School & District Management Q&A

Advice for New Principals: Be ‘Emotionally Vulnerable With Your Staff’

By Denisa R. Superville — June 25, 2019 11 min read
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Advice for New Principals, part 2

In our second installment of advice for new principals, Education Week talked to Melissa Hensley, who just finished her seventh year as principal of Central High School in Woodstock, Va.

Hensley was the Virginia state principal of the year in 2016 and a finalist for the 2017 National Principal of the Year, an award given by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Our first installment in this series is an interview with Kevin Armstrong, a middle school principal in the Nashville, Tenn., district.

The interview with Hensley has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Melissa Hensley was starting her first-ever administrative job when she arrived months into the already underway school year to be the new assistant principal at Signal Knob Middle School in Shenandoah County, Va.

The school had experienced a lot of leadership turnover—Hensley said she was the seventh assistant principal in about four years. The administrative churn was such a sore point that on her first day, someone asked the principal: “How long are you going to keep this one?”

She outlasted her predecessors and moved to the top job in under two years, a pace that Hensley said was a bit of a challenge. She had to shift her mindset from her role as an advocate for teachers to a holistic view of the school as its main leader.

The summer before she took over, Hensley met individually with all the school’s employees. She invited them to tell her what was going well and what they thought needed to change.

“That gave me a direction, so that on the very first day when all the teachers came back, [and I said] here are our instructional non-negotiables, those things were things they had supported in overriding themes,” Hensley said of her meetings with teachers. “I really tried to build on some of the traditions at the school and things that were strongly in place—find the positives, try to take [away] some of the things they felt were impeding their ability to be great instructional people in the classroom, and remove some of those barriers for them. I think getting some quick wins from the start with them really helped. It made them more open. They thought I was hearing them and made them more open to suggestions we would make.”

After about five years at Signal Knob, Hensley was hired to be the principal at Central High School.

EW: What’s the best advice you received in your first year as a principal or before you became a principal?

HENSLEY: Joe Dudash was the first principal I ever worked for as a teacher. When I started to go down the administrative path, he said here’s my advice to you: Be where the action is. By that he meant be in the hallways, be in the classrooms, be at events, be in the community to learn the culture to have a firsthand understanding of what’s going on. He always had that firm belief and shared that by being visible and being actively involved—not just being seen but being actively involved in the things taking place in the building. That would then open doorways for people to build those relationships that you need to really make a change in the building or to support teachers by knowing what’s going on.

The other thing he had said to me—I have a lot of respect for Joe—he said always be fair, firm, and consistent. Have your core values at the forefront. These are going to be the non-negotiable core values—the things that we are going to do, such as putting students first. All decisions in this building will be with what’s in the best interest of students and not necessarily because a teacher wants a certain planning block or something like that. It has to be putting students first. They are the heartbeat of the building, and we need to cultivate that, and we need to nurture that.

EW: What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your first year or before you started your first principalship?

HENSLEY: One of the things that came to mind is that the position has no power. People say ‘you are the principal, tell them to do that.’ And I’m like it really doesn’t work like that. It took probably about two years to learn why these folks won’t do what I’m asking them to do. They’re not going to do what they’re not going to. I can sit here or be out in the classrooms and say this will work and this will really be effective. But it’s not that way. The best way that I have found—and that I wish I had really known this—was that it’s OK to share that leadership role. Not only is it OK, it’s imperative for success to breathe in a building.

When I first came to Shenandoah County, it was commonplace for administrators to move or be moved within a division. It was a philosophy that within three, four, five years the building administration would be moved out and a new administration would come in. There was really no buy-in into what was going on. Without that shared leadership, any initiatives, programs things of that nature couldn’t even be carried forth. It was like starting over every time you got a new administrator. One of the things I wish I had known was that power of shared leadership.

And the second would be to never underestimate the power of student voice. Even though I was connected to kids, and around them a lot, and interacting with them, I don’t know that I was purposefully hearing their voices or giving them an avenue for their voice to be heard about things that are going on in the building—about what’s going well, and what’s not, and what they would like to see changed.

I think having that in place would have been a huge piece for me in understanding that the role of the principal is really the facilitator of building a learning culture for everybody, from the adults to the students, and, hopefully, extending it even into the community.

Those two things are so powerful. Now we do a lot of student led stuff here at Central, and it’s been very powerful in terms of building that culture that we want.

EW: What resource(s) would have made or made a difference?

HENSLEY: One of the things that I found very valuable was having those connections with professional organizations like the NASSP, the NAESP, the VASCD—because I am in Virginia—the ASCD. I think that those organizations offer the opportunity to develop networking. It helps me to see things from other states, from places across the United States. I never really realized how powerful that networking piece was until I was blessed enough to be the Virginia Principal of the Year and then a national finalist, and then it hit me when I had the opportunity to go out and work with people across the Commonwealth and across the nation. It’s really not just enough to get on Twitter, or other social media, or [read] articles. You have to engage with people. I think that is the biggest resource for me to grow professionally.

