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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

My First-Year Journey

These tricks of the trade will help novice principals and those leading new schools thrive.

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After 28 years in the classroom, I felt that I had done everything I could do as a teacher. I had sailed around the world with Semester at Sea, done a teacher exchange in Costa Rica, conducted teacher workshops in the United States and internationally, written books and magazine articles on education, been a Fulbright fellow, and traveled during the summer to South Africa to teach and do research. I was confident that I was ready to make the leap from teaching into administration. Little did I know that I was entering an entirely different world and still had a lot to learn.
Although it was not the easiest road I could have chosen, I would do it all over again. Here are some hard-won lessons that I learned in my first year as a school administrator.

Make Decisions from the Start

On your first day as a principal, you will be asked to make a decision. Make it! If you wait to see whether things change on their own, they won't. If you think you need to gather a lot of input about this decision because you're new on the job, you may look weak. You must trust that you are centered in your values, you went into the principalship because you have a commitment to the education of children, and you have the knowledge base to make wise decisions.
Three minutes into my first day, a parent came into my office and demanded that I move her twins into the same class. I had no information about what went into the decision to place them in separate classes. I could have told her that I would call her later after I gathered more information, but I sensed that this mother needed to be heard right then.
I listened, listened, and listened some more. I asked her questions she did not expect, like, "I think something deeper is going on in your heart; can you tell me more?" As soon as the real reason came out (her mother was gravely ill, and she thought that the girls would need each other during the year), I was able to calmly speak to the reasons why placing her twins in two different classes was a good thing. I told her that they would become more independent and that while supporting each other at home they would also make new friends who would join that support team. I assured her I was there for her if she ever needed to talk, cry, or just vent. She left satisfied, and her girls were fine the entire year.

Make Change Slowly

You are going to want to make sweeping changes. You'll think you see things that others have missed—things that you can fix. Often, the reality is that many administrators before you have tried to change exactly what you see and have not been successful. Remember that change is hard—but it's possible if you take time to plan, change people's mind-sets about certain ways of doing things, and build support.
For example, when I first began to make the rounds of classrooms, I noticed that students were sitting for long periods of time and teachers were doing all the standing and walking around. This went against what I knew about the brain–body connection and the need for young children to get up and move.
I started to share two movement activities at each faculty meeting. A few teachers would take the ideas right back to their classrooms and try them. I would ask them how it went, what they observed, and how the students reacted. Some teachers then branched out and tried movement ideas of their own; they were excited to share information about the improved energy in their classrooms. I asked if I could videotape their classes and show the videos at the next faculty meeting.
We kept this up all year, and more and more teachers jumped on board when they saw how easy it was to incorporate movement into the day and how much more fully engaged their students became. Over the summer, I bought each teacher a book about learning and the brain–body connection. Each teacher eagerly took a copy.
If I had charged in, made everyone read a book, and dictated that teachers make their students get up and move, I would have met resistance. Instead, I planted the seed and let the enthusiasm of the teachers move us along.

Learn Names!

Learn everyone's name as soon as you can. I started my job in early August. Before school began in late August, I studied the most recent yearbook to memorize all the faculty members' names and faces so I could greet each one by name. Teachers were impressed that I took that interest in each one of them.
I gave myself a deadline of one month to learn the names of all of my 204 students. I practiced every day. I went into classrooms, read name tags, talked with students at each lunch table, and repeated names over and over again. One month later, I greeted every single student by name at the end of an assembly.
It's just common courtesy to greet someone by name. I learned this the hard way. The administrator at one of my previous jobs knew approximately eight students' names in the school—and they were the children of board of education members. All the teachers talked about how disrespectful he was to not even try to learn students' names. Although learning names takes a lot of effort and practice, it's well worth the time.

Sweep the Naysayers Along

Every faculty has a few naysayers who speak up against things at faculty meetings, grumble in the teachers' room, and make everything into a big problem. You have to believe—and demonstrate—that they do not speak for the majority. Often, other staff members keep quiet because they're sick of going up against the loud-mouthed few.
To prevent new initiatives from being stalled by negativity, identify your best teachers and move them forward with you. Have a meeting with them, pitch your idea, ask for suggestions, and invite them along for the ride. Because they are usually type-A personalities who drive themselves harder than we ever could, they are likely to be swept up in your goal. Then present the proposal to the rest of the teachers and encourage them to join too. I've found that even the biggest complainer is swept along toward a goal that already has momentum and support.
I know what it feels like to address a group and have one or two people in your audience with their arms tightly folded and their lips pursed. Everyone feels the negativity. I have trained myself not to look directly at such a person but rather at his or her forehead. It may sound silly, but it takes away a person's power over you if you do not look that person in the eye.
Here's another effective technique for dealing with a chronic naysayer who shoots down an idea or makes a negative comment in a meeting: Ask whether anyone else would like to say something, and then wait. I don't mean for 3–5 seconds; I mean for 30–60 seconds. Usually the naysayer thinks no one will talk back. (That's the intimidation factor he or she has come to rely on.) But if you extend the silence, someone will often speak up and refute the negativity, and then others will chime in. When I've done this, I can actually see people sitting up straighter and feeling better about the meeting.

