15 Tips for the New Principal

This is the season of new beginnings. Administrators search for novel ways to inspire their staffs and balance exciting initiatives and necessary mandates into a vision that will move a faculty. But for many educators, it is their first taste of the Principalship as they receive an endorsement from a School Board and Superintendent to be a building leader for the first time.

I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Bals, a fine administrator from New Jersey and member of my PLN at an Apple Conference in Boston a while back. Last week he direct messaged me this:

To answer Kevin in 140 characters is impossible so here are 15 suggestions (and more like 6000 characters) for him:

1. Meet with all of your staff in the summer.

I've found the best way to discover the true flavor of your building is to simply listen to the players who make up the school. Do not offer advice but take good notes and let your new teachers, paraprofessionals, specialists, office crew, kitchen staff, and custodians all give their perspective on what is working and what is not. In one of my Principalships, I tabulated the results of my interviews (kindly santized without criticism of individuals) and it became a component of my goals for that year and a major topic at the opening staff meeting. These actions validated the opinions of all of the staff.

2. Honor the history of your school.

As a new Principal in my mid-30's I thought that I had it all figured out and that the veteran teachers were nice people but not privy to the latest in pedagogy. That may or may not be true with your “vets” but they do hold the history of your building and the culture that binds the school together. Sure, there will be changes that need to be made over time but earn your respect in the short term so that you will have influence in the long run.

3. Identify the major players and support them.

Find those teachers who have passion, a hunger for knowledge, and an ability to take measured risks and give them all the support they may need. Perhaps the best support is your confirming words. But while you do this, be careful to…

4….be fair to all.

This will be difficult. It's only natural to spend more time with those who share your philosophy, simply match your personality, or those you can trust. But it's crucial to be seen as even handed. One former Principal colleague of mine lost her job over time because she was seen as having favorites. Thus, while humanly difficult, it is important to…

5. Be kind, caring, and respectful in all of your relationships and be willing to apologize.

While cliche, relationships really do matter. Too many leaders are afraid to look weak and thus apologies are rare. Asking for forgiveness and being forgiven is a sign of strength for both parties and usually leads to respect and healing. In your first year, don't be afraid to admit when you're wrong while holding your ground respectfully when you're not.

6. Focus on school and classroom culture.

I am surprised that more pre-service teacher programs don't highlight the enormous importance of classroom management for success. One of the most popular and proven approaches in this area, Responsive Classrooms, has conducted research that shows the unsurprising link between the culture in one's classroom and academic achievement. Spend time with your new teachers and help them succeed with their management. Be visible in the hallways, cafeteria and playground.

7. Budget

Like your

facility, do not leave the responsibility and knowledge of your budget to others. This includes the student activity accounts as more Principals are fired due to mismanagement of these accounts that any other reason. Have your administrative assistant regularly check the line items so that you don't grow short in any area. Also, ensure that you legitimately spend what you have budgeted. It's not good to have large overages toward the end of your fiscal year as this is a sign that you didn't need this funding anyway.

8. Grow some leather.

When I was in the classroom, I had few enemies. It appeared that everyone liked me. I was cool enough and became close friends with many of my colleagues. As soon as I became a Principal I found that the Teflon began to crack and that my decisions had a larger affect on my co-workers and their lives. I couldn't make everyone happy anymore and this was difficult at first. Angry at me? I'm a nice guy! I soon realized that I had to grow a bit of leather and be content with making the right decisions, maintaining my respect for all, and understanding that I will be unpopular at times.

9. Get to know your facility.

I was not blessed with fix-it skills. Just ask my wife. Yet, I have learned the wisdom of knowing what makes your physical plant tick. Do you know where all of the electrical panels are? Where are the shut off valves? What areas of your building are most needing repair? What's the status of your maintenance plan? I guarantee you, while the Business Administrator or Facilities Director may have responsibility for your facility, no one will care as much or advocate as well as the Principal.

10. Set fewer and more succinct goals in Year 1.

Your vision for the school won't be met in one year. Don't kill your staff with initiatives in year 1 but set goals that can be met with an eye to 3-5 years for longer term goals.

11. Model great practice.

Be sure that your staff sees you as a learner. When you communicate by written word,  include a professional article. Staff meetings should be professional development sessions not informational diatribes. Lift up great practices from your passionate teachers. Reflect the power of social media and web 2.0.

