Helping others to help themselves

Years back, my wife use to hate when she had a technology problem or couldn’t remember how to do something. In fact, when we (read I) first bought our imac, she wasn’t very happy with the whole thing because everything was “backwards” and she couldn’t find anything. She would avoid asking me to show how to do something AGAIN because of my “attitude” and how I did things. That was 8 years ago. Today is much different. I have learned to be patient, not sigh heavily (that use to drive her crazy) and take my time. If I don’t have the time at the moment, I say so, help out and then, when there is time, get her to show me what is frustrating her. It works the same for my children (well, most of the time. I still use the timeout to keep them alive!)

Over time I’ve been able to transfer this to school and what I do as a principal. In my capacity as administrator, there are many times when people come to me for information, advice or assistance. I use to react in a way that reflected my particular mood at the moment. Now, with all that goes on in a day, that was usually somewhere between stressed and freakin’ stressed. This caused all kinds of misunderstandings and miscommunication which eventually led to problems which led to more miscommunication and misunderstandings and so on (cue Faberge commercial with Farrah.) I knew that it wasn’t how I wanted things to go but I couldn’t understand how to change it. Thank goodness for my wife. She cleared a few things up for me after a particularly difficult day. She explained to me how she felt at times and then transferred it to the situation. The road to change had begun (well, after I stopped pouting!) 

Having worked on this for some time, I really thought I’d mastered the whole thing. Seems I was wrong and I was in need of a reminder. Being reminded about something like that isn’t always easy but I realize that, as a leader, I need to be able to accept when someone gives me advice, even if it’s hard to take at the moment. It made me reflect on what I was doing and the impact it was having on those around me. To be an effective leader, one must be willing to ask trusted people to be honest with you and then take their words seriously.

Personal Impact 

This past week I was asked to describe the characteristics of an educational leader. For me, listening is one of the most important characteristics. Being able to “be in the room” when someone is with you is vitally important. No clock watching or doing other work. When someone is talking to you, you need to make it obvious that you are listening – 100%. Unfortunately, I stopped my description there. Now, listening is important but there are some other important characteristics that I didn’t mention.

Empowering Others

Of all other characteristics, I believe this is the most important. This can be done in a number of ways. Listening is one of them. So is supporting them, seeking their opinion, seeing their strengths and allowing them to use them and allowing them to help themselves.  As an administrator, I’ve come to learn that the best way to help others is to empower them to help themselves. Whether it is helping students to work through a problem, supporting a parent who is having difficulty, making a decision that moves things along, keeping the vision in front of others, cheering on the team or helping someone learn new skills so they can be independent, I’ve come to see myself as more as someone who is there to help empower others rather than having power over others. True, sometimes in my role I need to make decisions that may not make everyone happy or be involved in some form of discipline but in each instance there is an opportunity for empowerment of other individuals. 

We can’t have winners and losers

I often find that this is one of the greatest obstacles to getting to a solution. In so many cases, people want there to be winner (usually them) and a loser (usually the other party.) Instead of looking to see how things might be done to create a solution for the problem, they come in with a predetermined solution and campaign for it. Now, it may be a bit easier to do the “you’re right, you’re wrong” decision but it doesn’t usually bring about a lasting solution. Like my wife who didn’t like my solution to her technical problems because, although it solved the immediate problem, it created a further problem that became much bigger than the original. Helping others to get past that initial campaigning is one of the most difficult things that I have to do and, unfortunately, I’m not always successful.

Helping Learners help themselves

As teachers, one of our goals is to have students become independent of us. We want to help them learn how to do things without us being there. Kind of like parenting, it’s not how your children act when you’re around that demonstrates what they have learned and value, it’s what they do when you’re NOT there. Eventually, all these students will venture out on their own and it will be how they function on their own that will be the true test of how well we’ve done. This is why it is so important to empower them to be learners – to give them the ability to trust themselves to make good decisions. 

What does this have to do with technology?

Well, everything. Today as I was working with another administrator, it was clear that she was frustrated with how things were going and not just with the work we were doing. She was feeling overwhelmed in many different areas. Now, I could have gone the easy route and done the technology part for her but that would have solved nothing. Instead, we sat at the computer and I helped her (forced her at times) to continue doing things, trying things and retrying things. Was she frustrated? Yep. Will she remember it all? Nope but she will remember some of the basics that will get her moving on her own. Over time, she won’t need to call or email me as much. Hopefully she’ll become comfortable enough not to call me at all. While doing this, she was able to talk about other things that were on her mind, not something we get to do very often. We were able to share ideas and solutions about various difficulties we were both having. 

This experience is a snapshot of something I’m seeing more and more in schools. People who are being overwhelmed by all the “things” that need to get done, being frustrated because they can’t learn some things as fast as they want which keeps them from doing other things that they want to do. Whether it’s kids or adults, it is becoming more and more common for people to stop trying once they can’t get something after a try or two. For those of us in the empowering role, it is important to acknowledge that frustration is part of learning and assist them to do the best they can at whatever level. Not everyone will be able to use technology in a seamless manner just like I’ll never play the piano (or any other musical instrument) at the same level as my children but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate what they do or try it myself.  

As a leader, one of my goals is to recognize those gifted in particular areas and get them to go further in that area while helping them to struggle along with something that is more difficult for them. Part of it is to listen to them but a greater part is to empower them and that is where our learning must always continue so that we can help them to help themselves. It was an eye opener for me when my wife first told me how I acted and reacted but it was one of the greatest gifts she has given me. Truly, she is a great part of my success – she empowered me. 


  1. Reply

    Kelly, I believe that your last paragraph captured it for me. In fact, in my experience, this is the one area in which educational leaders fail to connect the proverbial dots. It’s one thing to encourage people in the things they like and in which they are interested, but it is yet another to help them along and provide a learning curve in an area which may not be intuitive for them. This is the one reason why so many teachers after a period of years feel stuck. They may don’t know where they fit as a part of the larger entity, and, educational leaders need to be more attuned with respect to each teacher’s strengths and areas for potential growth. Perhaps more teachers would feel that what they have to offer means something.

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