PMP:103 Standing Back Up When You Feel Knocked Down

Last Sunday my family and I were watching the Winter Olympics when the men’s 30km Skiathlon began.

Photo by Charles Deluvio – Creative Commons No known copyright restrictions

As the race started, Norway’s Simen Krueger fell. Snow was flying all around him as two other skiers and he crumbled into one another. As the other racers left them behind, Simen scrambled back on his feet. His pole was broken, and he was in last place.

But Krueger was not finished. He replaced his pole and began a cadence that helped him advance toward the other racers. Over the next hour, he passed 63 other skiers to push his way to the front of the race. 1 hour, 16 minutes, and 20 seconds later, he crossed the finish line, raising his hands in the air and beaming with joy and relief. He had won the gold.

When interviewed Krueger later, he was asked what was going through his mind after his fall. He said: “I thought it was going to be the worst day of my life with the start I had, when I was lying on the ground with a broken pole and a ski through my bib number.” He continued, “I was completely last in the group so I had to start the race again and switch focus to catch up with the guys.”

Krueger had to “switch focus”

I don’t know what kind of day or week you’re having. You may be experiencing lots of wins or you may feel like you’ve had the wind knocked out of you. It is safe to say those around you are experiencing a mix of ups and downs too. Whatever season you’re in, you will inevitably hit times that are harder than others. And when you do, it’s important that you know how to switch your focus.

Let me give you some examples:

Recently, I spent the day at my state capitol advocating for a bill that would provide teachers with a much-needed pay raise. Lawmakers had been convened in a special session to address a state budget shortfall from the previous year. Oklahoma has had almost of a decade of declining funding for public schools. Hundreds of teachers and educators had come to rally around a proposed bill and Representatives were meeting to debate.

At the end of the day, the proposal fell short of the votes it needed. It was a long and disappointing day for the educators who had come to voice their concerns. On my way home from the capitol, one of my former teachers sent me a text that said, “So we didn’t the raise?” That text said it all.

I know this teacher, like thousands of others across our state, feels unappreciated and disrespected by a state government that is failing to adequately fund its schools. As I went to bed that night, I couldn’t think of anything encouraging to say. I was angry, disappointed and discouraged.

The next morning, I was thinking back to other times when I’ve felt emotionally knocked down. And then I thought of Simen Krueger. Could I decide to shift my focus?

I thought back to one day as principal when I felt knocked down. I had ended a school day with a phone call from an angry parent. She was upset with a decision some teachers had made for a club her son attended. As I listened and tried to give her feedback, she kept blaming the teachers for her son’s predicament. And I knew she had not heard both sides of the story. I asked her to please give these teachers the benefit of the doubt until she had the opportunity to talk to them directly about her child’s experience and concerns.

“Oh, that’s so cute,” she said sarcastically. “Give them the benefit of the doubt? I don’t think so, Mr. Parker.” Sadly, the conversation went downhill from there. It ended when I told her we would simply have to agree to disagree till she had spoken to the teachers directly.

A week or so later, I saw this same parent at a school assembly. She apologized. As I expected, when she spoke to the teachers and heard their side of the story, she realized they had been right all along. But on the day when she was angry and yelling on the phone, I didn’t have the luxury of knowing she’d someday apologize. I remember hanging up the phone feeling frustrated and angry.

I as I sat at my desk that day, I was stewing for a few minutes, and then remembered that I needed to edit our school’s weekly newsletter. And that’s when I knew I had an opportunity to turn my frustration into something positive.

As I worked on the newsletter, I decided to include extra photos of students. I highlighted our students of month. I included photos from our Future Farmers of America and their recent stock show. I bragged on our track runners. I listed the various lessons I had seen teachers covering from the past week. I mentioned the opportunities and upcoming events.

When I finished, I was no longer lingering in the stale after-taste of a bad phone call; instead, I felt empowered. I scheduled the newsletter to be sent that evening to more than 800 parents who subscribed to our updates. I left school having reminded myself and our entire school community why their school is an amazing place for students.

I had shifted my focus.

I don’t know what challenges you may be facing this week. In school leadership, it is easy to feel beat up by the situations you simply cannot control. But if the bad moments become the basis for how you feel about your leadership, then you will find yourself consistently frustrated and angry. Shifting your focus allows you to keep your mind on what your teachers and students still need most from you.

Here are three actions to keep in mind for shifting your focus:

1. Get back up.

Choosing positivity doesn’t mean you don’t need time to vent or seek encouragement from teammates or friends. But you do have a choice in the midst of challenge. Whatever challenge you may be facing, ask yourself, “What is one action I can take to still move forward in this situation?” Then take that action. Leading and serving others always involves risk. If there was no risk, then there would be no satisfaction later in accomplishing goals.