For me, it’s OK to connect with people from larger school divisions or more urban areas or suburban areas, but it’s really helpful to have connections with those rural principals across the nation who are facing some of the same challenges that I am facing and [to learn] how are they overcoming these things.

I think the other side of that is also ensuring that you have a plethora of resources for teachers. My office is filled with instructional books of all kinds, covering a large variety of topics—articles that I come across and things of that nature—that I keep on hand. But I also read them. So when teachers come up and say, ‘I have a really cool idea for this or I am really struggling with this,’ I can pull something that’s research-based and say, ‘Let’s take a look at this and see how this might help.’

EW: What words of wisdom do you have for a first-year principal?

HENSLEY: One thing that really comes to mind—and it is something that I know I’ve struggled with, but I’ve learned the deeper I’ve gotten into the career—is just the concept of being emotionally vulnerable with your staff and having the courage to be who you are and to not let a top down model drive what you think administration should look like.

I think that’s very hard for a first-year administrator, who comes in feeling that I have to draw strong lines between [the principal and staff]. If you really want to get buy-in and build those relationships with people, you are going to have to be vulnerable with them. You have to know your people [and] what’s important to them to gain those feelings of trust, buy-in, and leadership within your organization. [When] people trust in what you’re doing, the productivity will be greater as well.

To create that, you have to be in the trenches with them. You can’t be standing on the side and everybody else is doing the work, per se, and you are there judging or being perceived as a judge. You have to get into the trenches with them.

Asking them for help when I need help, and that’s something I had to really learn. I think most administrators [say], ‘I’ll just do this, I can get this done myself.’ We literally then are not taking care of ourselves and saying I need help with this.

I have gotten to the point in my career where I have no problem saying to somebody—teachers or parents—'Look, we’d really need to do this, but I can’t carry this load alone. I really need some help to get this done.’

As an example, we’re building a signature project here at Central High School right now. That’s going to be a capstone project that every senior has to do to graduate from our school, and we’re the only school in the division doing it. I’ve got a committee now of about 12 people. It started out as five and now it’s 12 because every time they talk to me they ask can I help with that? I say, ‘Absolutely you can help with that; here is what I really need.’ I think that helps to build trust. I trust you, I want your insight. Here’s a leadership role that I think you can play in that as well.

Another thing that being emotionally vulnerable sets up is that it’s OK to fail. Everybody has this perception—state testing and all these things—that there is no room for failure. But when they trust in you as a leader, they want to try new things, they want to try new instructional strategies.

A couple of years ago [some teachers] wanted to do a flipped classroom model in chemistry. They really wanted to do that, but they were scared of failing, and so they kind of held back. I said, ‘No, you can do this, you can do this. Their pass rates weren’t as high the first semester because there was a lot of trial and error. I was OK with that. Then [the pass rates] subsequently rebounded as they got better at implementing the techniques, the strategies. But giving them permission to fail [was crucial] because it’s when we fail that we learn the most about instruction.

One of the things I learned over to have a roadmap of who your constituents are. I found that to be one of the most valuable things that I was able to create. I literally had a map, drawn out—a drawing in my desk drawer—for a very long time of who was connected to whom and why these relationships are important.

That also extended into the community, so that we could get community resources to fund or help partner with some projects. I used that same process for students and for learning.

EW: What advice do you have for new principals on how to avoid being overwhelmed by the job?

HENSLEY: Make sure that you maintain a balanced life because this job can be so overconsuming. At the end of the day, it never stops. There is always the next email coming into your account, there is always the next phone call. It literally never stops. You don’t check out at the end of the day because everybody’s got a cell phone. The email feeds straight to it, and we feel this necessity a lot of the time to answer everybody right now.

That does not need to happen. It will still be there tomorrow. If we don’t take the time to step back, we lose that sense of what’s important to us and who we are as people. And once we lose that sense, I think we’ve lost the opportunity to be the best we can when we step back in the building each day.

One of the things that I do with my staff at the onset of each year is that I let them know what my parameters are: that I am available to you through email, text messages, or phone calls. However, if in the evening hours, it’s not an emergency and it can wait to tomorrow, let’s wait until tomorrow and deal with that. For two reasons. One, it’s respectful of my time to step back from the role. And it’s saying to the teachers, ‘It’s OK for you to step back and take that time for yourself.’

It’s a culture that you build within your school.

I also typically will not email [after hours]. I’ve stepped back from that. But if they text me a question that can wait till tomorrow, I generally will wait till the next morning and answer them. It will be one of the first things that I do.

You have to set those boundaries, and then you have to reinforce those boundaries on both sides. I want my staff to step back from that role of being a teacher. It is very hard job. If I am going to answer emails and one or two in the morning, then I think that puts pressure on them to think that ‘My gosh if she is going to do this, I’m going to have to step up and do this.’ We don’t want that trickledown effect.

You have to have very strong time management skills, and what’s important to you is where you need to spend your time during the day and have those boundaries.

Photo: Melissa Hensley, principal of Central High School in Shenandoah County, Va. Photo courtesy Melissa Hensley.


A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.