Katherine Holden spent seven years as an assistant principal before becoming a principal in the 2022-23 school year. But as she soon learned, being the top school leader is different from being the second in command.
As the head of Talent Middle School, near Ashland, Ore., she was now leading a school community that had suffered several setbacks in recent years: The Almeda fire in 2020 destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Talent and nearby Phoenix and displaced hundreds of families. The school, which is about 45 percent Hispanic, had had issues with hate speech, discipline, on-campus vaping, and physical conflicts, Holden said.
Holden’s goal from the beginning was to create “a calm, predictable, comfortable environment” for students and staff. She believes her team delivered on that objective in their first year—though not as quickly as she envisioned and not without difficulties.
Here’s what Holden learned in her first year as principal, and the tips she shares with other new principals diving head-first into the role this new school year.
Have a goal; adjust as necessary; stay the course
Holden’s goal for the first year was to create “a calm, predictable, and comfortable environment for our students.”
With the help of one of the new assistant principals, with whom Holden had worked at another school, the team built a behavior-management system from the ground up. They ensured staff knew how to get help for students with behavioral challenges.
Expectations around appropriate behavior were communicated to students, through homeroom lessons, for example. A Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports system was created along with a rewards system for good behavior. Communication channels were set up for parents. The staff also got professional development on hate speech and microaggressions.
The first couple of months were bumpy—discipline referrals actually went up.
But over time, the numbers started to go down. In November, around Thanksgiving, Holden had her first “manageable” day.
“I remember being like, ‘OK, today was manageable,’ she said. “Then I remember the next day was another manageable day, and I took note of that. Then that week ended up being five days in a row. It was like ... we’ve turned the corner here.”
Her advice: There will be obstacles. Make adjustments as necessary, but stay the course.
“We made adjustments along the way, but we didn’t abandon it just because it didn’t work in the first couple of weeks,” she said. “I was like, ‘We have to stay the course.’ ... It was so important to stay predictable and consistent within the approach to the behavior-support system, which then allowed us, ultimately, to have that breakthrough moment when things started to fall into place.”
Take time to build relationships
Principals will have organizational challenges they’d like to tackle—from discipline to academic progress to even simple building updates—but it’s important that they include staff in the process, especially long-time staff.
Holden decided to make some organizational changes to the front office to create separate areas for students and teachers, so that students could get assistance in one area, while staff, as well as parents, could interact in the other. So she moved the new manager to the student-support area.
The change was a little difficult for the longtime registrar, who didn’t have the same dynamic with the newest employee, she said.
Holden acknowledged that communication was part of the problem. She hadn’t taken into account a lack of relationship with the registrar when she told her about the plan in the summer, shortly after she got the job. She also didn’t fully explain why the seating changes were necessary.
“Organizationally, from the big picture, it really, really helped and impacted the flow of the office, the sense of calm in the office, the behaviors in the office,” Holden said. “But in terms of our relationship piece with the registrar, she really felt unsettled by this change.”
After listening to the concerns, Holden ensured the registrar had a student aide to help and she moved an attendance manager to the area that had now been designated to serve students.
“I tend to be a person who feels like there’s a lot of ways to solve a problem,” she said.
Her advice to new principals? Be “intentional about team-building and making sure that within that team-building that you are explicit and really describing what you need from the team, how you are hoping the team works together, the different roles of the team members,” she said.
Share your goals. Repeat, repeat, repeat
Holden realized that she initially wasn’t explicit with everyone about what she was trying to accomplish and the results that she was seeing along the way.
While the staff knew that she was working on reducing fights, discipline incidents, hate speech, and other disruptions, she didn’t constantly message that to staff—or share the data indicating that the school was moving in a positive direction.
“I don’t think I reiterated or stated the obvious enough,” she said. “I think I underestimated how many times I could have or should have come back to, ‘I am creating a calm, comfortable, predictable environment. This is how we are doing it. This is what we are doing. This is what we are seeing over time.’”
Holden had a front-row seat to the discipline referral data, the number of conferences the office staff held with parents, and the number of behavior contracts they crafted with students that the issue was becoming manageable.
Teachers, however, were only seeing the disruptions in their individual classes or a child running in the hallway—not the full picture, she said. Principals must ensure that they’re aware of progress, too.
“It’s good to understand that you have to be so explicit and repeat the message so many times, in so many ways, so that the staff themselves can see it,” she said. “Whether it is through data, whether it’s through anecdotes, whether it’s through parents’ comments—[you’re] making sure you’ve giving feedback or information that what we’ve set out to do, we are doing. We are making a difference.”
Find a mentor
Having an outsider to bounce ideas off—especially someone who is not part of the district—is extremely beneficial, Holden said.
Holden had an informal mentor from the start, but formalized the relationship and added consistent meetings midway through the year.
“Being in a new role, in a new district, at a new site, [do not] underestimate the importance or the value of having a colleague or a mentor who you can meet with regularly and who can offer an outside perspective,” she said.
Her mentor was the one who helped her to recognize the value of the feedback loop with staff—checking back with them after she’d had a conversation to see if they’d understood or needed anything else.
“’Was there anything else you thought of that we didn’t talk about? How did that feel? Was that helpful? What else can I do?’” Holden said, citing the recommendations she received from her mentor.
Holden plans to deepen her efforts on building stronger teams, as well as focusing on the school’s vision, mission, and values in the upcoming school year. She’ll also work with teachers on their expectations for their students.
“What is our vision for these students now that it is calmer and [more] predictable around here?” Holden said. “What do we want academically for our students? What do we want socially-emotionally for our students? What’s our shared vision and values as a teaching staff, in terms of our goals for our students?”