Becoming the new principal — Getting out of my comfort zone.

“The biggest rewards in life are found outside of your comfort zone. Live with it. Fear and risk are prerequisites if you want to enjoy a life of success and adventure.” — Jack Canfield

Have you ever had to get out of your comfort zone? Have you been at a place in life where it was time to move or move on? For me, it was leaving my hometown to become the principal of Rancho Las Positas in Livermore. I am a bit of a historian in what I call my hometown of Brentwood. I know many people in the town of Brentwood having lived here for over 40 years; I knew maybe 10 people that lived in Livermore just 20 miles away. I had made a promise in the Rancho principal interview to build relationships and get to know the community quickly. I took an idea from two educational leaders that I admire and set out to do block walks. You read that correctly, I was going to knock on the door of every student and introduce myself. I got a map and the address of every student at Rancho from the office team of Carolyn and Sheila. I sorted the list by the street. I set out a plan, made a brochure and started out to my first house. My goal was to learn more about the community and get to know families and help them get to know me. 

My heart pounded. I had always relied on the fact that I probably knew someone or knew a sibling that I went to school with when I talked to parents; something to build a connection from. In Livermore, I was most likely unknown. I knocked on my first door and no one answered, so I quickly attached a door hanger to the front doorknob, and went to the next house. In the door hanger was a letter from me introducing myself, my business card and a list of upcoming events at our school. 

I walked from home to home. After eight homes someone finally answered. The mom was confused, I tried to explain, they said “nice to meet you”, closed the door and I left. It was anticlimactic; we both were taken aback. What stranger knocks on your door? Salespeople, someone new to the community, religious groups, and trick or treaters. Right? I did not fit into those groups and it was July. I knew I had about ten seconds to make my intentions known and not sound like one of these groups. I regrouped and went to the next home. I worked on my opener. It was like a 2-minute elevator speech. I had to get across who I was, why I was knocking on their door, how they can contact me and answer any of their questions, all the while staying focused on my goal of being recognizable when they came to Rancho, build trust and form a relationship. 

Within a few homes I got into a rhythm and the conversations became less awkward. Several homes stand out. A mom answered the door, baby, on her hip and an incoming kinder peeking out from behind her leg. Mom was very kind, but clearly, this was not a good moment as the baby only stopped crying to see who this guy was at the door. I didn’t want to keep her. She was incredibly gracious, and also in shock. I thanked her and handed her the brochure and my card. She thanked me and told her daughter to “say bye to your new principal.” As I proceeded to walk back down the street to my car I heard a loud male voice say “that’s what I am talking about”. I turned not knowing what to expect. This tall young dad says it again: “that’s what I am talking about”. I answered, “how’s that?”  “My kids principal shows up at my house to introduce himself? Man, that’s just awesome.” I don’t think I could smile bigger. We talked for a while in the middle of the street. He was a nice man and it was his first time sending a child to school. They were excited and nervous. I reassured him told him to call me any time. We shook hands, and I headed off to the next house. Fast forward to the first day of school, he was my new best friend. In fact, every time I saw him we shook hands and he referred me back to that day. I distinctly remember him calling me with some concerns one day. We talked through things and he said he would trust me and the process. It all tied back to the first encounter. I never took that trust for granted or his support.

As I proceeded on my journey going from home to home, I had to keep the conversations brief if I was going to get to the 400 plus homes of the 563 students that attended Rancho. As I walked up to another house, what appeared to be a dad was on the phone as he stood in front of his garage. He was in a dress shirt and clearly it was a business call. It was awkward but I did not want to walk on; this was the last house on the street. I chose to stay and wait at the curb. He looked annoyed and clearly thought I was there to sell something. He hung up and I quickly introduced myself and explained my visit. He remained annoyed. I quickly restated who I was and why I was there. “Wait, you are who?” I smiled and restated “I am Chris Calabrese the new principal of Rancho Elementary school. I am going out introducing myself to families”. He smiled and was in a bit of shock. He asked again, “You are doing what?” We chatted a bit and, as I started to leave, he stopped me. “Wait I need to introduce you to my wife, who practically lives at Rancho.” Against my original ground rules, I went into their home and stayed for about 30 minutes. I met his wife, who was a Rancho alumnus. I chatted and heard stories about the school, concerns, and answered questions. I met their daughters and heard how awesome the school was. They were excited to meet me and I was excited to hear all about the school. We later had moments where we would disagree but at the end of the day, there was trust and a common bond. I also learned they would do anything for their school; they loved Rancho. 

There were many other funny and endearing moments throughout the block walks from the dog that would not stop licking my shoes, the dad that wanted to talk to me about the swings that had been removed two years prior to the PTA mom’s birthday party that I walked in on complete with a full bar. A few of the guests were staff members. They awkwardly pushed their drinks in front of their friends. It was really quite funny. The generosity abounded from home to home as I was offered water, soda, a beer, pizza, tamales, and tri-tip sandwiches. I think I was even offered to go for a swim in a pool. 

It became very evident to me that this little community within Livermore loved their elementary school and really would do anything to support it. Three years later that devotion and love for Rancho would be called upon as we built a running track. Along with many other projects around the school, the Rancho school community fully supported the school. Parents gave financially to support reading programs and counseling programs. They gave hundreds of volunteer hours in support of their children’s school. As a result, along with staff, parents provided services to support students’ academic, physical and social well being. 

Although it was uncomfortable to knock on doors and block walk for three weeks, I was not in my comfort zone until the conversation began. It was without a doubt one of the most rewarding events I have ever experienced in my career. The connections and relationships built would prove to be invaluable. Parents saw I truly cared. For me it filled the piece I was missing leaving my hometown; it provided me with a deep sense of community. I learned stories, I heard amazing things about the staff and the school events that were deeply rooted in tradition. Most of all, I saw the love parents had for their children and how that love represented itself in their care for their child’s education. 

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships” Stephan Covey

I tell this story to reinforce the importance of building relationships with parents. Educators make a difference in students’ lives. When we partner with parents and really get to know them the trust and relationship is so much deeper. The relationship between home and school is important and cannot be full of assumptions. As parents, we bring 13 years of a k-12 education with us every time we talk to a teacher or walk on to a school campus; our experiences color the lens we see our child’s education through. As educators, we do the same when we compare or label families and create assumptions based on our own experiences. Assumptions about parents, children or experiences cloud communication and prevent a trusting relationship. When I had a meeting with a parent and I had already been to their house, I did not have to make assumptions. I had a pretty good sense of the relationship and needs. I am not saying all educators need to do home visits. What I am saying is when we take time to get to know our student’s parents it makes for stronger relationships and stronger outcomes.  Raising kids is not only hard work it must be done thoughtfully. When we have good communication between home and school it fosters that thoughtful dialogue and it builds trust. Parents love their kids and they want the best for them. When parents knew I cared about their child they were more willing to partner with me. Home visits are fantastic, but phone calls, conferences, chats on the blacktop are all good, too. Slowing down and listening to one another about the one thing that is important to us, our students….that’s what we need.

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris