“I never saw her without a smile.” ~ Aimee S., mother of a Sandy Hook first grader

I didn’t know Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung. I didn’t follow her on Twitter and I never had the pleasure of connecting with her. But when I saw one of the first photos of her on CNN and heard of her passing last Friday, I could not get her off my mind.

I was born into a family of educators. As a result I decided when I was 13 years old, that I wanted to be a teacher. During the course of my time in the classroom, I began to think a lot about the work that my Dad and Uncle were doing as they were both career school principals. I admired their global perspective and that they had big visions for their schools and their work. So it was in my second year of teaching that I decided that I wanted to become the first female principal in my family. Years later, I was fortunate to spend 14 years as a school principal. As a result, the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday, particularly the heroism of their principal, touched me very deeply.

The Role of the Principal is Challenging

The job of the school principal is one of the most difficult in the country. For that matter, in the world.

I know that, Dawn knew this first hand.  

As a principal, at least here in the US, you are responsible for everything that goes on, in your school. Every child, teacher and staff member, is YOUR responsibility. There is an expectation that YOU that one, single person, must give time to all things that matter such as working with students, meeting with parents, and attending school events. Add to that the need to know and support curriculum standards, analyze on-going assessments, evaluate staff, maintain policies and procedures and ensure campus safety.

I know that Dawn did all these things…and more.

The role of principal that Dawn choose to take on with determination, enthusiasm, and passion is truly challenging. But all that and much more is what it takes to be a good leader. And by all accounts, Dawn Hochsprung was an amazing leader. The role of the principal is complex, particularly in relation to support for teachers. But one thing is clear: teachers are depending on their principal to let them know what the expectations are and to support them to get there in their work with their students.

I know that Dawn knew this and had a heart for it.

How do I know? I know because I’ve taken the time to listen. I’ve listened to news reports, and listened to intimate interviews. I know because I’ve shed many tears watching the news media attempting to do their best to show us who the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary was and how she shined in the eyes of her staff and her precious students. I know because of my social media collaborations, particularly on Twitter, where she frequently shared the activities at her school, with her personal learning network, always with great pride.

As I both listened and watched her story unfold, I have been deeply moved by all the incredible things that have been shared about Dawn Hochsprung. But on a deeper level, in a way that the media can’t share, I know she knew the complexities of this work called the principalship…because I have listened to my own heart and like Dawn, I have done many of the same things in my career. And even though Dawn and I never met we shared a kinship for the work that being a principal requires which runs deep especially, in my humble opinion, when you’re a wife and a Mom.

The Role of the Principal in Supporting Teachers

A few months ago, on New Teacher Chat, we had a conversation with teachers on the topic of “How should a principal support a new teacher?”. It became very clear that many teachers were struggling with the role a principal plays in this work.

I know Dawn would have been eager to participate in this chat. She would have enjoyed it and been a tremendous asset to all those that were there that night.

It was clear in this dynamic hour of discussion that there is still much work to be done in this area as well as ongoing dialog on this topic at our school sites. In addition to that, experienced and new teachers must build relationships with their school leaders, who can then support them through the roller coaster of those first years of teaching and beyond.

I know Dawn had close relationships…Not only with her new teachers, but all the teachers in her care. I’m also certain that she believed in the power of strong relationships and their ability to unite a school community.

If Dawn had joined us in this chat, I’m certain that she would have shared her insights and felt as I do that school principals who are working to be supportive leaders must ask their new and experienced teachers what they need to support their work and then do their best to provide it. I’m also certain that Dawn would have felt that we still need more leaders who are consistently taking the time, in their complex and challenging days as a school principal, to offer meaningful, practical, hands-on support to their teachers so that they and their students can be successful. Work that Dawn eagerly embraced, everyday.

I didn’t really know Dawn Hochsprung, but because of the time she took to publicly share the beautiful legacy of her work with the Sandy Hook teachers, staff, students and parents…I feel as though I did know her as a colleague and I will most certainly never forget her. I won’t forget her selfless act of courage to protect the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, or her determination to want to have her school be the most successful learning community it could be.

Most importantly…I will never forget her smile.

photo credit: Dawn Hochsprung

photo credit: @DHochsprung

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