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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2
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Readers share advice for new school leaders about the first 90 days on the job.

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Leadership
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Be the “Lead Learner”

Congratulations on being a new leader! From now on, you need to be the lead learner in your school or district. Being curious about deepening your skill set and knowledge is vital, and being open with others on your learning journey demonstrates the qualities you would like to see in those you lead. Do a lot of listening during those first 90 days, and when possible, carry out some suggestions offered by staff or students, so they know you are truly hearing them. When you make tough decisions, get as much information as possible, then give yourself grace if the outcome is not as positive as you would have wished. Be open to community members and families who have lived in the district for a long time. They have wisdom and connections that can be useful to you when making decisions.
—Jill Merolla, supervisor of community outreach and grant development, Warren City Schools, Warren, Ohio

Establish Trust

The most important things to do in the first 90 days are to listen to and build relationships with all constituencies—on and off your campus. When people are heard, they will be more open to supporting new initiatives in the future. Remember that it is hard to move ideas forward without support, so spend time building relationships early. Then, when it’s time to make changes, you will have their trust and support.
—Anne Schaefer-Salinas, principal, Incarnate Word High School, San Antonio, Texas

Listen to Others (and to Yourself)

One of the most powerful practices I’ve learned is self-led listening, as taught by the Self-Leadership Collaborative. Simply put, self-led listening means being aware of who you are and where you are coming from to be more attuned to others. I advise new leaders to take a few minutes (or even seconds) to breathe deeply throughout the day, especially when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Brain research shows that this optimizes our capacity to think. This spaciousness also allows us to access our inner self, which fosters and guides relational connection with clarity and compassion. When engaging in conversations with others, be present for the speaker and avoid distractions (silence the phone, close the laptop). Listen to their perspective. Be curious. Ask clarifying questions. Understand others’ experiences and needs rather than rushing to fix things or solve problems. Embrace the philosophy of the Navy SEALS, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
—Kirsten Sanderson, retired curriculum specialist, West Hartford, Connecticut

Communicate with Families

My advice to new leaders is to ensure you’re reaching all families in your district by addressing barriers to school-home communication. Two-way, data-informed communication helps to build trust between school and home and supports student success. In our district, we use SchoolStatus—a comprehensive education communications, analytics, and workflow platform—and Smore, which allows us to easily create visually appealing newsletters to communicate with students’ support systems at home. Both tools offer built-in translation, so our messages reach families in the language spoken at home. When thinking about how you will engage your community, consider any language, technology, or time barriers that parents or caregivers may face and address those with your communication strategy.
—Andrew Fernandez, chief of communications and technology, San Marcos CISD, San Marcos, Texas

Build Relationships from the Start

School leaders should get to know teachers, staff, students, and parents. Building relationships is important. Setting up focus groups to discuss what is working and what could be better should provide helpful insights. Creating a collaborative vision that showcases the school and is known by all is key. Be humble and open to learning from others!
—Todd Feltman, literacy collaborative coach, New York City Department of Education, New York, New York

Prioritize Face Time

Throw that list away! The first few months on a new campus should be about building meaningful relationships with all stakeholders! Get into the classroom, work the carpool line, visit the cafeteria during lunch, stand in the hallways, etc. All school leaders, especially new leaders, should have “face time” with members of their school community. Building a strong rapport is an essential role and responsibility of any school leader.
—Amanda Austin, principal, North Iberville High School, Rosedale, Louisiana

Know That Quick Encounters Add Up

In the first 90 days, a school leader signals their priorities to the community. “Listening and learning before responding” is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. By organizing those initial days with informal meet and greets and prioritizing visibility, a school leader establishes that they are approachable in their communication style. Our middle-level leadership team hosted several “coffee and conversations” with families, faculty, and staff. The theme of these conversations ranged from summer family vacations to sharing bright spots about the upcoming school year. As these conversations ended, a sense of community emerged. We even hosted virtual meet and greets for families who could not come in person and invited them to eat their breakfast as they tuned in! Yet, we did not stop at these initial sessions. We greeted students as they entered the school doors, sat in the cafeteria, observed passing time to witness student-to-student interactions, and routinely asked faculty and staff members about their day. These quick encounters reflected our commitment to a welcoming school climate and culture. For those first 90 days, my advice is to wear comfortable shoes because you should be on the move!
—Nilda Irizarry, principal, Irving A. Robbins Middle School, Farmington, Connecticut

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