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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

For Principals: Planning the First Year

Seven actions to get a new principal's school year off to a good start.

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The interviews are over. You received the exciting call saying that you are the new principal. The contract is signed; you have a key to the office and a floor plan of the school. The pounding of your heart is half excitement, half apprehension.
Surviving the first year of a principalship is a challenge. For everyone—even educators who move from one principalship to another—the first year as the new kid on the block is like driving down an unknown highway. Taking the following actions—many of which you can do in the summer before you're officially behind the wheel—can help you avoid wrong turns and fender benders.

1. TRANSITION

However possible, transition into your new position before your first day. Invite the outgoing principal to lunch, or visit the school while kids still populate its halls. Listen. Observe. What seems vibrant and healthy in your new school and what needs oxygen? Walk the building with your predecessor, if that leader feels comfortable doing so. Teachers and students will get a sense of continuity.
Meet teachers. Remember their names, even if this means keeping a cheat sheet. Thank those parents and teachers who were part of the interview process. Smile a lot. Getting a new boss can be scary. A smooth transition helps alleviate concerns.
Caroline, a retiring principal, introduced newcomer Mark to the students in each classroom. Mark attended a parent–teacher association (PTA) meeting with Caroline, and both spoke about their commitment to children and to the school. Mark promised to listen, be available, and carry on the school's good work. The tension in teachers' and parents' shoulders visibly relaxed.
Welcoming parents and teachers to meet with you individually or in small groups during summer can build relationships that the rush of the school year doesn't always allow for. Listen more than you talk the first time you meet those with whom you will work. Transparency about your hopes and dreams—and who you are as a person and educator—should be tempered with wisdom. The people you meet with will no doubt repeat your words to others through their own lenses.
Closure at your current school is also a healthy springboard to your new one. Throw a good-bye party. Leave with positive vibes. The education world is very small. The relationships you developed at your old school will reappear in your professional life.

2. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS

The fundamental pillars of school leadership are relationships; nothing substitutes for building and nurturing them. Before school begins, get to know everyone you can. Talk about your family and hobbies so your human side travels with you. Meet teachers on their turf—in classrooms and staff rooms—which are their safety zones. Ferret out teachers who are less vocal, and respect those known to be less than supportive. Again, listen. It is the way your staff will feel valued.
Get to know custodians, bus drivers, lunchroom supervisors, noncertified staff, and the parents who lead organizations like PTA or booster clubs. Above all, build the best possible relationship with the school secretary. This person must be your strongest ally; if not, he or she can be your most formidable opponent.
Extend your relationship building to other district principals. They will be your best mentors as you maneuver through the culture of your district. And you'll need to have district office personnel as partners when—not if—you make your first big mistake. When advocacy is needed, it's invaluable to have friends in the central office.
Each person with whom you work has a personal story, family, and dreams. Tap into that. Share some of your own dreams. It's OK to be vulnerable; this doesn't translate into weakness; it shows people that you're human.
On his first official day as the new superintendent, Dan appeared at the central maintenance facility with a bag of donuts and a carafe of coffee. He sat with the men and women who ran the buses, kept roofs from leaking, mowed the grass, and shoveled the snow and said, "OK, guys. I'm the new superintendent. Now what do I do?"
Dan got some good advice. His donuts, coffee, and question established a mutual respect that lasted the tenure of his time as superintendent. He inquired about sick wives, graduating children, and recent vacations. He was personal, he cared, and he was effective.

3. LEARN THE CULTURE

Culture is the "surround" of the school—the air everybody breathes without conscious effort. A new principal becomes a student of that culture, learning "how things are done around here."
Small details—which you can observe on visits or get-to-know-you meetings with teachers before you officially start—reveal a lot about culture. Note the parking lot at dismissal. Do teachers slip out before the buses have finished loading students—or do they hang around helping kids? How does the school celebrate holidays and staff birthdays? Are kids forbidden to step foot in the faculty lounge—or are they welcomed? How are new teachers or students initiated into the school? Pep rallies, graduations, and August inservice days, all have rules governing how they are run, when they happen, and who does what.
Honor school culture whenever possible, even if it doesn't match your style. Lori learned the hard way. Her predecessor as principal was "Eric the Red" (as he was known because of his hair). Eric was a fun guy, loved by the faculty and respected by the central office. His leadership was, Lori thought, a bit "loosey-goosey." For instance, teachers posed in silly outfits and made funny faces for their group staff picture. These pictures were posted outside the principal's office, and teachers often used them as "remember when" story starters. Lori packed the pictures in a crate and suggested that teachers dress "appropriately" for their next staff picture. This and similar missteps had her refreshing her résumé sooner than she anticipated.
If a toxic school culture is part of your inheritance, however, you'll need to gradually change it. Such a culture is poison. Teachers may come to dislike one another, gossip may substitute for communication, and discipline can become a power game in which both kids and teachers lose. It will be your job to restore the school to health.
Changing the culture of a school is a long, hard process. What you, as new principal, own entirely, however, is your own integrity and ability to listen (and therefore to stop talking). Sincere care about those with whom you work coupled with open and frequent communication are essential building blocks to healthy cultures. Be patient. Neither Rome nor a healthy school culture was built in a day!