Last year when I was writing the book Messaging Matters, I often faced days where my school schedule gave me little time to edit and write. But I would remind myself that even a few minutes of writing meant I was that much closer to reaching my goals. No matter what outcomes you cannot control, you still have other areas you can influence. Put your focus there.

2. Choose to win even when you’re losing.

One of the traits I admire most in athletes (or others in history who overcome challenges) is their commitment to perseverance. Some people call it “having heart.” Whatever you call it, the difference between those who accomplish great goals and those who don’t is not just attitude. It is also courageous action. And action begins with a choice.

Ask yourself: what are positive steps I can take to keep moving forward even when discouraged by immediate results? Perhaps that is spending time in a classroom so you can be a part of learning with students. Maybe it is being mindful of the games or activities where your students are competing. Focus on those areas of your school where others are experiencing joy or success, and then share those stories with others.

3. Make a difference right where you are.

In schools, you are often affected by the systems you inherit. You may be facing conflicting federal mandates, lack of state funding, or poor community participation. Let me share some perspective. You cannot wait for the systems to change in order to make a difference where you are.

Teacher shortage in my state has made it nearly impossible for some schools to find advanced mathematics teachers for many openings. When I was searching for highly qualified teachers, I often felt like throwing up my hands in despair. Instead I asked myself, “What can I control?”

I decided I could leverage social media as a tool for outreach. So, I began to advertise via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I began offering candidates the option of interviewing via video-chats. I used every available option to make a difference wherever I could. And as a result, I found highly qualified teachers.

No matter what kind of challenges you face, you still have the choice to keep standing up. You have the choice to take whatever positive actions that are still in your power. And you have the ability to make a difference where you can.
Let me give you another example of shifting focus.

A few years ago, we had second language students enrolling in our high school who were newly arrived to the states. Unfortunately, none of our teachers were trained in teaching English Language learners. These students needed more than attention than their regular education instructors could provide. They also needed intense individualization in language learning.

My fear was that these students would “fall through the cracks” of in our current system. But what could I do in a district without qualified second language instructors?

I talked to my admin team and school counselors, and we began making phone calls. There were two universities in Tulsa that supported language acquisition programs for learners seeking university enrollment. In a series of conversations, we discovered two language tutors with experience who had been working with international students at these universities.

I then made a proposal to our superintendent to hire one of them on a part-time basis to provide intensive language support as well as work as a liaison with the students’ regular education teachers. He agreed to present the proposal to our school board, and they approved it. This partnership gave us the opportunity to tailor these students’ schedules and provide them support throughout their high school years.

Last year, one of those students graduated from our high school. After the graduation ceremony, my family and I went to eat at a nearby restaurant. It was raining outside, and I had dropped my family at the door and made my way in from the parking lot with my umbrella in hand. As I was shaking off the rain, I looked up and saw this student coming in the restaurant still wearing his graduation gown. He was with his father and mother. His mother did not speak English, but his father did.

As we brushed off the rain together, his father came over to me. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. His face was beaming with pride and his eyes were glistening as he said, “Mr. Parker, I wanted to tell you how much I love this school and community. I love them because they have given my son a special gift. They have given him the gift of opportunity.”

When I stood there shaking his hand, I thought how my teachers and I could have looked at the lack of funding and shrugged our shoulders. We could have thrown our hands up in despair at the unfairness and inequity of our political system. But we shifted our focus. There may have been other goals we failed to reach. But at this moment, we had something to celebrate.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Minda Zetlin, writer for, put it like this when summarizing Sime Krueger’s Olympic race: “That’s the key to Krueger’s success. Instead of fretting over his lost position in the race or the daunting task ahead, he switched focus. All he had to do, at that moment, was find it in himself to catch up to the rest of the pack.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. This week I will be back at our state capitol asking for change. I will still write and call legislators asking them to support our schools and adequately fund education. And I will continue to be creative and innovative even in the face of inequity.

I’m also not suggesting that change is easy or that switching our focus always means we win. But I do believe that we always have a choice. And those whom we serve deserve for us to constantly switch our focus back to what’s best for them.

Now It’s Your Turn

What is one challenge you are facing right now where you may need to switch your focus? What is one success happening in your school that can be celebrated and shared? What is one way you can reach out to your community with stories of student or teacher wins? How can you keep moving forward today in creative, innovative ways?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker