A few weeks ago, the faculty at my school received an unexpected call from our principal. He used the synchronized messaging system that delivers phone calls to all of us at once, usually announcing weather delays and PTA meetings. And even though I was alone in my living room, I could hear jaws dropping far and wide as our faculty received the shocking news: Our principal is leaving.
As my phone continued to ring throughout the night and text messages vibrated, denial was in full force: It can’t be true! Our principal opened the school! He chose every brick, every piece of furniture. He frontloaded us with the information we needed to form a mission and vision. I was standing right beside him the first time we sang our school’s newly written alma mater. The school will surely implode without him in it. How will we go on?
Melodrama aside, it is difficult to face this change. We are excited for our now former principal, who will be taking on a great opportunity, yet many of us promptly fall into a “but what about me?” mentality. It is, my colleagues and I joked, “all about us.” Where does this disruption leave us as the new school year begins?
Many teachers are concerned that they’ll need to “prove themselves” to a new boss. “How will she know that I’m a school leader?” one colleague asked me. “How will she know whether or not I’m a good teacher?” asked another. “She’s never seen me teach.”
Some of us have the urge to meet the new administrator at the front door and literally spew at her feet: “You don’t know me, but I’m the coach for the debate club and the 6th grade fundraiser chair! I have my master’s in math, and I’m working on my doctorate! I have three kids and two dogs and I color my roots every three weeks!”
But I think we need to be strong and hold off. Let’s allow our new principal to get in the door and settle a little into her new environment. We will again feel the same sense of community we had before the “changing of the guard,” but we need to practice patience. As importantly, we must remember that an authentic, healthy school culture does not rest upon the shoulders or within the mind of one person. While we may have looked to our principal for certain aspects of leadership, we have played vital roles in making the school what it is today. And as teachers, we should continue to bring our own voices, expertise, and leadership to the work we share: educating children.
Welcoming a New Leader
• Do welcome her upon arrival, but don’t feel the need to tell everything about yourself immediately. She will figure out who’s who, little by little, on a job-embedded learning curve. Let her get to know the staff in the way that works the best for her. She may want to engage in informal conversations, or she may schedule formal meetings in her office with individual staff members. Give her the time and space to learn what she needs to know without pressure.
• Do offer to help in any way you can. “Would you like to see a list of the clubs we have here and the sponsors of each? I can get that for you.” “Do you need to see our PLC meeting schedule? I can email it to you, and you can read it whenever you get a minute.” Offering to smooth your new principal’s transition in a non-threatening way will help her get to know the school and you in a way that will foster a trusting relationship.
• Be careful about comparisons. Saying “When Mr. So-and-So was here, we did it like this” will destroy a welcoming atmosphere. Give the new principal a chance to make positive changes as time goes on. Exercise leadership by helping to set a positive, forward-thinking tone for colleagues, parents, and students.
• Keep your focus where we all know it should be: on the students. Continue to be the caring, committed teacher you’ve always been, adjusting as necessary to any gradual shifts in the school culture. But, first and foremost, focus on teaching those kids. That’s your job and your passion—and it will help you weather any uncomfortable changes.
Meanwhile, I also have ideas for how incoming administrators should approach their new positions.
• Resist the urge to go in and change everything all at once. You’ll surely see things that can be done more efficiently, that reflect who you are as a leader. But consider making gradual shifts in the policies and procedures of the school. Meanwhile, you’ll be building trust, and the staff will be more open to change.
• Seek input from the staff. I once worked with a new principal who made 15-minute appointments with all teachers and then said, “Tell me everything you want me to know in 15 minutes.” He took notes, and we felt as if our voices had truly been heard. Some of us talked about our teaching philosophies; some shared concerns about current school policies. But we all had the opportunity to feel valued as professionals.
• Get out there! Walk through every classroom, hallway, and broom closet. Be visible and accessible. Resist spending all your time in the office, knocking out emails. Instead, become a part of the building and the people. A visible administrator establishes a community of trust.
• Get to know the staff on a personal, as well as professional, level. Having a conversation periodically about a teacher’s sick child or new pet fosters an atmosphere of family. The best schools are run by families.
Once the news was out, I had a general conversation with my departing principal about the stresses that teachers face when there’s a transition. He paused briefly, then said, “When a good principal leaves, the culture lives on.” I think he’s right. A good leader instills expectations that permeate the building and develops leadership skills in others, and when that leader moves on, that building doesn’t, in fact, fall down. Instead, teacher leaders use the current culture as a foundation upon which to build an even stronger school. I’m looking forward to meeting our new principal—and building an even better school together.