12. Keep your Superintendent in the loop.

Earning the trust of your Superintendent is crucial in your first year. If you make a mistake, admit it to your Sup long before the public or the press find out. As one Superintendent told me, “I don't like surprises”.

13. Communicate well with your staff and community.

Find your best methods. Utilize podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, email lists, and don't neglect paper when necessary if digital means aren't working as well as you'd like (especially with the community.) One of the greatest factors in leadership success is communicating one's vision clearly and consistently.

14. Find a mentor.

The Principalship can be a lonely place. If you are in a smaller elementary school you may not have an Assistant Principal, and in that case, you may be an “only”. In addition to tapping your PLN, be sure to find other administrators in your district or outside your area to be there when you have a critical question or simply need to vent. A former Superintendent and Principal of mine were life savers for me in my early years.

15. Schedule yourself to be with students.

Always be out front when the kids arrive and be there when they leave. Ride buses. Play hoop at recess. Walk around and chat with kids during lunch. Get to their competitions outside of school. Play chess with them in your office and modify the stigma of the “Principal's Office”. Ask them questions during your classroom walk-throughs. Read to them and have them read to you. Let them know that they are the most important part of your school life.

My career as a Principal has been exceedingly rewarding. Working together with my colleagues, we change the world every day. Learn from everyone, even when it doesn't seem possible.  Exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Forewarn those you love that you will be searching for a new balance in your life and to be patient.

It really is a great job.

What should be added to this list? Any other advice for Kevin?

Cross-posted at Principal Reflections, Bill's personal blog. You can also find him on Twitter at @wcarozza.

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30 comments for “15 Tips for the New Principal

  1. August 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Great advice! Meeting with all staff is so critical – I did the same at my last two schools when I arrived, meeting with each staff member (teachers and all support staff) to ask three questions:
    1. What do you love about the school?
    2. What is an area of improvement that we focus on or continue to focus on?
    3. What do I need to know about you?
    This helped me see some general trends in the school but also helped to find some “quick wins” for individuals in the school to begin building relational trust and support. Great points Bill – thanks!

  2. August 3, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Yes-quick wins or (as the newest cliche goes) “low hanging fruit.” Great questions Kurtis!

  3. August 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    Hey Bill,

    Thanks for sharing this! I have two close friends who are just starting their first years as principals. Just sent this along to them.

    #gratzi

    Rock on,
    Bill

    • August 10, 2012 at 12:58 am

      Hi Bill-thanks for the kind words. Love to hear how your friends’ first years go.

      Bill

  4. August 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Wow! I have been a principal for 20 years, and this is a great list even for veterans. One thing I know, is you always get anxious at the start of the year, and it is so, so fun!@! We try to be everything to everyone, and do it all, and it is so rewarding. I love my parents, kids, and staff, especially in the summer. Love the “grow some leather” saying and part! So true! Each day, look in the mirror, and say “I am doing my best today” and then “Just do it!” Good luck to all new principals! We have the best jobs in the world, so many children, so many teachers, so little time!

    • August 10, 2012 at 12:59 am

      Hi Alleta:

      I agree. Being a Principal is clearly one of the best jobs in education. I do love the feeling of a new year starting; honestly, I find Sept. to be a lot easier than August. Thanks for your positive feedback.

      Bill

    • Leslie Brooks
      August 11, 2012 at 9:35 pm

      I too find this advice to be applicable for those of us who are past our first year. I am a believer of the saying that PD is valuable when you can walk away with even one idea and apply it. Can’t wait for the school year to begin, and to welcome my students back. My teachers and students are what bring life and energy to the schoolhouse. I know I will never tire of the anticipation of a fresh start!

  5. Kevin Bals
    August 8, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Bill
    Thanks for great advice. I look forward to my first year as a building principal.

    Kurtis
    Great questions to ask my staff.

  6. Craig Hopple
    August 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    What a great read!!! All practical information. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Craig Hopple
    August 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    What a great read.. Practical information… Thanks for sharing..

    • August 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm

      Thanks Craig! Love to get philosophical at times but given that school starts in a couple of weeks, practicality seems to rule the day.

