge part of the secret to success.

We often see success all lit up in bright neon lights. It is as though that entrepreneur, athlete or rock star just showed up in the limelight of success. Children need to see that behind the scenes is an awful lot of work. And your child may have to work harder at something — math, music, sports — than others. That’s okay. Skinned knees, bruised egos and perseverance matter most in the long run. 

Homework doesn’t matter as much as you think.

Prior to the middle school years, I have yet to see any evidence that indicates a lot of homework brings academic success and develops deep learning.

While homework routines can foster the ability to manage projects and deadlines, there are also huge benefits when young children simply read for pleasure, talk to their parents about their day, play in the backyard, bake something in the kitchen or do nothing at all. Imagine a world without homework battles.

And besides that, I kind of like bored kids. They end up doing really cool things.  

I don’t have all the answers. 

Sometimes, I just want to say, “I am not sure what to do here. Let’s work together, trust each other and create a plan.”

Those who know me well know that I believe schools should be among the most innovative places on earth. To me, it seems like a no-brainier. We should be innovating, evolving, learning and growing. After all, we are educating future innovators, leaders and citizens.

And yet, with all the pressure on test scores and getting the right answer, how do schools create a culture in which failure and innovation go hand-in-hand and where the ability to ask questions is as important as finding the correct answer?  

Leaders from the largest and most successful companies in the world are lauded for "failing big and failing fast" because we recognize that it is through failure that we learn the greatest lessons. Yet, how many principals are being lauded for "failing fast?" 

Unfortunately, we have created an educational culture of fear and conformity, where teachers and administrators are valued more for following the rules than for being innovators and disruptors.

So, no, I don’t have all the answers. But, I ask really good questions!

It probably isn’t bullying. 

Children (and adults for that matter) should feel completely safe at school — emotionally, socially and physically. Period.

Bullying is an intentional, persistent behavior that is targeted and usually represents some imbalance in power. Recess is the most unstructured part of the school day. Even with close supervision, students are navigating complex social situations among peers who vary widely in their development and maturity.

Not only are some social tensions and disagreements expected when students are in less structured situations, working through these challenges is an essential part of social emotional learning — a significant indicator of future success.

When parents rush to label social challenges as bullying, they raise the stakes and often shift the conversation away from their own child, missing opportunities to build capacity and confidence. Instead, I encourage parents to always bring concerns to the school and then, in the spirit of collaboration and mutual trust, determine the best path forward. When bullying does truly happen, then the school must act. 

We can’t make up the time your child loses by not being in school.

If you decide that taking your child to visit Grandma on her 90th birthday, traveling to a new country when you can take vacation or having your child participate in a special event is more important than a few days of school then do it! Time goes by way too fast, and I encourage parents to take full advantage of adventures and rich experiences when they can. I get that parents’ work schedules and family events don’t always coincide with the school calendar. 

However, don’t expect teachers to take on the responsibility of creating homework and special projects. Instead, talk with your child to determine what ideas you can proactively offer to the teacher in advance such as working through a couple math chapters, reviewing basic math facts, doing research on your destination or helping to plan activities or even transportation, reading every night, keeping a journal and photo diary or creating a website documenting the experience.  

Your child comes first. 

Don’t misunderstand me: I place a huge premium on customer satisfaction. And yet, who is the customer? The tax-paying or tuition-paying parent? The student? What if the best outcome for the child is not what the parent wants? What if the best decision for the school community conflicts with what your child needs? 

My job would be easy if all I did was strive to keep everyone happy. But who wants that school? Parents expect me to be responsive, but also to be consistent and to make decisions in keeping with a shared vision. Inevitably, there will be disagreement. We need to build partnerships and work together.

My job is to do all I can to understand your goals and your child’s needs. After all, each child is exceptional! Ultimately, I am the keeper of the mission. When we occasionally disagree, let’s find shared solutions.

When faced with my most challenging decisions, I always ask myself, “What serves this child best?” Usually, the path becomes clear. 

Find a balance and relax.  

Test scores and grades, homework, after-school activities and getting into the perfect school all important. However, in a time where children are increasingly stressed, they don’t need stressed parents. So, work hard and shoot for the moon, but remember there is no magic formula.

The best test scores don’t guarantee entrance into the best schools. And the “best” school may not actually be the school where your child is going to thrive academically and socially. It all works out in the end, so in the meantime help your child discover how to be uniquely and authentically themselves, find joy in the here and now and don’t waste precious time over-focusing on the upcoming high school or college years. 

We need each other. 

I am a firm believer in a strong partnership between parents and schools. You are your child’s first and most important teacher, and we learn so much from you. My staff and I have experiences that span many decades and thousands of families, and we truly have your child’s best interests at heart. Together we are teaching and guiding the next generation to live and thrive in a world that will undoubtedly be complex and unpredictable.

So, there it is: my top list of what your child’s principal really wants to tell you. I admit that the title of this article may be a little misleading. I am not sure this is so much about what principals want parents to know, as much as it is about what is going on in my own head. That said, I also believe many principals share these views.

I encourage you to reach out to your principal and share your hopes, your fears and your dreams. We are truly in this together!

This article was originally published in 2018, and updated in September 2019.

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