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Advice to a New Principal

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Kim, an educator in the rural Southeast, recently accepted a principal’s job at a small K-3 school. Her first impulse was to turn to her virtual colleagues in the Teacher Leaders Network Forum for teacherly advice.

What, Kim asked, would teacher leaders like to say to a first-time principal coming to their school? “What do y’all wish I would know, do, think about, or act upon as a new principal? Pick any verb you like.”

The common themes that emerged won’t surprise teachers, but perhaps they’ll inspire some current and future principals.

Cindi, a 20-year veteran, replied:

As a classroom teacher, I have always wanted a new administrator to come in and have a personal meeting with each person on staff. I wanted to hear questions like...

• What is going right in this school?

• What could be improved?

• What do you want me to know about you?

It's never happened, but I have always yearned to answer those questions. I had a principal once who came in the middle of the year. He called the first faculty meeting and said, "These are your non-negotiables." (He handed us a list.) "You will not be late for work. You will not leave early," etc. Needless to say, the morale dipped a great deal that year.

So, Kim, since you have asked, I’ll share some of what I’ve been saving up.

Celebrate the staff in a genuine way. The nice note in my box on a random Thursday meant more than the time I won the "Gold Star Award" because it was "my turn."

Be accessible. Sometimes teachers, staff members, and parents just need to be heard. My current principal brings his stuffed monkey to our faculty retreat. He tells us that we can bring our monkeys to his office, too. He'll talk about our monkey and he'll pet our monkey, but when we leave, we have to take our monkey with us. He has his own monkey. It's a big joke sometimes I'll go to his office door and say, "Can I bring my monkey in here a minute?" We all have monkeys on our backs, but I think my principal's way of dealing with them is great.

Keep expectations communicated and clear. I'll never forget the time I got in trouble because I didn't close my classroom blinds at night. I didn't even know I was supposed to close them. Sometimes people get busy and need reminding, but I like to at least know that I was given explicit instructions for what my administrators are looking for.

Believe me, Kim, I could write a book, but I'll start with these few. Good luck and congratulations again.

Joanie in Virginia wrote:

I am just finishing up my first year as an assistant principal (after 23 years as a teacher/reading specialist) in a K-7 rural school. As I look back, here are some verbs I’m accumulating:

• Learn the culture in and out of the building.

• Help introduce anything glaring that is missing (in our case, we needed a PTO).

• Reduce discipline issues with the staff.

• Focus on good and engaging instruction by doing lots of observations and/or modeled lessons; informally and formally.

Carol in North Carolina extended the list:

• Listen before you speak and request extended think-time if needed before responding.

• Know the learning expectations of your students and support teachers to address them in appropriate ways.

Then Gail wrote:

Congratulations, Kim. I'm sure you'll get a lot of wonderful advice from the many great minds that populate this virtual community. After working for a year as an instructional coach, I've had the opportunity to be a sort of bridge between teachers and administration. So my top suggestion is to listen to what your teachers have to say.

Provide teachers with an opportunity to consider options and voice their opinions with an expectation that you'll take their thinking into consideration as you make decisions that incorporate a wider horizon than they each see in their individual classrooms.

Two pieces of advice from my former principal that her mentor once shared with her, and she swears have served her well:

1. Assume positive intentions. And its corollary: Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to ignorance. When confronted with a situation that seems ridiculous or outrageous to you, before jumping down someone's throat, ask "why" the person chose to do whatever it is. Sometimes there is actually a logical, reasonable answer.

2. When you are really, really angry with someone, wait 24 hours, if possible, before speaking privately with him/her about the issue. You may have to take immediate action to resolve the issue, but cool off before discussing it with the party or parties involved.

Karen in Indiana wrote:

Kim, remember that you are still an educator! Your “students” are the teachers you are working with. If you find some are unmotivated, just like students, explore the same strategies (i.e., find interests, concerns, etc.) that you would have used in a classroom. If someone is struggling, offer extra help. If one way of approaching a topic doesn't work, try a new way. Most importantly, remember that they are deserving of your respect. Have a great time leading them to success.

Ellen in California echoed Karen’s key point:

Leading teachers is not so very different from leading children. The longer I teach, the more I see relationships as the key ingredient in any leadership situation.

Get to know your teachers and other staff, their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and viewpoints. Get to know them like you get to know your kids, and then, gently, help them grow. We cannot come in with our predetermined agenda because we don't know what the kids (teachers) in front of us need until we get to know them.

Becky from Tennessee wrote:

One of the best traits of my all-time favorite instructional leader was her faith in her teachers to be professional and do what is right for children. Any time we wanted to take a teaching risk, she would remind us to reflect upon the question, "Is it right for the children?"

She took the time to get to know each of her teachers on a personal and professional level. She respected us and we respected her. When we made mistakes, she was kind enough to target the error and not the person. Need I say that I, as well as many others, shed a lot of tears when she retired.

Catherine in Florida wrote:

My suggestions come, unfortunately, from the negative examples I have been offered recently.

• Begin by being an observer. Don't fall into the trap of many principals who want to "take control" and "show who's boss."

• Try to meet with every staff member or at least every department or team, to find out what the major concerns are. Also, meet with the school climate committee and the PTA to get their input. Once you have some consensus about concerns, prioritize and deal with the most severe problems first.

• If you make any major changes, make sure that the teachers, staff and parents are behind you. While 3rd graders are a little young to meet as a student council, the upside of this age group is that they will tell you exactly what they think, if you ask them.

• I appreciate seeing the principal out on the corridors and in the classrooms. Also, an open door policy makes the staff and parents comfortable with bringing issues directly to you rather than starting a whispering campaign. Identify teacher leaders in your school and work with them to monitor how your policies are working out.

Mary W., who teaches in a rural high school under state sanctions, wrote:

After having several principals that were not effective leaders, we are currently honored with one that is really trying to help change the culture and climate of our school.

I appreciate his early morning visibility and constant presence in the hallways every class period. He stands during all three lunches while we sit and enjoy our 30-minute meal. He writes personal notes when you do an excellent job on a project; he is open to suggestions that are results-oriented, and he chides negativity for negativity’s sake.

He keeps to the middle of the road and even if he has favorites, his choices are based on performance, not personality. In staff meetings, he does not preach, he shares. He has a sense of humor and attends most after-school functions.

He always greets you, and when he evaluates your instructional delivery, he stays the full 90 minutes. He actually reads over your plans to check for evidence of quality instruction, multiple tracks of learning, and assessment within your plans.

He learns the students’ names and jokes with them on their way to class or at lunch. At the same time he is firm and does not think twice about taking real troublemakers to our nearby town in handcuffs. He allows for flexibility some times in the teaching schedule to let kids display their talents, even in the midst of teachers complaining about instructional time lost. We are in a rural setting, so he realizes that for some students, school is the center of their total existence when it comes to cultural diversity and showcasing talents.

He reads a lot of different research and shares it with staff; he strives to establish some form of professional learning community in a school that knows very little about how it works. He meets with various groups repeatedly and has a 100% attendance rate except when he is at a workshop.

I have a different attitude about working for this principal because he actually notices how hard I work and lets me know that he sees what I do. He meets with every department to ask, what can I do to help you do a better job? What does your department need? How can we accomplish this or that?

I have been ready to leave because of the stress of teaching in a continuous low performing, low wealth, high needs school. His leadership is keeping me here. While he is not perfect, this man has the skills of a real leader.

Kim, as you move into a new venue, be sure to remember one thing: it is their culture. Before you set about changing it, you must first show that you understand and appreciate what is already present that is valuable to children and learning. You must acclimate first.

-- Edited by John Norton, TLN moderator

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