Be the Joy in Your School

When you light up as you greet or talk to a teacher, student, or parent, that person knows that he or she matters to you. At the beginning of the day, I always tell my students that I am happy they came to school; when they leave for the day, I tell them that I can't wait to see them tomorrow.
It's not always easy to maintain that positive attitude, especially when you are bombarded with problems and fires to put out all day. One thing that helps me is to keep a book with inspiring quotes, affirming letters, and positive thoughts. When I have a down moment, I take the book out and read a few passages. It has saved many a day and has brought me back to joy.
I write a Monday Memo with news and upcoming events for the week and send it to every teacher. Each memo starts with a quote or inspirational story. Many teachers have confided in me that this item came at just the moment when they needed it, or they've commented, "I cut that one out and have it hanging on my refrigerator."
Little things make a big difference. For example, I take a recess or bus duty for each teacher's birthday. The teacher can schedule it any time during his or her birthday month. (For teachers born in the summer, I do it for their half-birthdays.) It's amazing how priceless an extra half hour is to a teacher. When it is their duty-free day, teachers act like they just won the lottery!
I also started an affirmation program. At our biweekly faculty meeting, I would pull two names of staff members from a hat, and they would be the people we "affirmed" for two weeks. I gave no direction on what the affirmations should be. For some, it was just telling the teacher, "You're doing a great job" as they passed in the hall; others sent notes or even brought the teacher flowers from their gardens. Some of the more seasoned teachers initially thought it was corny—but after their affirmation weeks, they were glowing and said they had not felt that good in years!

Keep That Rant to Yourself

There are going to be many moments, days, or even weeks when you want to scream, cry, rant, rave, complain, and let your hair down to someone at work. You may think you can confide in a certain teacher you have grown close to, or a fellow administrator, or a compassionate parent. Don't do it! Everything you say can and will be used against you.
You are not in your job to make friends. If you vent about any of your problems at work, they will come back to bite you. You have friends on the outside; confide in them and then get over it.
Often I am asked to join a group of teachers for an after-school event or for dinner. I decline. Your friends, especially close ones, should have little or nothing to do with your job.

Challenge People to Be Part of the Solution

There will always be certain members of your faculty who just want to point out the problems. Some will come to you with every little thing they see that needs fixing immediately—by you.
One veteran teacher always brought problems to my attention in such a way that it felt like she was blaming everyone, most of all me, for what went wrong. When I called her into my office to talk about goals for the year, I thanked her for bringing important issues to my attention and for her dedication to the school community. I asked her to be part of the solution team at the school. I told her that when she brought me a problem, she must also have a few suggestions for solutions—and they must be solutions that she could help with. She became a huge supporter who had great ideas for addressing many problems at the school.
This practice has been successful in turning some of my biggest "problem spotters" into valuable allies. Often, such teachers have been at the school long before you got there. You need to show them that they are appreciated for all their great ideas.
First-year teachers may present the opposite problem—often they are reluctant to raise issues because they feel they don't know enough. During my first year, I asked all the new teachers to write down any questions that arose for them at any time during the year and to give these questions to me. I incorporated all their questions in a guide for new teachers for the following years. The questions in the book were helpful—even the littlest things were addressed, such as, Where can I find the copier paper, and how do I reload the machine?

Say It, Mean It, and Do It

It is easier said than done, but watch your words. If you say something, mean it—and if you mean it, do it.
Pick your battles. I've had many teachers, parents, and fellow administrators come to me with suggestions, ideas, new ways of doing things, problems to be solved, and the like. If I cannot get behind an idea 100 percent, I will not back it—even if it's a good idea in theory. You can always validate the person who suggests a good idea by adding it to an index file of ideas to consider in the future. If you try to be all things to all people, you will burn out.

Take Care of You

Your first year is bound to be hard, and to avoid burnout, you need to find ways to nurture yourself. The only balancing act that works in the long run is to put yourself first, your family second, and your job third.
I love to run, but I have a hard time fitting in even a short run. So I run with my students at lunchtime. Any student can join me. The Recess Runners group has turned into a huge success that promotes fitness and camaraderie.
Sometimes, when the day is so crazy that I'm at the office until late in the evening, I sit in my driveway for a few minutes to listen to a favorite song on the radio before I go into the house. Or during an especially hectic day, I close my office door for five minutes, take the phone off the hook, and rest my eyes and breathe deeply.
Putting yourself first for even a few minutes will rejuvenate you to give and give some more. After all, isn't that what being an administrator is all about?

Fake It Until You Make It

As a rookie principal, you will worry that you don't know enough. You must trust yourself and be (or pretend to be) confident. You did not get this job because you were a wallflower. Someone (or many someones) believed in you enough to appoint you to this position.
People love to be in the presence of a confident individual. Be that person, and if you doubt yourself, just keep faking it until you make it. Believe me—it will come to you. We become what we think about most. So think of yourself as an amazing leader, and that is what you'll be.
Source: From The Art of School Leadership (p. 89) by T. Hoerr, 2005, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission with the Summer 2013 Educational Leadership article "My First-Year Journey" by Peggy Campbell-Rush.

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