When the Principal Is the New Kid at School
Finding Confidence on that Critical First Day Isn't Easy
What made Rosemarie Young's first day as a principal remarkable was how unremarkable it actually was. "I got the keys to the building, a walkthrough, and that was pretty much it," she recalls. "There wasn't a system; you just learned as you went."
Yet while learning as you go may work for some positions, few if any principals would agree that a job as demanding as the principalship should be assumed without careful consideration, preparation, and training. "There's so much to do that sometimes it does seem like an unmanageable job," confesses Sonya Hemmen, principal of Glenwood Springs Elementary in Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Getting to Know the Team
Of all the various challenges confronting a new principal—from assessing which practices best help students to sifting through the never-ending mountains of paperwork that seem to multiply exponentially—many cite getting to know the players inside and outside the school as being among the largest. "Having an open door policy is critical," says Katherine E. Johnson, professional development coordinator for Howard County Schools in Pasadena, Md. "You'll be talking with teachers, secretaries, custodians, parents, community officials—everybody. And you're going to need to rely on them in order to succeed."
But success requires more than just communicating at meetings and open houses—it also requires making sure enough face time with faculty and students is included with other daily demands. "I make a commitment to do my [classroom visits] twice a day," says Peggy Dumler, principal of Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia, Md. Other principals go even further: "My main thing is to be the first person that kids see every day when they walk through the door," says Laurie Haynie, principal of Appeal Elementary School in Lusby, Md. "I want to be the first person they see every day, and I want to say hello to everyone."
Knowing When to Say When
Given the incredible demands associated with the principalship, feeling overwhelmed is practically inevitable, according to veterans. The key to surviving involves recognizing what you can and cannot do and learning how to let go. "One of the most common mistakes new principals make is assuming that because [they're] the leader that they have to do it all," says Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore, Md. "Remember, people who are working for you are actually working with you—and you need to know when to say when because you simply will not know everything."
Ironically, some principals find that having the opportunity to step into their new role actually makes them better educators and, consequently, more effective instructional leaders. That, in turn, helps both teachers and principals improve learning throughout the school. "I became a much better instructional leader after I left the classroom [to become a principal,]" says Ted Haynie, director of the department of systems performance at Calvert County Public Schools in Prince Frederick, Md. "Why? Because I finally had opportunities to observe what master teachers do in their classrooms."
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