School & District Management Q&A

Advice for New Principals: ‘It’s All About How You Treat People’

By Denisa R. Superville — June 21, 2019 9 min read
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Advice for New Principals, part 1.

Click here for the second installment of this two-part series.

Education Week asked four principals—some with more than a decade of experience in the job—to share some advice to their peers who are just starting out in the profession.

The interviews, which have been condensed significantly, will be published over the next week.

The first installment features Kevin Armstrong, who has been principal of DuPont Hadley Middle School in Old Hickory, Tenn., for eight years. In 2017, he was named a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

On his first day on the job as principal of DuPont Hadley Middle School, Kevin Armstrong was heckled by a parent.

Armstrong, then 38, was explaining changes he would be making to the school’s discipline policy—adopting a practice he had used as an assistant principal at a previous school. But one parent, from the hundreds assembled in the audience, wasn’t having it.

“We don’t need this here,” the parent kept interjecting, Armstrong recalled. “That may have worked over there. We don’t need this here.”

Armstrong kept his composure, and kept repeating: “Ma’am, I’d be more than happy to speak with you at the conclusion of the presentation.”

After a few more interruptions, other parents in the room finally told her to let Armstrong speak.

Armstrong’s response to that parent set the tone for his first year at the school, which had just lost beloved and respected principal who had taken another job.

During the year, parents would often refer back to Armstrong’s first day.

“They would stop and say ‘Hey, I just want you to know I was there, and I witnessed that, and I saw your poise and how you carried yourself, and I really respected that,’ ” Armstrong recalled.

How did Armstrong keep his cool? “My mentors have always told me it’s all about how you treat people.”

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

ARMSTRONG: You are going to have to make some tough decisions in this business, but it’s all about how you treat people. I can bring you in and give you a reprimand, but it’s how I give you the reprimand.

Two of our kids, [one of their parents] just passed away, and we are going to the visitation and funeral. These are kids that have actually just left us and are going to high school next year. But it doesn’t matter. Some principals might be ‘oh, they are going to high school, I don’t have to go to that funeral.’ No. It’s all about how you treat people.

Every single decision that I make in this building, I make it through the lens of what’s best for kids. That means that as an adult in this building I can’t be lazy. I feel like some principals and other school leaders make decisions based on what’s best for them, not what’s best for kids. What’s best for kids is that I am visible, I am in the building, I am walking around, that I am popping into classrooms. What’s best for me is that I’m tired and I don’t feel like leaving my office today, so I’ll just stay here.

It’s kind of like losing weight, it’s easy to say but it’s very hard to do. People say that they make decisions based on kids, but you look at master schedules, you look at the programs that are offered in schools, you look at several different things, and you can tell really quickly if they are making the decisions based on what’s best for them or not.

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

ARMSTRONG: I would say for me it’s you don’t know what your weaknesses are until you get into this spot. Had I known what my weaknesses were beforehand, I could have worked on them. For example, my weakness is literacy because I was a math teacher for 10 years in the classroom before I became an assistant principal. I was very comfortable in the math setting‐very comfortable in math instructional conversations, math standards, and helping kids with math. I like writing, I like reading, I know my pronouns from my verbs from my nouns. I know all of that. But when it comes to the instruction of literacy and the practices and all of those things, that was a weakness for me. That’s one of those things that you kind of have to turn over to others in the building. One of my assistant principals is a former literacy coach. I have a literacy coach here in addition to that. You kind of trust them and leave that up to them, but you still have to grow.

[I’ve been] going to professional development, going into these literacy meetings, talking to literacy teachers, looking at some of the products, looking at some of the plans, asking questions that I think might be stupid. You’re kind of afraid to ask questions. People think ‘well, you’re the principal. You’re supposed to know everything.’ And no you don’t. [You’re] just kind of being honest with yourself.

You go in to do this job having weaknesses. Some of us have never dealt with the financial aspect of a school. I’d say the vast majority of [principals] have not. That’s huge: dealing with bookkeepers, and auditors, and signing checks, and signing requisitions and all these other things, and this huge budget—we have a $3 to $4 million budget here—and hiring everyone. To think that you’re in charge of programming $3 to $4 million, it can be overwhelming at times. But you get used to it. With my math background, I like the money part, because I can budget. I am fine with that. But others aren’t.

