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Talking to your principal about difficult subjects

Money, illness, maternity leave and compensation, family crisis, discord with a colleague, a difficult parent situation, whatever the reason for meeting with your principal, unless it's a routine meeting, it's dealing with unpleasantness and both parties are concerned about conflict, power, and perception of others.  If you are in any job long enough, you will need to meet with your principal for an unpleasant reason.  Here are some tips for preparing for that meeting.

Tip #1:  See your principal as a human being
In many school cultures, administration and staff are pitted against one another and are in enemy-like relationship.  Like so many prejudices, this one is powerful and colors each party's perception of the other before the meeting.  There are a few things that you can do to avoid this pitfall.
1. When you begin your tenure at a school or get a new principal, get to know them.  Don't wait for something to go wrong.  Where do they live?  Do you have any common interests?  Where did they get their education?  If they have a PhD, what was their dissertation on? (they LOVE to talk about that one)  What do they do during summers?
My current principal lives near Boston but loves the Cape.  She is addicted to Downton Abbey and we exchanged Maggie Smith quotes in the hallway after each episode.  She also is very fond of Art Decco jewelry by a certain designer which reminds me of my mother's antique button collection and involves a lot of jet.  If I sense any tension about her (it doesn't have to have anything to do with me) I complement her jewelry or mention Downton Abbey and she smiles.  I want her to associate smiling with me.   I see her as a person with many dimensions.  We are not friends, we have a cordial relationship.  I may not agree with everything she does, but I see her as a person, not an enemy. 
 2. Talk to your principal's secretary and feel out what is going on with him/her, what stresses they are under at the moment?  And how to schedule a meeting for a time most advantageous to your plight.  
"I need to talk to ____ about a matter.  Is this a good time or would you suggest another time?  Which week is best?"  
Principals have crunch times during their school year too.   If waiting 24 hours will make a big difference in their stress level, then they will be in a better position to show maximum empathy.

3. Try to see the problem from the principal's side.  If you are planning maternity leave, look at the due date and the school year and have several plans in place to make transition to and from a substitute as smooth as possible.  Use student-centered talking points as the students should be the common interest of you both.

weak: "I need more weeks to develop a secure breastfeeding time with my baby."
strong: "If I leave on February 10 instead of March 1, the entire poetry assembly can be done by the sub and the experience for the students will be smoother." 
Seeing one another as human is particularly difficult when contract negotiations are stalled or other district-wide issues are simmering and unresolved.  Understand that this is a very dangerous time for the relationships in your building and district.  It's important to see one another as human beings!

Tip #2 Keep your emotions in check
This is important for the same reason it is important when you are frustrated with a student and are counting to time-out.  Nobody wants to deal with an angry, crying, miserable mess of a person.  Showing these emotions makes the other person feel hated, bad, and unsuccessful.  These are not the feelings you want to evoke in the person you are trying to have help you.  We can all get that way from time to time, but it does nothing but inhibit true communication.  If you just cannot see your way clear to go into the meeting with a factual and not emotional way of speaking, try...

1. Bringing a building, union, or teacher representative.  These are people whose role it is to act as a buffer between teachers and administration.  They are a quiet but strong presence to give your side a touch more power in an otherwise powerless situation.  Usually having these people in your meeting will involve a confidential discussion before hand.  This alone can calm you down and give you perspective on the situation.

2. Know yourself and schedule the meeting for a time when you've cooled down and can talk rationally.

Tip #3 Keep everything in perspective
Unless your principal is a sociopath, they didn't get into teaching because of money, power, or narcissism.   Every principal I've ever known has had to deal with the police on cases of suspected child abuse, but none of them enjoys the process.  Such unpleasant experiences are part of putting children first, the real reason your principal probably joined the teaching profession.

Things happen in teachers' lives that require difficult discussions and teary moments.  This is part of life, don't be ashamed or isolate yourself if you are facing a tough time.  There are quality human beings in every building who will celebrate your joys and stand by you in life's struggles.  Take a deep breath and go for a walk to clear your head.  Talk the situation over with a spouse, friend, building rep, clergy member, or other trusted confidant.  Don't let the situation get the better of you.  Be partners with your principal to find a solution that helps you and your students.


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