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December 1, 2017
Vol. 59
No. 12

Surviving a New Leadership Position

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For a school leader, starting in a new building is hard—really hard. Whether you are brand new to the principalship or new to a school or grade level, deciding what to prioritize can be overwhelming. We have found, over time and across settings, that focusing on one area in each of your first four years can guide effective change and instructional improvement. Although there are many ways to acclimate as a new leader, this game plan worked for us.

1. Relationships and Immediate Needs

Year one is all about relationships: It is vital to get to know who you are serving, their needs, their stories, and their dreams. Solicit 360° feedback and look at student and staff performance, attendance, and discipline data for clues. As you get to know your stakeholders, you will start to understand your community's culture. Relationships can be fostered through team-building activities, parent involvement nights, and simply being present as you greet kids at the door, say goodbye to kids on bus duty, or move around the building.
At the same time, take care of those immediate needs that get in the way of culture, function, and student outcomes. Your credibility will be established by how well you take on difficult situations, lead hard conversations, and show that you care. This starts with presenting your nonnegotiables as a leader. For us, this included being honest, transparent, and prepared—and always putting kids first.

2. Systems and Structures

Year two is about fine-tuning systems and structures, such as master schedules and behavioral expectations. What are the roadblocks to student success? How is data monitored and tracked, how is discipline processed, how are students' emotional needs being met, and how are teachers supported with professional development? The path to success requires allowing teachers to teach effectively with systems and structures that support student growth.
Much of this success comes down to applying consistent expectations for adults and students. Are staff members upholding agreed-upon expectations for transitions, rules, policies, supports, and functions? Are they holding one another accountable for them? Do they have resources and structures to do so? Continually work through these questions as a team to solidify relationships across the building. If you don't have a system in place, when a need arises you will find yourself scrambling for a solution.

3. Learn. Learn. Learn.

Year three is all about student learning! After establishing solid relationships and systems and structures, now is the time to focus on teaching. You have to drive discussions about student cultures, needs, and learning styles so that teachers can provide instructional approaches and activities that are both universal and relevant to your diverse population. Be it trauma-informed, brain-based, or culturally responsive teaching—best practice is best practice.
As student populations and dynamics change, instructional methodologies can lag. To be agile in meeting these evolving needs, you must continually provide examples and development for staff in high-leverage practices that help all students. The priority should be ensuring student engagement versus compliance, and the most efficient way to monitor this is to fine-tune the use of formative assessment. Are staff members effectively using questioning strategies to check for understanding and being responsive to the needs identified through that questioning? Most importantly, are they communicating with one another through a professional learning team model about how students are performing?

4. No Excuses

Finally, year four is about getting after it and not having excuses. They are "our kids," not "these kids." Focus on what's best for the whole and triage the parts that need greater attention. Don't get hung up on homework not getting done or because a student needs a nap in the afternoon. Understand that what you do is hard work and that you will be tired. If people told you it was supposed to be easy, they were mistaken.
This is a year of pulling it all together. Teachers will be rocking it with engaging classroom instruction, and you will be leading with passion and vision. In our experience, the magic happens when you let things flow and come together as a school community. Although it may seem overwhelming, take it one step at a time, one year at a time. Just remember to breathe.
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