The job of the principal in the school building is to know things. I need to know what’s going on in the classrooms of the school, but also in the lunchrooms, and the hallways, and on the athletic fields, not to mention the locker rooms (oy… the locker rooms). Curiously, I’m also expected to know what’s happening in the boiler room and that room with all the electric wires. For the record, I know where these rooms are but I rely on our incredible Head Custodian, Mr. Mandrachia, to tell me the deal with boilers and circuit breakers. What makes this role both uniquely challenging and exciting is the diversity of people and processes with which you engage every day. It’s a lot to know about.
However, when you are a school leader or any kind of leader, you must recognize that there are times when the only appropriate answer to a question is, “I don’t know.” At times of crisis such as we are experiencing now, this is ever more critical. Folks are willing to give you trust based on the accuracy of the messages you relay, yet providing reliable information has never been more challenging. Even scientists are having to admit there’s a great deal they don’t know about the virus at the center of the pandemic. Every week the shape of coronavirus symptoms seems to change. First, it was respiratory impacts, kidney failure soon emerged as a common impact, then cardiac arrest, and this past weekend there was an article about “COVID-19 Toe”. This is not the kind of shifting fact pattern we are accustomed to from science. In this context, how can a humble middle school principal be expected to transmit correct information to his staff and to families? It’s critically important for those in positions of leadership to ensure precision of information, or, lacking this certainty, to admit they do not know.
Over the past eight weeks, I have said “I don’t know” in a professional context more often than I have uttered these words in my entire career. And I better get used to it. I watched Governor Cuomo’s news conference when he closed school buildings for the year. I thought his decision would answer the big question. But it took scarcely a beat for reporters to ask: What about Graduation? Prom? Grades? Summer school? What about September?
Leaders can become more comfortable saying, “I don’t know”; but can the rest of us get used to hearing it?