Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Tips for Surviving Your First Year as a School Administrator

5 ways for new principals and assistant principals to suceed
By William Sullivan — September 12, 2023 4 min read
Photo illustration of school leaders strategizing while taking a walk outside a building.
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Welcome to a career in school administration. It is challenging and rewarding, draining and uplifting, and frustrating and reassuring. You will never feel ready to be a school administrator, but you are. Below are five simple things you can do to help survive your first year as a school administrator.

1. Set boundaries and routines.

As a new administrator, there is a tendency to want to dedicate every minute to your new job. Although there is no doubt your school will appreciate it, soon this level of dedication will begin to take its toll on you and your family. Often, there are times when you will need to do work outside the school day.

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In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

That’s why it is so important to set specific boundaries for yourself. Maybe you don’t work at night when you get home? Maybe you only work at night when your family goes to bed? Maybe you don’t work on Saturday? Maybe you go in really early so you can get home earlier?

Whatever the boundaries are, make them part of your routine. Once you have established your routines, it will help create consistency. In fact, your staff, students, and community will learn your routines, leading to you being a consistent and reliable leader.

2. Build relationships.

Building relationships has obvious importance, but for a new administrator, it could be the difference between success and failure. A new administrator must make a conscious and intentional effort to build meaningful relationships with students, staff, fellow administrators, community partners, and families.

It’s not always an easy task. With the many challenges of a new job, it is easy to put those relationships on the back burner. However, there will come a time when you need to lean on others, and those relationships will be essential. Trying to create a new policy will be a lot easier when you can check in with staff about it beforehand. Or looking for community support for a fundraiser or other event will also be easier.

Strong relationships also can help serve another important purpose: learning about issues when they are still manageable, before they become huge problems. Encourage connection: Eat lunch with students. Stop by a teacher’s classroom in the morning. Give families a call earlier in the school year. However you do it, just make sure you do it!

3. Delegate.

The need to delegate is something that can run contrary to the DNA of someone new to administration. As a new administrator, you might feel like you need to do everything yourself to learn how it’s done, show you are competent, make a name for yourself, or take things off others’ plates.

As hard as it may be at first, delegating actually demonstrates a more competent and seasoned school leader. It demonstrates trust and confidence in others that can be contagious. Of course, the first few things delegated should be small and overseen closely, but a new school administrator should begin delegating tasks as soon as possible. Even though you are the leader, you are not necessarily the expert in everything. Champion the strengths of others.

Another benefit to delegating is building capacity. Every time you delegate, you are telling a staff member that you trust them to do something well and the way you would want it to be done. The more that happens, the faster you will begin to imprint on the school culture and community.

4. Get out of your office.

An office can often be a place of calm and solace for new administrators, especially at the beginning of the year. It is easy to get in the habit of staying there. By staying in your office, issues come right to you, you are always responding to emails, and can be reached by phone. However, sometimes being too available can be problematic.

As a new administrator, especially in a school that is struggling academically or has big cultural or school climate challenges, the issues can pile on when an administrator is sitting in their office. There are fires an administrator will have to extinguish every day. You can’t fight fires from your office. You need to fight fires head-on.

Still, it would be a mistake to never be in your office. There are times when staff or students need to see you during the day. Setting meeting times or office hours can be beneficial; setting out-of-office time is equally, if not more, important. It will make solving problems, performing evaluations, monitoring student behaviors, and improving the school climate easier if you are a presence in your school, not just your office.

5. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

It is important to hear this upfront. You are going to make mistakes. No amount of schooling, internships, research, or practice will prepare you for life as an administrator. You learn by doing … and messing up.

It’s OK. Messing up will be OK with your staff, students, families, and fellow administrators. Remember to say, “I’m sorry.” Owning your mistakes and learning from them will do more for your reputation than the small mistake you made. Don’t sweat it.

You are going to have a staff member who wants to be the runner-up to your job. You will have a student who just doesn’t respect you. You will have parents who will circumvent your leadership. It happens. Don’t focus on the small stuff; champion the big things.

School administration is not just a job, it is an adventure. Adventures have ups and downs. Embrace them!

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