I had a moment of nostalgia last week as I was walking a new principal into her building for the first time. I asked her if she had ever been to the school and she said “no”. I said that this must be very exciting for her, walking into her school for the first time. She was clearly excited and it was a feeling I shared with her. I remember not too long ago that person walking into their school for the first time was me and I was reminded of how much I loved being a principal.
Across the country thousands of leaders are having the same experience as they begin their first year as a principal or an assistant principal. It got me thinking about what thoughts I would share with new principals that would help them get off on the right foot. Turns out they are ideas I think are good for principals to consider no matter what year they are in.
Many times we make the job of principal too complicated. This is often something that I find is self-induced. It always helped me to remember a few key things when I was a principal that I feel served me well. I was not perfect and these are things that I continued to try to do better every year.
Get out of your office as much as you can. Get into your school and into classrooms with students and teachers in a non-evaluative supportive way. Go into classrooms to participate and work with kids. See what they are doing, ask them questions, do activities with them. This will help you get an idea of the experience your students are having. Also, be outside greeting students when they arrive and depart every day. If it is raining – get an umbrella! One of the most powerful things a principal can do is be outside waving and greeting families and students when they come into the building. It is not about directing traffic, it is about creating an environment that is welcoming for your school community. If you can focus on starting and ending your day this way you have half the battle won. To get outside or get in a classroom, put it on your schedule. This allows you to block the time, decline other meetings, and shows that being visible is a priority for you. If you schedule it – you will do it.
If you are just starting out in a school it can be an overwhelming experience with all of the students and staff. Everyone knows who you are, but on day one you are just meeting hundreds of students for the first time. That said, every new principal should make it a priority to know the names of all the staff members and students in the school. This should be a major focus of any new principal in the first couple of months. In fact, I would say that if school starts in August a new principal should have every students name down by the end of October. Doing this is going to help you build relationships with students and families. Keep in mind that there is one major thing all parents want to know about their principal – THAT YOU CARE ABOUT THEIR CHILD! It is hard to convince them of this if you do not even know who their child is.
One of the most important things a new principal can do is to build positive relationships. A key piece to doing this is clarifying your values and your “why” for the staff. I think a lot of new principals miss this piece as they are afraid of coming off too “strong”. However, I have found that people respect and respond to people more when they know where they stand on things. They may not always agree, but they always appreciate the honesty. I have heard teacher after teacher describe the best principals they ever worked with as people that would sincerely listen to their thoughts, ideas, or concerns – make a decision – then explain why they made the decision. I have always found this is an ingredient in building positive relationships. Respect your staff enough to listen to them and be honest with them. Positive relationships does not mean we always agree or that we skirt difficult conversations. Positive relationships means we value each other enough to disagree from time to time.
Notice that none of these recommendations say anything about evaluating your reading program or determining the appropriate amount of minutes for math instruction. Trust me there will be time for all of that if you are successful at these three things. If you are not successful at these things then all the time in the world will not help you make a true difference in your school.
Being a principal is one of the best jobs in the world. You have the opportunity to lead your school and your community. It is also one with a heavy responsibility as there are many people counting on you to be successful. Start simple: Be Visible, Learn names, and Build Relationships
Wishing all principals, new and returning, a successful school year!