“Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence. If you’re in control, they’re in control.” –Tom Landry

Fall is almost here. That means cooler temps, pumpkin spice, and most importantly…the return of FOOTBALL. With all that has been happening in our world right now, the happiness that the football season brings to my life is almost comical. I’ve tried to rationalize to those around me who may not be as big of a football fan, (like Mr. Teamann) how I think leadership lessons can be learned each week from watching your favorite team. Even given this incredibly challenging season of #PandemicPrincipaling that we are in, there are many parallels to be found with being a coach. And who better to compare yourself to than the most revered (or most loathed!) coach of all? The coach of AMERICA’S TEAM! In fact, I think leading during this unprecedented season may be more like coaching the Dallas Cowboys than you’d think.

It’s hard work, but it’s not lonely work.
Football is a team sport. The coach isn’t on the field by himself. He has an offensive coordinator, a special teams coach, a defensive coordinator…all specialists at what they do. Voices that contribute to the planning, to the extrapolating out of plays, and ideas. Players are there to execute, to build upon, and ultimately be on the field and make magic happen. Coaches have past experiences that lend themselves to strengths in certain areas, but smart coaches know they need to surround themselves with people to help balance out their team, to leverage their weaknesses. Football is a team sport. And you definitely need a team around you right now, as the tensions, emotions, and temperaments are at an all-time high. You need to surround yourself with people who are going to lift you up, who are good at what they do. Just like a good coach, you have to trust them to do what they are good at. Even the very best coach can’t win the game without a team beside him. A coach has to recognize the talents of those he coaches, and like a good leader, see where they can be built up and optimize those strengths for the most successful outcomes. You’re not alone, administrators! You have your staff, your families, and your community, all wanting the same win that you do.

Sometimes you don’t win, or your win comes with a cost.
Winning isn’t everything, we all know that. And sometimes winning looks different game to game or school year to school year. At the time of this writing, our students are still expected to take the STAAR assessments at this end of this year. I’m not going to compare that to the Superbowl, but it’s something that we all see off in the distance, isn’t it? Too far away to think about now, but we know it’s there. Coaching the Cowboys means every year you’re expected (ahem, demanded) to be winners, to bring home that Lombardi trophy. Anything less than that is deemed unsuccessful. As leaders right now, we’re trying to manage remote learners and on-campus learners. We don’t know if there will be a rule change in the middle of our game, or even if the roster we started with is going to be the roster we finish with. We know we’re expected to perform at that highest level, but with all of what our day to day looks like right now, it seems impossible to actually win. What does winning look like during a pandemic? I hope you’re able to define that to your team. For us, we want to finish this year with safe, happy, loved students who have also shown academic growth. Whether that growth or those goals can be measured by a standardized test, I’m not sure. Your team is full of high achievers, and they need to know what winning looks like this year with new rules, players, and expectations. (and please oh please, could we finish out this year!)

“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.” –Vince Lombardi

You’re on a real big stage, with lots of people who think they know what you do.
Check in at the water cooler on a Monday morning and you’ll be sure to hear what everyone thinks Mike McCarthy should have done on 4th and 3rd the night before. If there was a win, he’s the best, bravest coach ever…but if he falls short, WHAT WAS HE EVEN THINKING? Why wouldn’t you make the safe call? Doesn’t he remember the playoffs two, three years ago?

Everyone has an opinion on what they would have done. Which sounds awfully similar to campus-based leadership, doesn’t it? I can’t think of two more similar statements than “I paid $110 for my ticket, I get to say what I want!” and “My taxes pay your salary!” Education is one of those rare professions where everyone feels like they have had a 13 year internship and know exactly what you do, or how you should you do it. Cowboys fans, through the wins and the losses, through all the ups and downs, have a very vested interest in what happens on that field…but really, just like our communities, only have a spectator’s knowledge and view. When we remind ourselves that fans (and families!) are an important part of what we do, sometimes it makes it easier to listen to all those hot sports opinions. Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek in WI, always says, “In the absence of information, people make up their own. And when they don’t know what you do, they make up what you do. And it’s not always what you do!” I’m sure that if we were to hold press conferences, with big lights and reporters, it’d be just like our inbox on a Monday morning! Over communication, in a pandemic, can be your best friend, even when it feels like you’re being grilled.

You’ve got a real big, real loyal fan base…even when it feels like you don’t.
Public education has become a more controversial topic here in Texas the last few years, but it’s got nothing on trying to educate during a pandemic. Balancing polarizing conversations around every corner, potentially upsetting 50% of our community with every decision, waking up in the middle of the night worrying about our teachers’ mental state…these are all struggles we’re dealing with right now. Every decision is one that I am agonizing over, trying to decide which group is going to be the most upset with what I am about to do. They are on my side, right up until they aren’t. It’s easy to forget the win from last week, or heavens, from last season, when you were expected to win today. Similarly to where you sit, there is so much that is beyond a coach’s control, from the refs in the field to the rules the commissioner puts into place. Coaches can only do what is within their immediate control and some days, that just may be how they respond to a crisis. Just because the crowd gets loud about what they disagree with doesn’t mean ultimately, they don’t still believe in, love, and support their team. Deep down, that fan base is still there. They just may need to…vocally…let you know how they disagree with today’s decision.

“If head coaches weren’t important to the success of a team, then owners wouldn’t fire them all the time.” – Troy Aikman

It takes a courageous leader to make the hard decisions.
Our assistant superintendent once shared with our group that true leadership isn’t about making all the decisions, it’s about making the hard decisions. The decisions that were not win-win, or the ones where a silver lining can’t be found. Coaches have to cut players, they have to make trades, sometimes they have to let their three-time super bowl winning quarterback retire. America’s team! The pressure of every decision! Our jobs are hard, y’all. The scope of our decisions these days involves so much than just what spirit day we’re having next week. It’s decisions about safety, sanitation, and how to provide instruction while worrying about our student’s home lives. The hardest conversations I’ve had this year have been the teachers who had to be a “virtual” teacher. Choosing who to match up with my virtual learners was hard. Their hearts wanted to be with students and let’s be honest, none of us felt like what we did in the spring was “enough”. Listening to my teacher’s fears, to the impact this pandemic has had on my families…seeing the argumentative conversations that were taking place on social media. Some decisions just won’t be popular, and we have to be more ok with that than we ever have been. It’s tough to be the #pandemicprincipal right now. I have to keep our students at the forefront of my mind, while also supporting my staff, but also recognizing the interpretations of our decisions by our community also matter. Hard to win sometimes, isn’t it? Disappearing into a classroom, or jumping into a google meet, seeing my teachers get to what we do…it fills my bucket every time. I encourage you to find that why, even when you’re making hard decisions.

At the end of the day, I can’t imagine doing anything else, even in this season. Do you remember how it felt when you were chosen to be the leader at your campus? That pride, that excitement, that level of commitment you felt in that moment? I think that’s how the Dallas Cowboys feel every single time they run out onto the field. Sports provide a backdrop of fall, or remind people what “normal” looks like, and evoke emotions, one way or another. Never forget that your position also holds that kind of power. I hope that this is a Super Bowl winning season for you!


TEPSA member Amber Teamann is a principal in Wylie ISD. An #edtech fan, she speaks nationally at educational conferences, blogs and is a firm believer in modeling a digital footprint. Learn more at www.technicallyteamann.com

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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