Ground Zero: What I Learned About Leadership in My First Week as Principal

9/11 changed how one school leader saw the role of the principal and reinforced the deliberate dance between the “person” and the “position” of being a school leader.
every leader has a story
11/30/21
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John Jenkins
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Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was the second day of the second week of my first year as a principal. On that same day, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, bringing both towers to the ground and changing the way we saw the world. It was the catalyst to a crash course in leadership that forever changed the way I saw the role of the principal and reinforced the delicate and deliberate dance between the “person” and the “position” of being a school leader.

Although my school was located over 60 miles from ground zero in a suburb of New York City, the profound shock, hysteria, and fear were immediate. Shortly after learning that both towers had been hit by planes, a series of events began to unfold in rapid succession; none of which the “in-box” activity in my principal training programs came close to preparing me for.

  • Parents began to call asking if the school and the children were safe, some requesting to speak to their children immediately.
  • Teachers ran from their classrooms requesting to be released from school to get their own children or inquire about loved ones who were first responders headed towards the ill-fated rescue mission.
  • The central office called and asked that all schools institute emergency preparedness plans. Since this was my first week, I had no idea what those were.
  • Parents began to show up at the main entrance demanding to take their children home.

In that moment, with just 5 days on the job, I had to pause. Put fear and anxiety aside and shift to action.

  • I immediately set up a system in the auditorium whereby parents could enter the building, request to have their child brought down, and sign them out efficiently and swiftly
  • I asked my assistant principal to connect with any staff members who felt they needed to leave so they could exit the building as quickly as possible, and we could arrange for coverage of their responsibilities for the rest of the day
  • I had children in grade-levels taken to the library, cafeteria, and gym for group activities led by our cluster teachers and school aides so that I could meet with the grade-level teachers to provide an update and set a plan in place for messaging and instruction for the rest of the day due to both staff and student exits.

I never sat down again for the rest of that day. I made sure that I was present in every place that I could be to provide a sense of calm and care in every classroom, the cafeteria, the playground during recess, and at the main door during dismissal. Indeed, calm and care were all I had to give at that point. There were truly no answers to what was going on outside of our school or in our world that day.

"After a day of quick, clear, and decisive action on the behalf of others, I was spent. I literally was experiencing the impact of walking around the full day without my 'oxygen mask' on as I cared for the oxygen of all of those around me.”

As principal, I was required to stay well into the evening in case we had to become an evacuation site. By 7 pm, all of the staff had gone home. Because we did not have cell phones, television, or social media at the school site, I had not seen any images of what had transpired. I had not been able to connect to my own family. I had not even called my wife. I was completely consumed with caring for my school community.

When I was finally given the clearance to leave the building, I found myself sitting in my car and weeping uncontrollably. It was there, in the safety of the driver’s seat, that I connected to what had just transpired as a “person” and not from my “position”.  I wept for the loss of lives, the loss of our innocence, and for the sadness and fear in the faces of the staff, parents, and students that I had not been able to react to all day. It all came rushing back to me at once.

When I thought I had gained my composure, I backed out of my parking space to make my way home. But I was jolted by a loud bang followed by the shattering of glass. As my heart raced, I looked up to see that my entire rear window was shattered. I had backed up into a small concrete pole attached to the chain-link fencing that ran around the parking lot.

After a day of quick, clear, and decisive action on the behalf of others, I was spent. I literally was experiencing the impact of walking around the full day without my “oxygen mask” on as I cared for the oxygen of all of those around me.

"In my 20 years of leadership since 9/11, I have found a few ways to care for myself that really make a difference.”

This is a grave mistake that school leaders make early in their careers. In some cases, it is the very thing that cuts so many of our careers short. In large urban school districts, it is common for principals to leave their roles in 2-5 years. Some leave for new opportunities to expand their impact but many leave because the role, the expectations, and the conditions of the job are just not sustainable beyond that time span.

Since we know how critical the principal is to driving consistent student achievement and retaining high-quality staff, we must continue to explore ways to make the role more sustainable. While we work on the systems, policies, and social conditions that contribute to the challenging nature of the job, we also need to encourage ourselves to take active and comprehensive care of ourselves as we lead our school communities.

In my 20 years of leadership since 9/11, I have found a few ways to care for myself that really make a difference:

  • Make it a priority to get grounded and affirm yourself at the beginning of every day. This can be achieved through meditation; prayer; quiet reflection; journaling or some other way to center, care for, and connect to your mind and spirit.
  • Do some form of daily movement to connect with, honor, and strengthen your body. This can be done through exercise; yoga, stretching; dancing, or walking. Physical movement helps get chemicals and hormones moving in your body that will support your resilience and energy throughout the day
  • Plan for at least 30-60 minutes of preparation time each day where you can review your calendar; check and respond to emails; look ahead at agendas and tasks for the day. Use this time to paint a clear mental picture and walkthrough of your day, building excitement around the opportunities you will have to accomplish your goals and achieve success in your work.
  • Anticipate difficult spots in the day that may cause you some stress and anxiety. Be deliberate in planning a brief quiet moment to get ready for the event and leave space to decompress, take a short walk, or meditate right afterward.
  • Surround yourself in your workspace with sights, sounds, and scents that bring you joy. Pictures of your family, favorite locations, or art; your favorite type of music; aromatic candles; aromatherapy oils or bottled scents. These stimulants will help to support you in staying consistently connected to the things, people, and memories that bring you joy and make the negative occurrences of your day feel secondary and episodic.
  • Explicitly and deliberately encourage and celebrate the people around you every day. It is important that you embody and spread gratitude, positivity, and affirmative feedback to your team members and school community. This is in addition to providing critical developmental feedback for continuous improvement, not instead of.
  • End each day with at least 30-60 minutes of reflections. This is critical so that you can celebrate accomplishments, determine key priorities for the next day, and send out any follow-up communications or deliverables to set yourself and others up for a successful start as you move into the next day.

In my current role as Chief Implementation Officer at New Leaders, where I lead over 70 team members and deliver over 30 programs with 20 partners across the country, I commit to each of the practices above as often as I can. They have become part of who I am and how I show up, not only in my position, but as a person as well. These practices have enabled me to take on more complex roles and increase my span of influence and management.  

I am clear that my skills and experiences are only a fraction of what sets me up to successfully lead. I have made a contract with myself to honor and care for my mind, body, and spirit. My body sends me signals whenever I fail to keep my commitments. I recalibrate quickly to honor the person that is central and core to who I am. This deliberate attention to self-care inspires and sustains me to meet the demands of the positions of leadership I am called to take on behalf of the students and communities that I am committed to serving.

After 20 years in educational leadership, I am clear that it is our ability to prioritize and care for ourselves first that determines our ability to create high-performing, transformative experiences for the adults and students who depend on us every day.

Like most Americans, I will never forget the sights, sounds, and emotions I experienced on 9/11. Equally etched in my mind and spirit is the indelible lesson it taught me about leadership. I learned how critical it is to center yourself so that you are able to then center others.  

My clear message to every school, system, and organization leader is, no matter the circumstances you find yourself in: “Make yourselves the first priority, you are worth it!

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John Jenkins

John Jenkins

John Jenkins currently serves as Chief Implementation Officer at New Leaders. Over the past 30 years of his career in urban education, he has served as a teacher, facilitator, and administrator in New York Public Schools. He is also a certified Diversity Practitioner and has traveled internationally facilitating diversity, social justice, and anti-oppression work with National Training Laboratory’s Diversity Leadership Certification Program.

John Jenkins

John Jenkins

John Jenkins

John Jenkins

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