4. DON'T CHANGE EVERYTHING

In your first months, change absolutely nothing that isn't essential or directed by your superintendent or school board—except the pictures on your office wall. You're the "new kid," and learning is your first agenda. Grand visions of turning around a school are noble and possibly necessary, but such change should not be the first item on your agenda.
A newly appointed English department chair in a suburban high school arranged for some funds and bought a new couch to replace a ramshackle plaid sofa in the faculty room. "Wow," she thought! "They'll love it." Wrong. Teachers mourned the loss. ("I remember when I was pregnant and lay on that couch … "). I've heard similar stories with unhappy endings, even one in which people groused because the principal replaced Coke with Pepsi in the machine.
The most unlikely corners of a school's culture can have symbolic value. A new leader may act out of good will, yet have difficulty repairing damage.
Improving things is, of course, a large part of the leader's agenda. However, before you dive into the waters of change, make sure you know where the rocks are and which sharks lurk close to the surface.

5. HONOR TEACHERS

Teachers will be watching you. Some have seen leaders come and go and will wait you out, knowing each new leader brings some new reform through the revolving door. Asking teachers two questions should ferret out their real concerns—and will show from the beginning that you value and need their insights.
Over the summer if possible, ask as many teachers as you can, "What concerns do you have about the school?" and "What must be absolutely honored?" Take notes and check that you're "getting it." Probe for deeper meanings.
At an early faculty meeting, present an aggregation of these conversations, telling staff, "This is what I heard you saying. Does it resonate with you?" Rich discussions will follow. Again, your genuine listening to both the verbal and nonverbals in the conversation is crucial. This will truly be a faculty meeting because the agenda comes from their concerns and hopes.
The collective wisdom of your staff is invaluable. Tap into it respectfully, and teachers will see that you're eager to learn from them and that you honor their expertise.

6. PICK YOUR BATTLES

Chewing gum was forbidden in my school when I arrived as principal. Teachers kept lists of "chewers," and after the third offense, they reported the student to the assistant principal. Parents were called if the chewing continued. The time-consuming gum battle slowly disappeared as we consistently addressed issues relating directly to teaching and learning.
Some battles can never be won. Recognize these, and set them aside. Others are not worth winning or losing. Zero in on those issues that directly affect teaching and learning. Where you spend your time is where your values lie.

7. DELEGATE

I once walked the building with a first-year principal. By the end of the afternoon, she had said, "I'll take care of it" 17 times. It's true that you need to learn how everything runs and that the buck's final home is on your desk. But learning to delegate responsibility is the mark of mature leadership. Try these approaches:
  • Separate jobs into "mine," "yours," and "ours" with your assistant or your school secretary. Let him or her take the ball and run with it, keeping you updated.
  • Assure teachers they can manage the majority of discipline issues themselves. Sending kids to the office should be their last resort.
  • Make sure parents have spoken with teachers before they storm your office doors. Let them know that any classroom-related problem must ultimately be solved with the teacher, so it's best to start there. However, trust your instincts. Some complaints belong in your office immediately.
  • Let secretaries, special education personnel, parent organizations, and so on manage their own spheres of responsibility.

8. STAY A WHILE

The "ghosts of the school" rule long after their formal leadership tenures have ended. Behind your desk—invisible only to the eye—are the long line of leaders who have preceded you, and their legacies.
Your work is to build a school that meets the needs of students and becomes a community of educators dedicated to that purpose. This takes a long time. What is a long time? you may ask. Surely it's more than just enough time to "move upstairs" to the central office or to a bigger paycheck. To use your first principalship as a stepping stone to a "better" school or more money is to do a disservice to the profession, your teachers, and your kids.
Good schools cannot be built quickly. The work of building a really good school is an endless journey. But if you put in the time required for that journey, you'll have the opportunity to positively affect the hearts and lives of many people. You'll be remembered for your honesty, care, and passion for learning. That makes a difference.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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