The phrase “a hill to die on” is the idea that the battle you are facing could cost you everything. This metaphor may have originated from the Viet Nam War and the Battle of Hamburger Hill when many lives were lost, but it seemed to be a position of little strategic significance.
"What makes this battle so significant is that the hill was of little strategic value, which was proven by the fact that it was abandoned by the US forces two weeks later. But more significant is the fact that the fall-out from this battle back home forced the Nixon administration to order the end of major tactical ground operations in Vietnam. So in a sense the hill and the battle were won while at the same time losing the war!"
As a first-year principal, I remember often saying “that’s not a hill to die on for me.” Essentially, I was trying to communicate that the things my staff members were asking about weren’t a battle worth risking everything for in my opinion. My mindset was if it doesn’t matter, why not let someone else win. Whether schedules or teaching resources, these weren’t the things that really mattered and so if it allowed for some power and control. It was worth it to me to let them have that satisfaction of choice.
However, at some point, I realized I hadn’t established the hills I was ready to defend. Establishing your hills actually takes more work as a leader. It involves picking the things that really matter, and you will never give in when they are in question. Choosing is critically important because one can’t defend every position, or you spread yourself too thin. As a leader, determining your “hills” is probably one of the most important things, you will do in establishing your campus culture and eventually your legacy.
It was probably during my third year as a campus principal I could finally articulate my ‘hills.’ First, no matter what, I wanted to make sure every decision made on my campus was what was best for kids. Sometimes this wasn’t what was easiest for adults, but it was always what was best for kids. After all, in a school, children are our entire reason for existence. I think I knew this one from the time I entered education. It is simply our purpose.
My second hill took longer to determine, but now it is so easy to stand behind. EVERYONE grows. From our students to teachers, to parents to me. We all grow. If you can’t grow, how in the world can you teach others to grow? I personally don’t care how fast you are growing as long as you do. Sometimes, the person the furthest behind grows the fastest because they have the most room. Sometimes, you may have a rock star who thinks they’ve reached the finish line. I will take the person who grows over someone who is stagnant any day. Ultimately, you can’t teach someone to learn and grow if you aren’t an expert in a growth mindset and constantly this skill yourself.
My third hill is advocacy. With public education under attack today, I believe public educators must stand up for their school, their district, and public education as a whole. We have an important job. It is the job that makes all other jobs possible. We can prepare our students to be better at collaboration, communication, and problem-solving than the generations before us. We can teach them to value those that are different from themselves and live in harmony. It does not mean that public education is perfect, but it does mean that it is vital. We cannot afford to allow others to spread misconceptions and false information about what we do, and we certainly cannot be thesource of such detriment.
I do believe you cannot defend every hill. Outside of these three things, every other decision I encounter means considering how that decision impacts these three priorities. If it does matter, I let it go. A while ago, I encountered a colleague where everything was a big deal. Everything had to be a battle. It was hard to support her, but because it was exhausting. I think if you try to defend everything, you just end up losing it all. It is impossible to feel that passionate on every battle, so you end up just expending all your resources. People aren’t willing to continually risk what they have if you ask them to take risks for things that don’t matter. Be strategic. Defend the important hills, but choose wisely.