Lessons from a Principal

To be mentored is a gift. And, when the experience is with someone who truly cares that you learn and grow as an individual and a leader, you are double blessed. Little did I know when I accepted my very first school administrator position in the late 80’s that I would forever use the lessons I learned that year. Eric Peters, this one is for you.

How exciting it is when we get a job we really want. I sure remember that first for me. I was named vice principal of Beaverbrook School in Moncton which sits boldly on busy Mountain Road amid food establishments and businesses. It has always been (and still is) a school with a heart and soul. If you have taught there, you know what I mean. The students who attend Beaverbrook often need a little more TLC and taking the time to build relationships within the community has always gone a long way to increase student success. (I am sure, to my principals reading this, it sounds like every school.)

Prior to my appointment as vice principal, the school had been well served by a long-time female principal, Mercy Pond. She had a reputation as a strong leader and it was well known that Beaverbrook was her school! When she announced her retirement, her vice principal, Eric Peters was named principal and the search begun for his VP. I was teaching English at Harrison Trimble High School (with Carmen, who married Eric a few years later) and really wanted to be a school administrator so I threw my hat in the ring. When I learned I had the position, I drove to the school and sat in the parking lot. I was in awe of the position that I was offered and that it was at Beaverbrook School. Mercy’s school. Now Eric’s school. How could I possible step in to those big shoes? How could Eric and Karen be the team that Mercy and Eric were?

My administrator lessons started on day one. Eric loved to talk things out and he always included me in his thinking. Some days, I didn’t agree with him. (I think that he liked those conversations the most!). There were very few (if any) decisions made that we didn’t make together and with care and due diligence. Eric insisted on this approach and I must admit, at the time, I thought it slowed down our decision-making but over the years I recognized what a valuable skill he had taught me- I learned the value of daily conversations and reflective thinking my career, I may not have always done it as well as he did, but I knew that to be a better leader, I had to share leadership. I am sure Eric didn’t say to himself, “I have to build shared leadership with Karen”, he just knew the value of authentic discourse and including others in his thinking.

The second lesson learned from Eric was the importance of trusting others. From the very first day, Eric empowered me to lead. I remember being so surprised the first few times that he asked me to take care of significant issues and that special first time he left me in charge of the building. That day will always be engrained in my mind because an upset parent came in right after Eric left and I remember thinking, “what would Eric do and say now?”. I was so glad to see Eric return that I am sure I met him at the door and threw my arms around him! The building was still standing, all students accounted for and teachers were still teaching! I had made it through my first day alone as an administrator.

The third enormous lesson learned from Eric was the need to find humor and joy in our days. Eric could always lighten the moment and find humor in things. His timing was amazing…just when I was taking myself and my position a bit too serious, he would find a way to bring me back to reality. He noticed the small things and the joy in our work. He saw the parents, students and our staff in the very best positive light. Eric always put relationships first and expected that of me. There have been so many moments in my leadership journey that I needed to call on this lesson. Reflecting now, I know I should have done it more than I did but through Eric’s modeling, I always knew this was the best approach.

As my leadership journey continued to a principalship and superintendent in the district, I am sure I didn’t always practice my lessons as well as I should have. I made mistakes, however, the foundation was laid for me, by Eric, to truly understand essential qualities of a leader. As I work with schools and districts now, I look for these skills and work to impact them through my coaching. And, that leads me to the most important lesson learned from Eric… that we must never underestimate our influence and impact…

Here I am over thirty years later, writing about very clear memories about my work with Eric. He had tremendous impact and influence on me both personally and professionally. I know I grew both as a young adult and as an administrator. And, Eric’s impact is still reaching so many others. In fact, this week, I was coaching a principal who is struggling to keep her head above water. She is exhausted and overwhelmed and what we brainstormed about was the need for her to build a stronger team. She is trying to do it alone. She is not using others’ skills and expertise and she has not empowered her assistant principal. And, she definitely needs to find some joy and humor in her days. She needs Eric’s great lessons to show her the way.

Sadly, I learned last week, that Eric died on November 4. I have been living away from home for several months because of a family medical situation so I was not able to attend the celebration of life for Eric. I heard from many educators and friends at home and know that the tributes to Eric are many. His family and especially, his wife, Carmen will miss him dearly. His impact on others was far-reaching. He was a good person. And, that is the leadership quality that matters most. Thank you, Eric, for all you taught me. Taught us. Teach us. Rest in peace, my friend.

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