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Suggestions for a First Year Principal (from a veteran principal who remembers)

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Below is an article I wrote for the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA). Click here to view the original source. If you have additional suggestions for first year principals, please post them in the comments.

I didn’t think I would write something like this, a list of strategies for new building administrators. Who am I to make suggestions?

Yet here they are. So what changed? First, I have been a school principal, either as an assistant principal at the secondary level or as the head principal at an elementary school, longer than I was a teacher. Second, I was the on-site supervisor for two building staff members pursuing their own administrative license. Third, I was asked. In this article, I’ll do my best to come across as experienced instead of an expert.

Get to know your staff

You only get your first year to make a positive impression with faculty. Don’t waste it. When I was hired for my current position as principal at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids, I invited everyone to a building listening session. This took place in the late summer in our LMC. I asked thought-provoking questions such as “What do you most enjoy about teaching at Howe?”. The staff provided their honest responses. I wrote down what they had to share on a whiteboard to show that I was listening and would take their input seriously.

Once the school year started, I hired a floating substitute teacher for two days so I could meet with each faculty member individually. No strings attached – we just had a conversation about their personal and professional goals. You glean a lot from these conversations if you listen with intention.

Revisit and review your school crisis plan

As a principal, your number one job is not to ensure students achieve at high levels. That is your teachers’ and students’ jobs. Your number one job is to ensure a safe learning environment that will allow for this learning to occur. Before the school year starts, go over your school’s crisis plan. Check to make sure it is aligned with district expectations. Share your revised plan with administrative colleagues for feedback.

Once ready, present it at a staff meeting, going over it line by line. We try to keep our plan no longer than two pages, including graphics. This plan should be revisited throughout the school year with inclement weather and school safety drills. There are lots of areas where the school leader can acquiesce responsibilities. The crisis plan is not one of them.

Examine your beliefs about instruction

Your school probably has a mission, a vision, or both. That’s fine. They are also not worth the paper they are printed on if they are not realized in the daily instruction that occurs in your classrooms. Examining your beliefs about instruction is a collaborative process of determining what you value as a professional educator and how they align with everyone else’s beliefs.

Our school has used resources such as Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Success (ASCD, 2014) for this annual activity. Faculty read twenty statements about reading and writing that are either aligned with best practice, or contrary to them. An example would be “Grammar should not be taught in isolation.” We selected “agree” or “disagree” for each statement in a Google Form, and then analyzed the results. After discussion and debriefing, we own those beliefs that we unanimously found common ground on, which are then visibly posted in school.

Visit classrooms daily

It has been said that what gets measured, gets done. I would expand on that statement with, “What gets recognized, gets done well.” This acknowledgment can only happen when we witness quality instruction in person. We can have all of the data walls and progress monitoring we want, but if we are not seeing the learning with our own eyes, we may be focused only on the outcomes, instead of the context and process where learning takes place.

Visiting classrooms shouldn’t be an event. In the beginning of the year, I let all staff know that I will be in their classrooms on a regular basis and without invitation. If someone shares concerns, I’ll reinforce that I am looking to document positive actions in their classrooms based on our shared beliefs. Often I will write a simple narrative of what I observed along with thoughtful questions. Sometimes I’ll take a picture of powerful practice in action with my smart phone, annotate it with feedback using the app Skitch, and then email it to the teacher while I am still in the classroom. I’ll also save this information as artifacts within Evernote, a productivity app.

Read widely

Anytime I hear an administrator say, “I just don’t have time to read”, I think about how their students or staff might react if they heard him or her say that in their presence. Reading widely means going beyond the educational resources and board minutes you might receive in your mailbox at school. While those are important, principals should also be reading books students are reading, leadership journals, local and national newspapers, excellent blogs and websites, current research on education, and of course fiction. We are smarter people when we draw upon a more diverse set of ideas and opinions.

What about when? Here are just a few of the places where I have been “caught” reading:

  • On the way to and leaving school, via audiobooks on CD or my smartphone
  • In the cafeteria while kids are eating breakfast or lunch
  • During your own lunch
  • With a group of colleagues in an online or in-person book club
  • On special days, such as the Scholastic Principal Challenge
  • In classrooms, reading aloud a favorite story from your own days of teaching

Not only do we become more knowledgeable leaders, we also model the most foundational skill that we promote in our schools.

This list is not exhaustive. Connect with your new colleagues in your district and online to make your first year an excellent one for you and your school.

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