Principals are often called the lead learners in their buildings.
With 2022 sunsetting, we asked two principals—veteran administrators who changed schools this academic year—to reflect and share some lessons they learned in 2022 and a few changes they’re planning to make next year.
David Levesque has 13 years as an administrator, nine as a principal. Last July, he traded in an elementary school principalship to take over as principal of Franklin High School in Franklin, N.H.
Felicia Thames started this year as principal of Central Middle School in the Eden Prairie, Minn., school district, having previously served as an elementary school principal in the school system. She’d also worked for a decade as a dean at Central Middle School.
5 Lessons from 2022
Trust is critical—especially when you’re stepping into a new school that’s undergoing a transformation, Levesque said.
When Levesque arrived last summer, Franklin High School had had six assistant principals in four years, staff turnover, and was amid a years-long process of adopting a plan, “portrait of a graduate,” which, when finalized, would determine the courses and experiences students would have.
“The ability to be honest and transparent with staff and faculty is critical,” Levesque said.
Trust was also a necessary ingredient to address issues related to staff and students’ health and well-being, as well as staff retention, he said.
“When we are making decisions about the health and wellness of our students—there’s a big trust factor,” he said.
He’s tried to build trust with students by creating an as-normal-as-possible-school year, including bringing back homecoming, overhauling a flawed grading system, and assembling a group of 20 or so students to give input on school initiatives, among other efforts.
“It’s [about] building a sense of community within the school again,” he said.
Remember: It takes a team
Thames phrases it as “We are better together.” It means that if everyone in the building is working toward the same goal, it’s a lot easier to accomplish.
“We are better together when we work together,” she said. “It’s not administrators against teachers or teachers against administrators. When we set our specific goals, we have to work together to accomplish those goals. When we’re all on the same page, we can begin to see the changes.”
If the school says that it is focused on student belonging, then all teachers must work in tandem to ensure that students have similar experiences across the school.
“Just consistency,” she said.
Know the go-to people in the school
Levesque learned that it was important to know everyone’s role in the building. Who does what? Who are the go-to people? Who knows the history?
“We have a veteran teacher who has been here for 21 years,” he said. “She has great knowledge within the community … One of the things I’ve tried to this year is to ask the veteran teachers what’s worked. What have you done to make things successful? I know I don’t have the answers to everything. … The history of the people who have lived it is so important.”
Don’t forget the community
Community input and collaboration are key parts of Levesque’s school’s transition to the portrait of a graduate, which emphasizes things like critical thinking skills, problem-solving, and social-emotional competencies.
It involves surveying and getting input from families, students, and teachers about the vision for the school; from colleges about the students they are looking to enroll; from businesses about the skills they’re hoping future graduates will possess; and from local politicians and members of the community.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Set reasonable goals, Thames said.
“If you have a really clear focus area or two, [and] you continue to bring that to your staff and your students, you’ll continue to make gains, versus when you are trying to do five to 10 different things,” Thames said. “Then you really don’t do anything well.”
This year, Thames set two building-wide focus areas: purposeful planning and building a strong school community for both staff and students.
The narrow focus allowed her to concentrate and target her efforts, resources, and supports.
“If I can accomplish those two things by the end of the school year, I’ll be happy,” she said. “And the following year, I’ll continue to build on that.”
The purposeful planning goal, for example, was about ensuring that teachers had clear learning targets for each class and that students knew what they were supposed to know and be able to do at the end of each lesson.
The school administered student perception surveys to gauge students’ sense of belonging and the strength of student-teacher relationships. The surveys found “significant” increases in belonging and an increased number of students who felt like they had a good relationship with a teacher, she said.
Intentions for 2023
Be more visible
Levesque had to hit the ground running last summer. In 2023, he plans to spend more time really getting to know the school’s teachers on a professional and personal level.
“As I’m visiting classrooms right now, I am learning a lot about them and what their strengths are, and how we can use their strengths to support their students,” he said.
That’s also on the agenda for Thames, who wants to cut down on the time she spends in her office in meetings and answering emails. She wants to spend more time in classrooms with teachers and students.
“The work is out in the building,” Thames said. “I want to do a better job communicating with staff and students around getting really focused on what I believe the role of the principal is—and that’s in the building.”
She plans to spend about two days out and about in the building and the other days in meetings and on administrative tasks.
“A lot of the emails and stuff I can address if I were out there,” she said. “I see myself as an instructional leader. I want to be out there. I want to be engaged in the lessons. I want to sit in on the classes. I do that to an extent, but I want to do it better.”
Amplify student voice
Both Levesque and Thames want students to have a bigger say in how their schools work.
Thames plans to build on the principal advisory group she started this year and create more avenues for students to get involved. Teachers have also been tasked to ask students what they like about their classroom environments and what they’d change.
“I think oftentimes we plan for the students without asking them,” she said.
Be willing to have difficult conversations
They’re hard, but necessary, Thames said.
“I would like to continue to have conversations that I know need to be had, and sometimes those can be hard conversations,” she said. “Just have open and honest conversations with staff and students about where we are and where we need to go.”