The Education World Principal Files principals have dozens of years of "principal-ing" under their belts. So we turned to them to try to help this year's crop of new principals. Advice from our P-Files principals includes the following: Listen to your staff, from the kindergarten teacher to the custodian. Don't take teachers for granted. Don't forget the kids. And don't neglect your own family! Included: Timely and wise advice for first-year principals. Even experienced principals might learn a thing or two!
"A gut wrencher!"
That's how principal Ralph Lowe recalls his first year as a school principal. For other principals, even "gut wrencher" might be an understatement!
Now in his fifth year as a principal, Lowe can look back and smile about his first year at the helm of a school. Recently, we asked Lowe and the rest of our "Principal Files" Principals to reflect on their years of experience and to offer advice to those individuals who are about to embark on their administrative careers.
LISTENING IS KEY
One piece of advice, echoed by principal after principal, was "Listen!"
Listening is especially important advice for first-time principals or for principals who are new to a school, says principal Phil Shaman. "It is important for any new administrator to gather input from those who have been on staff at the school for some time," he advises. "Ask [the staff] about what is working in the school and what is not. Meet with people individually, talk with them, get some insight.
"Don't try to change everything overnight," adds Shaman.
Principal Betty Peltier agrees. Let the school's faculty know up front that you intend to spend some time assessing the situation, she says. "Get in and learn how the school works before making any major changes. Some of the things you think would never work may be great ideas that work for that school."
"Remember the school ran OK before you got there, and it will run OK after you leave," notes principal Laura Crochet. "Many individuals guide the ship. Find them and solicit their thoughts." Those individuals include the school custodian, the secretary, the bus driver, even the kid who's always in trouble, Crochet explains.
"Spend most of your time listening to staff, students, and parents," suggests principal Helene Dykes. "Get concerns out in the open, and be as accessible as possible. Be visible in classrooms and throughout the school. Make it a priority to visit classrooms every day. It's amazing how much information you can gather just by being out of your office and approachable.
"Save paperwork until the end of the day when things have quieted down," Dykes adds.
DON'T TAKE TEACHERS FOR GRANTED
"Don't forget that there's a wealth of talent around you," was Bonita Henderson's advice. "Staff members who are adept at scheduling could use their expertise to help devise a master schedule; staff members who are well known in the community might request volunteers or donations for school events; those who are good organizers could be tapped to organize an after-school parent activity, a Family Math Night, a carnival, or an ice-cream social.
"Principals need to find out what people's talents are and put them to work for the good of the children and the school," adds Henderson. "Even disgruntled employees have talents, and approaching them for their help just might turn them around. Everyone loves to feel important and needed."
"Keep the personal in personnel," states principal Bill Myers. "Remember at all times that you are dealing with people and feelings. Walk around classrooms and ... support your staff. Teaching is hard work."
"Don't try to do it all yourself," Lowe says. "Give the teachers everything you can to help them do their job; then get out of the way and let them do it. Remember, 'It's better to give than to receive.' Give them compliments. Share victories. Give them credit."
"Feed the teachers, or else they'll eat the students!" adds Lowe.
FIND A MENTOR ... AND MORE GREAT ADVICE!
"My advice to any new principal is to find a mentor," says principal Martha Santiago. "A true mentor is not just someone assigned by the superintendent. The mentor is there when needed to discuss issues, offer advice, bounce ideas, help with making decisions. ..."
"Have a guiding mission," is the advice of principal Teri Stokes. "Develop a real mission statement that is very personal, one that's just for you! No need to share it with the world. Keep it where you can see it everyday, on the bathroom mirror or refrigerator, for example. Read it every day, then go do it!"
Stokes has a personal mission statement. It begins "Be proactive in all my endeavors. ... It's a whole page long, but that is the essence of it."
Bill Myers's wife is a social worker. Years ago, she recommended a book she thought would help him develop a good relationship with his children. "The book, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber, is one I recommend to parents, teachers, and administrators," Myers says. "I still use many suggestions from the book on the last of my four children. We rarely have heated confrontations because I have learned my lessons well."
Family is also the at the heart of the advice principal Melody Nichols offers new principals: "Make sure that time with your family is listed as an important priority appointment on your calendar; at least once a week is best!"
DON'T FORGET THE KIDS!
Every principal knows it, but some forget it, and principal Jim Thompson reminds us of it by posing the question "Is it good for the kids?" That simple question should be your litmus test, Thompson tells Education World. It should guide all the decisions you make.
Ralph Lowe agrees wholeheartedly. "Put the interests of the students at the heart of every decision," he says.
"It's natural in the first year to be worried about yourself: "How am I doing? Am I really a good principal? Was that fiasco my fault?" So it's easy to lose your focus," Lowe points out. "Keep the focus off yourself and on what school is all about."
Be yourself too, Lowe advises. "Don't try to act like a principal or a big shot," he says. "Sooner or later the real you will show up, no matter how hard you try to hide it."
Most of the principals Lowe knows had their characters stretched early in their administrations. "You probably will question everything about yourself and your abilities," concludes Lowe. "This is normal and it has the wonderful potential of causing tremendous personal growth."
"Don't quit!" Lowe adds. "It gets better and easier as you gain your stripes. Remember, you don't get medals without the wounds."