Things I wish they’d told me before I was a principal

Two years ago I was blessed with the opportunity to lead an elementary school with about 220 students.  I was excited for the challenge, but as someone who had just finished my principal certification, I never expected that it would happen so quickly.  Although I had previously taught general education and special education at the elementary and middle school level, I had no previous administrative experience.  There has been a steep learning curve, but I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with a terrific team and learn and grow each day.  I learned a lot in my program and had a fantastic mentor who supported me, so I’m sure they probably did tell me some of these things, but I pass them along in the hopes they might help a fellow new administrator or be a cause for reflection in those with more experience who mentor us newbies.

1. You don’t have a year to learn your building

Looking back at the whirlwind of the past two years, I think this is the funniest traditional wisdom I was told.  Although every decision that crosses your desk isn’t overly complex, one of the truly overwhelming things about the principalship is just the sheer pace of decision making.  It is wise to understand the organization and community before working to help it to grow, but change will start to come when you take the job whether you intend to or not.  When I became principal, an immediate change came about in student discipline.  I believe very strongly in the underlying foundation of PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports) and SEL (Social Emotional Learning).  It is part of the core of who I am as an educator.  Although students will experience consequences as a result of actions they take, my primary focus for a student sent to the office will never be punishing that student.  My goal will always be to help that student be more successful when they rejoin their peers.  Helping students understand consequences will be part of that process, but you can never punish a student into having better skills to navigate the classroom.  Change is difficult for everyone (especially in your first year), but ultimately I didn’t become a principal to preserve the status quo.  I became a principal to make a positive difference in students’ lives.

2. Vision is important, but beliefs are the foundation for everything

I remember spending a lot of time talking about communicating a clear vision within the school, but I don’t remember as much discussion about the foundational nature of the beliefs schools and communities share.  For example, we would all easily say we believe “all students can learn”, but do we truly believe it?  Can they all learn at high levels?  Can they learn at high levels if they come from poverty?   Can they learn at high levels if they have no support at home?  Can they learn at high levels if they have an identified learning or emotional disability?  How about the example of PBIS?  Many schools have systems in place that are directly from PBIS or are influenced by it, but how many schools spend time talking about the beliefs that must be in place for a system like PBIS to be successful?  If the majority of teachers and parents believe that bad behavior in students is primarily about bad choices rather than skills that need to be learned, implementing PBIS or other similar systems will be a very uphill battle.  Every minute spent on shared beliefs will be worth an hour in managing a change in structures or procedures down the road.

3. What you should do the summer before

So, you’ve gotten that first principalship.  Congratulations!  So now what do you do between now and August?  I can remember nervously pacing the halls, memorizing students’ and teachers’ names from the yearbook, and going through mountains of files and manuals trying to learn any hint of what I would face in the fall.  Looking back, only one of those three things was a good use of my time… memorizing the names.  With inherited paperwork, I would tell new principals not to throw anything away, but don’t spend a great deal of time going through it.  If it is important, you can find it later.  Here are the things you should locate and know: student handbook, teacher contract, student learning trends, and the school improvement plan.  I would also buddy up with another principal and make a list of any  reports that need to be submitted to the state or local authority and the approximate due dates for each (I must have missed the day in principal school when we talked about fall housing reports). 🙂  Outside of that, start building relationships.  Maybe attend a summer baseball game or two in your new school community and meet some parents.  Ask staff to make a time over the summer to sit down and talk with you.  Ask them what they like best about their school.  Ask them what their goals are for the future.  You will very quickly get a picture of your new school that would never come out reading a manual of school board policies.

4. Relationships are everything

I did know this on some level as a special education teacher who regularly collaborated with a team, but I realized I needed to approach my work in a different way as the leader of the school.  Although I generally maintained positive professional relationships with my colleagues throughout my career, I’ve never been a person who spent much time hanging out in the teachers’ lounge or chatting before/after school.  I tend to be very task driven and value my time at home with my four kids.  As principal, a key part of leading a school is investing time in people.  My to do list is perpetually piling up and finding balance is key, but I am most successful as a leader when I am taking time to deeply understand the situation of each person in a school and their unique perspective.  Only with this knowledge is a leader able to make sound decisions in the best interest of the whole school.  What is it like to be a teacher/ parent/student/cook/crossing guard at our school?  Do I truly understand?  Have I taken the time to understand?  It sounds contradictory, but as a leader, you have to find ways to be organized and efficiently get tasks completed, but you also have be ok with leaving things uncompleted on your desk.  I could hole up in the office all day every day and still never feel truly “done.”  People always come first. People > Projects.

Are you a new/more experienced (I won’t say old :)) principal?  What would you add to this list?  Are you a newly hired or aspiring administrator?  I would love to hear from you!  Many people have invested in me in whatever I have achieved and I am always eager to pay it forward.  If I can help you in any way, I would be happy to do so!

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4 thoughts on “Things I wish they’d told me before I was a principal

  1. dfgately

    ” If the majority of teachers and parents believe that bad behavior in students is primarily about bad choices rather than skills that need to be learned, implementing PBIS or other similar systems will be a very uphill battle.” — great piece Joe… this is a great example of the belief / behavior disconnect…

    Reply
    1. Michael J. Meyering

      Excellent read and great advice! I’m incredibly open to advice as I will be a first time principal next year. I look forward to following your blog and getting a “baptism by fire”. I was most happy to read your bit on relationships… I’ve already been spending a good deal of time on this. Over the summer I plan to sit down with staff individually and get to know them better than just seeing them on Day 1 at school in the fall. I’m sure that I will also have an experience like you, with tons of reflections following year 1. I appreciate the excellent and helpful advice! -Mike

      Reply
      1. jsagel Post author

        Thanks a lot for your comment Mike and congratulations on your new position! It sounds like you have a great start and will be a wonderful leader for your school. If you ever want to chat about how things are going once your “baptism” begins, I’d be happy to help in any way I can. Good luck!

    2. jsagel Post author

      Thanks so much Don. I really appreciate you taking time to read and respond. It looks like you have some great things going on in your school. I am really grateful for those I’ve been able to connect with on social media that do so much to encourage, inspire, and raise the bar for me.

      Reply

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