When I got my first school administrator job as an assistant principal, a veteran principal offered me the following advice: Don’t get close to any of the staff, keep them at arm’s length, and only connect with your office manager and guidance counselor. In other words, stay distant and detached.
Needless to say, this is NOT the advice I would give to any first-year principal.
After six years as an assistant principal, 12 years as a building principal, and many more years of mentoring first-year principals, here are the best pieces of advice I’ve found for making your first years as a principal a success.
Listen and Learn
Chances are, you’ll begin your job in the summer, before most teachers and staff return to school. This time gives you an opportunity to get to know your office and custodial staff, who are usually in the building over the summer. Custodians will be able to tell you all about the building, its needs, and their recommendations for improvement.
Your office staff will be able to offer you similar help. They can tell you what’s working and why, and can offer suggestions for improvement. As you talk to them, it will be tempting to make rash promises, but at this stage, the most important thing you can do is listen and learn.
As teachers and support staff return, it’s important to meet with them both in groups (large and small) and as individuals (every single person). Here are some questions you might ask during your meetings:
- What do you think are the strengths of our school?
- What role do you think you play in helping students succeed?
- What suggestions do you have to improve the school? To improve your particular job?
- What advice do you have for me?
As your staff shares their answers, take notes about what you see and hear. Look for trends in the responses as well as outliers. Sometimes that one unique response might shed light on a hidden insight.
Listening is essential—but so is sharing your thoughts about what you hope to do in your first year. Keep your message simple and consistent. That way, when teachers talk about their experiences with you, they all will have heard (and will repeat) the same message.
Be Seen; Be Approachable
As school gets started, make sure you’re visible everywhere, every single day. Be in classrooms, be in the cafeteria, be on the bus dock, be at car drop-off, be in hallways, and be at school events.
Once, I was asked to fill an interim position at a neighboring school. I was immediately received with caution: lots of tight smiles, strained body language, and guarded speech. Here are some strategies that I found can help “thaw” reserved reactions when you enter a new role:
- Visit every classroom in the first week. This includes special education resource rooms! The visits don’t have to be a big production. You can just stop by for 5 to 10 minutes, say hi to students, and observe quietly.
- Leave encouraging notes after your visits. Whenever I visited a classroom (in the first week and beyond), I took a pad of small Post-It Notes with me. Before I left, I wrote a quick two sentences thanking teachers for what they do and sharing one positive thing I observed about their instruction. I quietly stuck the note on the teacher’s desk as I left. As you might guess, word spread like wildfire as teachers asked each other, “Did you get a note?!”
- Help out around the school. Whether it’s helping the custodian sweep the cafeteria during lunch or holding doors open for students and parents, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re not above any job. Try to show your community in tangible ways that you’re invested in seeing the school run well, from the smallest to the largest task.
- Make yourself available to ALL staff. Show your staff that you value them and that your door is open to them. You can prove your commitment by going into their space, asking questions, and listening. For example, early in the school year, I visited the school kitchen to introduce myself and ask the cafeteria staff about their jobs. Their jaws dropped! No one had ever done that before.
- Build authentic relationships. It’s important that your staff knows you appreciate them as people, not just educators. Get to know them by asking about their families, their pets, their hobbies, and their dreams. By doing so, you will begin to build relationships. Relationships lead to creating a positive school culture where people feel valued.
Fix the Small Things; Wait on the Big Things
Once at a new principal seminar, one of the speakers gave some simple advice that has stuck with me for years: Don’t pass up the opportunity to fix the small things. He gave the example of a lunch monitor complaining that students constantly got up from their seats to get ketchup packets, straws, napkins, etc. He responded by getting baskets for each table and filling them with these items. You would have thought he found the cure for cancer!
Making quick, easy fixes to everyday problems will show that you are listening and willing to take steps to address concerns. But when it comes to big issues—toxic cultures, lack of instructional focus, assessment or curriculum issues, home–school communication (to name a few)—take your time. Listen, gather data, learn, and wait. The big issues require a long-term approach, and you’ll be able to address them better after you have connected with people and begun to build trust.
Don’t Mess with Traditions
As I write this, I am wearing a T-shirt that mirrors a mural that I painted on the brand-new school that I had the privilege to open. It says: “Let the tradition begin!”
Schools identify through their unique traditions. Traditions define a school, they bring predictability and celebration, and they foster a feeling of togetherness. Don’t change them or it will be career suicide! They existed long before you appeared on the scene. You can, of course, add new traditions—as long as you continue to celebrate the existing ones.
Give It Time—and Patience
As eager as you may be to change things, be patient. Hopefully, you are at your school for the long haul. You will naturally see “baggage” that has been left for you to address. Stay enthusiastic, and know that you have years to tackle school improvement. Mistakes are inevitable, so give yourself grace. Learn from missteps and focus on your success. It’s a hard job, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. You can do it.