You don’t know what you don’t know. ..You kind of learn by messing up. It’s that fail fast mentality. You’ve got to fail fast. Because you’re not going to know everything, and you’re going to make mistakes, and you can’t beat yourself up. You just have to learn from it, and move on. Document the error, and the next time it comes up, you’re like ‘wait a minute, this happened a couple of weeks ago, what did I do? I remember. Don’t do this.’ So you learn.

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

ARMSTRONG: For me, it’s having mentors. I wouldn’t even say veteran principals. If you’re a first-year principal, you can get a second-year principal, a fourth-year principal, and a 10th-year principal and learn just as much from all three. Because I think you need someone that just has another year or two above you. They are still kind of green too and they get it. It just happened to them last year or the year before. Veterans may not be able to recall what it was like in the first year. And even if they do it was like 10 years ago. It was just a different time. I would even say having mentors outside of education. You need people that are kind of slightly oblivious to what you do, so that when you talk to them they come at it from a fresh angle—just somebody that’s going to help you through stress... You need those folks in your life, too. I call it mutual mentors, people that you check on just as much as they check on you. You are kind of pouring into each other.

I had those, and they made a difference for me.

Support from the district needs to be from those that are still familiar with what it’s like to be in that seat. Once someone is in central office for maybe two or three years, they lose sight of what it was like to be in that seat. Sometimes they give you advice or tell you to do things that’s just really not effective in this day and age because it’s changed. It’s an ever-evolving climate. If you just walk into a building for 15 minutes you don’t get it. I laugh at some of these authors that write these books about culture and climate in schools and they’ve never been a principal. I’m like where did you get this from? This is comical.

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

ARMSTRONG: I think the mistake that people make is blowing up bridges without testing them first. For example, some people come in and they are like I am going to wipe out everything that the past principal did, and I am going structure everything my way. Everything. To me, every single policy and procedure that was in place is like a bridge, and you are just blowing up those bridges. Some of these bridges are structurally fine. The principal was there for a reason. Several people thought highly of that person to put them in that position. The scores may not be what they were supposed to have been, the parental relationships, or the relationships with the teachers, or the relationships with the kids, may not be have been what it should be. Something was amiss if the principal was removed. But some of those structures that were in place were working.

You’ve got to test them first. And it takes time. I think coming in [and saying] ‘this is my school, my, my, my, my, my,’ then just blowing everything up. You are going to rub people the wrong way for various, different reasons.

The second thing is learning to trust. You’ve got to learn to trust people that at the very beginning of the year you don’t have any or very little relationship with. And you have to trust [them] because you are not going to be able to do this job by yourself. The faster you trust and the faster you fail, you’ll find a small nucleus of people. You’ll begin to grow from there and spread it out as wide as you possibly can. But the more leaders you have in the building, the higher your retention rate will be. You are going to keep people because they will feel that they are trusted, and they are valued in the building. They are going to want to work for you.

And the last thing is to find what I call mutual mentors, people that you can pour into, but who can also pour into you. That’s a valuable resource. Just people that you can be transparent with. You can call them and say ‘hey, man, I am supposed to turn in this report and I have no idea what this is. What is this?’ You have to be vulnerable when you are talking to people like that. If it’s something you don’t have a clue about, you don’t have a clue, and you all can sit back and laugh about it. And it’s OK.

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

ARMSTRONG: Just the fact that in this role, it’s impossible to do it all. And that’s going to be your first inclination—to try and do it all. You’ll try, and it won’t work, and you’ll be exhausted. And you’ll get to a point where you realize that you’ll have to begin trusting people by giving them opportunities to lead.

Micromanaging doesn’t work. You have to begin to develop trust in people, where you can give things to people and move on. There are countless programs that are going on here at Hadley that I know about. I know they exist. I know they are here. But do I know the inner workings of it? I don’t, and I choose not to, so I could focus on other things. But I do know that I trust the people that are in those positions, and I check on them from time to time and have them go over where we are.

For example, we just instituted an afterschool ACT prep program about a month ago, and I was instrumental in getting it here, but that’s it. That’s a great program to have. But my first year, I would have been the lead on that, along with leading everything else.

Photo: Kevin Armstrong, principal of DuPont Hadley Middle School in Old Hickory, Tenn. -- courtesy of Kevin Armstrong

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.