      Bill

  8. August 11, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    I would always park my car far enough away from the entrance to adjust my attitude. I knew that if I walked into the school in the morning with the worries and cares of my life outside school showing on my face, that would be the face my secretaries would first see. My first reaction to them in the morning influenced their mood. Then as each teacher signed in at the office they would be influenced by the attitudes of the secretaries and take those attitudes back to their classrooms and welcome their students with them. I needed to be up beat, clearly glad to be there, and it needed to be written all over me. Being human, there were many times when I needed to ‘fake it until I make it’.

    • Petra Schmid-Riggins
      August 12, 2012 at 6:55 pm

      Pat, your post is quite refreshing. It would be nice if all principals would share the same attitude.

    • August 12, 2012 at 9:34 pm

      As Todd Whitaker says, “When the Principal sneezes, the whole school gets a cold.” You are so right Pat…our attitude makes such a difference in the way the staff sees themselves and the culture of te school. Thanks for sharing this! I think I’d like to feature this in a blog post.

      Bill

  9. Rick Waski
    August 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

    The two suggestions that resonate with me most are keeping the Superintendent in the loop and scheduling time to be in the presence of students.

    it is better to communicate too much with the leaders of our districts than to leave the details to chance or rumor. Try to keep your supervisor aware of potential issues and be proactive in stating how you have addressed or handled situations. In general, superintendents will always support their principals when they know you respect their judgement and input. Often they even have great ideas to share with us.

    The suggestion to schedule time to be with students is critical. Students will let you know what is really happening in the school. Keeping this connection strong is essential not only for school security but it helps us be instructional leaders. Talk to the students about what they are and are not learning and it will give valuable insights on what might need to be addressed in both the short and long term.

    • August 18, 2012 at 1:32 am

      Hi Rick:

      I made the mistake of not being quite as open to my Sup. as I should have been early on. I’m blessed to work with a Sup. now that I trust implicitly.

      And, yes, students are the best barometer of how you’re doing. Remember Ed Koch? He would go around the Big Apple and ask, “How am I’m doing?” You can find that out without asking by keying on the kids to some extent.

  10. August 15, 2012 at 1:26 am

    New principals should be aware that strategies and or programs that worked successfully in one environment won’t necessarily work in their new school.

    Look for opportunities to create early wins! After you meet with new staff over the summer which I agree is extremely valuable and really allows the new principal to gain insights, discover the talents and skills of the staff before the start of the year, there are often quick enhancements or purchases or programmatic changes that will please the staff. It is a way to show you are listening and responding to their needs and input.

    • August 18, 2012 at 1:34 am

      Great point! Every culture is different. Often, the match between Principal and school is the key factor.

  11. Robert Martin
    August 15, 2012 at 4:50 am

    Each comment above was well stated and appropriate. Remember too, while we are enjoying being principals, remember too to also enjoy your life away from the school.

    • August 18, 2012 at 1:35 am

      Hmm….balance should be one of the tips, eh?

  12. Melissa Leduc
    August 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Awesome comments/ideas shared. Thank you everyone.
    Fresh new paint, sharpened pencils, new ideas, new beginnings…I love the start of a new school year. My advice, show that you are human to your staff. Be positive, upbeat, genuine and approachable. Teachers/staff feel important if you offer legitimate praise as you witness something special or extraordinary while you stop by their room. Too often, we are stuck behind our computer, so be sure to share a face to face compliment! Share these positive tidbits at a monthly staff meeting. A little goes a long way!

    • August 18, 2012 at 1:39 am

      Thank you Melissa for your wisdom!

  13. Mike Duffy
    August 16, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I think you hit every important point. It’s also good to keep two composition books or files, one for responses by staff and kids and parents to your 15 points. The second a diary covering the weeks surprises, successes and OOPS, failure.
    Best wishes to all new principals, you’ve got so much to do with so little time and money.

    • August 18, 2012 at 1:41 am

      Yes, reflection is an activity that is crucial. Building in time to reflect is optimal.

  14. August 25, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I recognize how much I have learned in the past year, using social media and learning networks. Quite a different scene today for the first-time connected principal. Appreciated learning from you and noting the tips that stay green through time. Thanks, Bill!

    To all principals in the field and entering it, tons of best wishes!

  15. January 11, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    “15 Tips for the New Principal | Connected Principals” honestly got me personally simply hooked on your page!
    I reallywill certainly wind up being back significantly more regularly.
    Thank you -Abel

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