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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

I’m a Principal Without Teaching Experience

By Tim Dawkins — April 13, 2015 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Tim Dawkins, the Principal of Oliver Winch Middle School in the South Glens Falls Central School District (South Glens Falls, NY).

Peter DeWitt recently wrote a blog asking, How Many Years of Teaching Experience Should a Principal Have? This is a question I have asked myself many times. It is the question that, if we walked around like comic book characters with thought bubbles over our heads, would appear quite often in my own personal bubble while sitting at my desk considering how to impact learning, because I never formally taught in the classroom. I did, however, spend 8 years as a high school counselor before moving into the world of educational leadership.

And whether it’s comfortable or not to admit this in writing, I’ve got some self-imposed professional baggage filled with neatly folded piles of doubt and a couple of those little clear, 3-ounce plastic bottles full of insecurity. Afterall, I’ve never had my own classroom or spent all weekend grading papers while also tweaking lesson plans for the week. I don’t have an area of academic specialization, and I didn’t spend my pre-administrative career aligning lessons to state standards.

In short, my experience pre-principalship is quite different from many of my current colleagues.

My days as a school counselor were defined by, in a word, unpredictability. Setting a schedule for the week was a nice thought on a Sunday evening, but the likelihood that it would remain untouched by minor (or sometimes major) chaos was a fleeting hope at best. On any given day I could have several college letters of recommendations to write (I estimate that I’ve written between 400 and 500 unique letters over the course of my career), multiple phone calls (both planned and unplanned), and appointments with students to talk about topics ranging from higher education and classes they should be taking to figuring out where they were going to live because their mom’s boyfriend had just kicked them out of the house and mom took his side.

I may have multiple parent-teacher conferences scheduled throughout the day, and I certainly was meeting one-on-one with teachers to strategize keeping individual students on track for graduation. Throw in classroom lessons on topics like bullying, academic planning, or career development, and time to collaborate with other school counseling colleagues was precious.

Following my years as a school counselor, the two years I worked as an assistant principal in the same high school were a robust training arena, priming me for the day that I was able to lead my own building. I was exposed to a broad range of experiences like observing teachers across curricula as a way to grow my instructional knowledge, building a 1200 student-driven master schedule, and establishing relationships with parents and students, often in the face of great adversity. Of course I was lucky to work in an outstanding school environment with professional teachers who immediately embraced me in my new role, and the level of trust between us made all of the difference.

Upon reflection, I’d like to rephrase the title of this blog post. A more meaningful one for me might be “What types of professional experiences encourage a smooth transition into school leadership?” Is facilitating learning in a classroom one such experience? Absolutely. Is it the only experience that matters? I submit that the answer is no.


My days as a building principal are defined by, in a word, unpredictability. Does that sentence sound familiar? The tools that I grew and refined from my role as school counselor serve me every single day, and they serve me well. Whether I’m working with students on disciplinary issues from a restorative justice standpoint, talking with parents as their child adjusts to middle school, or providing essential feedback and having critical conversations with teachers about student engagement after a walkthrough, I am always reaching back to those interpersonal and observational skills I used as a counselor, most importantly the ability to listen with intent rather than immediately jumping to solve every problem that comes my way. Those skills continue to play a role in my daily life. I have never, nor will I ever, divorce myself from that professional version of me.

I’ve learned a great deal as I move through the first year of my principalship, much of it on the ground as-it-happens, and I expect that to continue through my entire career. Once again I find myself in a building full of outstanding professionals who love working at the middle level, and I continue to learn from them daily. Do not underestimate the benefits of continuous, on-the-job, professional learning.

How many school leaders can honestly say that their certification program truly prepared them for what leading a school would be like on the ground? How many teachers, for that matter, learn as much in the years they spend earning degrees as they do in those critical early years of classroom experience? For me, it has always been in “the doing” that I’ve had the most meaningful successes and failures, and in turn learned the most.

In February of this year Forbes Magazine published an article that listed school principals as the no. 1 happiest job in the US. Many might be surprised by this, especially with the current political atmosphere that always seems ripe to lay blame for society’s struggles at the feet of educators.

I, however, was not shocked at all to see us at the top of top of the list. Yes, we have our struggles. Yes, some days are better than others. Yes, students come in all shapes and forms, some ready to learn and some showing up with baggage that makes it difficult to simply get through the front door each day. But in the end I know that what I and my colleagues are doing makes a difference, and I get to see that growth on the faces of students each day.

As a principal it’s my job to provide opportunities for kids and teachers, and I try my best to open that door daily. It’s truly satisfying work, and because of that I look toward to our future with optimistic, school-counselor-colored glasses. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.