• Lori Harvie

Are you a Thermometer or Thermostat?

Passing Comment and a Lightbulb Moment?

Jocelynn has it together. She runs a very tight ship and yet she keeps the school office calm and friendly. The manner in which she smoothly switches from completing several tasks--seemingly simultaneously--to sharing her kind and authentic voice on the phone often leaves her principal, Adrienne, in awe as she watches from her office.

On this particular day, Adrienne has company and it is Jocelynn who is doing the watching. Adrienne is going through her performance review with her superintendent and Jocelynn is cheering for her, as they have developed a wonderful working relationship over the past few years and Adrienne is every bit as grateful for their collaboration as is her boss.

Good sign; everyone is smiling.

With one foot still in Adrienne’s office and the other greeting Jocelynn's territory, the superintendent leaves with a friendly laugh and says,, “I’ll check in with you in couple months to talk more about thermometers and thermostats.”

Adrienne smiles and, as soon as they are alone, she offers Jocelynn two thumbs up. Jocelynn responds with, “Great! I knew it would go well. What’s the thermostat thing?”

After learning this is a popular leadership metaphor that contrasts the reactive, temperature-taking of the thermometer with the proactive temperature-setting power of the thermostat, Jocelynn thinks, “oh, I like this one.” She revisits this thought later that evening, has a bit of a lightbulb moment right before bed, and greets Adrienne excitedly the next morning.

“If you are going to work on being a thermostat, then I am, too. I’ll keep being the thermometer--you know, let you know when Mr. Johnson is cranky about report cards, or when the phone is heating up. But I can do even more if you need a hand. Every building needs multiple thermostats right?”

Just when Adrienne didn’t think she could have it any better with her front office, she’s greeted with this gem!

Don’t Devalue the Thermometer

One of the most common pieces of advice offered to a new administrator is to build a good relationship with the eyes and ears of the school to keep tabs on the environment. Caretakers, lunch room personnel, and bus drivers are certainly invaluable thermometers, with eyes and ears in places that most other staff rarely venture.

Parents, staff, and students often have meaningful chats within earshot of a school secretary. Emotional intelligence and active listening are certainly valuable in a school environment with thousands of interactions happening organically every day; the ability to identify those who are upset, worried, or confused can be passed along quickly and professionally.

Thermometers are very valuable, but sometimes we can do more than simply pass on our observations.

Thermostat is the Ideal

The thermometer reacts to information but doesn’t impact the temperature of the room. The thermostat sets the temperature of the environment. The temperature may still fluctuate, but the thermostat acts and establishes expectations and processes information to allow systems to kick in automatically.

These little devices are part of a much larger system, and are often hidden in plain sight. Like an effective official in any sporting contest, most often the thermostat’s influence goes largely unnoticed.

Simple Ways to Set the Temperature

  1. Always choose a kind voice. Most often people don’t call or drop in without some level of elevated stress, whether a child is sick at home or there’s an issue that has them upset.

  2. Let people know your expectations, in a kind and firm manner. For example, if paperwork is incorrect or there is a certain place you expect people to place papers, give a kind correction and teach people to follow your procedures. The preparedness, consistency, and kind voice are all prerequisites to putting out small fires before they take on a life of their own.

These seemingly small, but key habits require much practice. Consistency leads to small successes that accumulate, creating order and allowing you more time to be the positive face of the school with friendly eye contact, big smiles, and a kind voice.

The Warm Front

Is Jocelynn a thermometer or a thermostat? There’s no doubt she is both, regularly communicating the temperature of the school and creating the warm front that allows students, staff and parents to be part of an incredible school climate.


Canada ~ Lloydminster ~ Alberta

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