As a principal, I often look for ways to empower teachers. While programs are the primary source for staff development, they are not the stand-alone answer. I believe a principal can continually develop teachers by mastering the behavioral skill of accommodation—putting others’ needs first. Accommodating others you work with at appropriate times can make you a great staff developer.
I have met many people who were born with the innate gift of filling the needs of others. I have also met those who are more demanding individuals, born with the need to get their way in every situation. This latter group must work to acquire the skill of accommodation since it does not come naturally. By realizing the importance of accommodation in the principalship, and by viewing it as a skill that can be acquired, the principal sets aside any overly assertive tendencies and becomes a true team member with the good of the group in mind.
A principal occupies a highly stressful position that often requires much assertive behavior in order to get important things done. It’s true, decisions sometimes must be made quickly so the next problem can be addressed. Emergencies happen occasionally that require a command style, leaving no time for accommodation. The need for a high level of assertive behavior aligns with research that suggests good leaders are task-oriented.
Commanding vs. Accommodating
A good principal focuses on task completion, but a great principal realizes that commanding in every situation is not appropriate and that too much of a good thing can be a detriment to the overall mission of a school. The quest for school improvement has led many principals to become too commanding in situations that might call for a more accommodating approach.
Sometimes dictating a solution can strain relationships, leaving some feeling resentful or exploited. Or, at the very least, it inhibits a two-way exchange of information.
Enthusiastic teachers who are eager to participate in campus improvement can experience a drop in initiative and motivation levels under a principal who is never accommodating. Valuable teacher insight into the core mission of student learning and overall problem solving can be stifled.
Accommodating behaviors place an emphasis on not only cooperating with teachers, but going the extra mile to see their needs are met. The principal must be assertive in meeting these needs; however, unlike the self-centered commanding approach, accommodation requires assertiveness redirected away from self and on to teacher concerns. Two examples of accommodation include doing a favor for a staff member when the issue is important to him or her, or deferring the final decision on a matter to a staff member who has more expertise on the topic.
Rationality vs. Emotion
In order to take advantage of accommodation, a principal should rely on both rationality and emotions. The central question that principals face is, which behavior do I employ at this point in time in order to reach my goal? Answering rationally requires self-control and the knowledge of what to do and when to act. When emotions overflow, it may be time to stop and think before proceeding.
If too much assertiveness can damage the relationship, a long-term pattern of too much accommodation can also be detrimental to a principal’s effectiveness. If teachers view their principal as too easily persuaded, they’ll lose respect for him or her.
The benefits of accommodating teachers are numerous. Helping a staff member in a time of need shows support, and smoothing over a damaged relationship can restore harmony. Apologies can build relationships. Or, a principal may simply need to end an ongoing issue so the focus may shift to new or more pressing concerns. Deciding to end an issue may be the most expedient method for moving the school toward its goals.
As a principal, I often find it necessary to take a stance. But, in reality, all principals are wrong sometimes, and yielding to a better position becomes the reasonable and necessary thing to do. New information may have been discovered, or an original position may have been re-evaluated. Whatever the case may be, the principal must then explain to the group, “in light of this new information, I have decided that I was wrong.” These words will command respect from teachers, as long as flip-flopping does not become a pattern.
Some decisions that principals face have a short timeline. If the opposition is stacked full of experts on the subject and there is no time for further research, it is time to accommodate the wishes of others. The opposition knows more at this point in time, so accommodating can be a temporary or permanent fix.
Small Sacrifices Can Bring Big Rewards
In campus decision-making groups, often a majority rules. When a principal has been outvoted, it may be time to accommodate teacher ideas. Or, sometimes, even though the principal is in the majority, it may still be wise to postpone a decision until additional votes can be garnered. When advocating for an issue or trying to solve a problem, but clearly losing a battle, it could be time to accommodate the wishes of teachers. This could mean deciding to concede before a formal vote occurs that could strain the relationship even more. By choosing to accommodate, whether teacher ideas fail or succeed, the principal builds credibility and shows trust. As a result, teacher commitment grows.
A teacher once came by my office and requested a new Keurig coffeemaker in the teacher’s workroom. I was glad to use my principal’s account and accommodate. In the grand scheme of things, this was a small request I could grant in the name of teacher satisfaction.
Accommodation often requires compromise. When teachers try new ideas, they may reach a decision that the principal does not necessarily feel great about. In this case, a principal may need to allow them to carry out their plan even though there may be doubts.
Lead with Grace and Sincerity
Another reality every principal must face is a time will come when a teacher gets offended. When that time comes, the principal should take on an accommodating attitude and take steps like apologizing for actions, words, attitudes, or anything else that might have been offensive. By apologizing, it becomes apparent that the principal is humble, cares about others’ feelings, and is mature enough to admit wrongdoing. Do this sincerely, or an apology will not be fully accepted.
Another important behavioral skill that principals need in order to practice accommodation is knowing how to concede gracefully. In a situation in which a conflict with a teacher has arisen, the manner in which the principal accommodates matters greatly. Preserving the relationship is vital. Despite frustration with a situation, the principal should not be a sore loser. Motives can be explained, but excuses should not be made nor blame deflected if the principal is truly expecting to gain respect.
Bradley Vestal is principal of the Alternative Choice in Education Academy in the Caldwell Independent School District in Texas.