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Principals Share Lessons Learned: Staffing Decisions, Bringing About School Change

Members of Education World's "Principal Files" team have turned mistakes they've made into valuable lessons they are willing to share with you. Included: Lessons learned about staffing, bringing about change, and the importance of listening.

ImageFresh from a doctoral degree program, Patricia Green was ready to set the world on fire as an administrator. She researched, wrote, and received a grant to create a learning center where struggling students could receive the extra attention needed to raise their reading, writing, and math skills. "The program design was flawless," said Green. "The money was welcome in times of limited resources. We were going to make a big statement!"

"Unfortunately, in my zeal to get the grant, I forgot a major step," Green said. "I didn't involve my teachers from the beginning of the project. I thought I was doing them a favor -- knowing how busy teachers are -- by handling all the planning, researching, designing, and writing myself."

"Had I spent a little time engaging my teachers and building on their ideas when I started the application process, I would have ensured their buy-in from the very beginning," added Green, who is principal at Cedar Heights Junior High School in Port Orchard, Washington. "Although the project eventually was a success, it was a struggle."

"The lesson I learned was that collaboration and participation is imperative," Green concluded. "Without shared decisions, things don't work nearly as well as they could. With shared decisions, things take longer on the front end, but the end results are far better."


Patricia Green is not the only principal who has ever made a mistake. But mistakes that result in learning are not really mistakes at all; they are valuable lessons learned.

See the sidebar for links to more leadership "lessons learned."

Education World's "Principal Files" team members have been kind enough to share some of the lessons experience has taught them, such as this one


Lessons Learned
The Hard Way

See more Lessons Learned the Hard Way:
Volume 1
Volume 2


One Idaho principal, who chooses to remain anonymous, is still reeling from a fresh lesson. He wishes he had taken more time in making a recent hire. "I hired a language arts teacher who should be on an IEP herself," the principal said.

In the end, the principal had to transfer the new hire to an aide position -- one where she would have little contact with students -- and bring in a new teacher at semester break.

"My mistake was listening only to verbal references and not checking farther," the principal explained. "I was given generic information by a former administrator who had worked with this teacher. I guess I did not listen closely enough to what was being said. If I had, I might have picked up on the need to question further to get specific information."

"In the end, I learned that this teacher had been in trouble in her previous two schools and had been part of the infamous 'dance of the lemons' several times," he added.

"I learned two valuable lessons," the principal concluded. "First, I will never do another reference check without asking very specific, detailed questions on the performance and personality background of a potential candidate. Second, I will never be a 'lemon dancer' and do to another administrative colleague what was done to me."

More Principal Lessons

Donnette McNeill-Waters, principal at Bennion Elementary School in Taylorsville, Utah, has learned many lessons in her years in administration. Following are just a few of those lessons:

* What we do is all about people, not policy. This is not to say that we don't follow the policy, but we have a lot of flexibility when deciding what is best for kids.

* Sometimes you discipline children at school without notifying parents, because the home is not stable.

* The moments you take to recognize teachers, or just say thanks, pay back tenfold.

* When information comes from the district office and it seems not quite right, hold all actions and conversations for a few days. Things usually get revised and re-delivered.

* Finally, I have learned that if I had 96 hours every day, it wouldn't be enough. The most important thing I can do is smile, and make each person think I have all the time in the world to listen.


Lolli Haws learned a valuable lesson early in her principal career. "I think almost all of the major mistakes I've made have stemmed from one thing -- not listening well or long enough or carefully enough or at all," said Hawes, principal at Avery Elementary School in Webster Groves, Missouri. "Asking for input and listening to what others are saying can create fewer upsets and problems down the road."

"I used to want to interrupt and explain and justify or defend -- which only made people more upset," Hawes explained. "I've learned that letting an upset person feel heard, not interrupting, restating what they've said, and allowing them plenty of time to get it off their chest goes a long way toward letting the problem resolve itself. I've also seen that people will often accept a decision or outcome contrary to what they wanted originally if they believe their point of view was listened to respectfully and taken into consideration."

Another lesson Hawes has learned is to temper her desire to handle things quickly and efficiently. She has learned that there are drawbacks to being too quick to make a decision. "I've learned that I should be more willing to say 'Let me think about that and get back to you.' That gives me time to reflect and think through alternatives, implications, and points of view. Time reduces the knee-jerk responses or responding with too much emotion to upsetting things. I've gotten much better at that over my 9 years as principal, and I'm a better principal for it."


"The biggest challenge I have found is balancing the need to both honor a school's past and move it into the future," one Rhode Island principal told Education World. "I constantly struggle with how to delicately let people know that sometimes 'the way we've always done it' is just not good enough. I struggle with finding a method of instituting change without appearing to be disrespectful of the status quo and the work good teachers have done for years."

That principal is certainly not alone. Bringing about change in any organization -- whether a business, the government, or a school -- can be a very difficult proposition. The struggle to find ways to get teachers to accept -- and adapt to change -- is a universal one for school principals. Finding the right blend of diplomacy and chiding, professional development and empowerment, top-down delivery and delegation are just a handful of the issues principals must consider as they lead their schools toward change.

Les Potter and Jim DeGenova are two more school leaders who have learned valuable lessons about trying to bring about reform at the school and classroom levels.

"Probably the biggest goof I made early in my career as a principal was believing that everyone on the staff felt the same way I did about raising standards, improving academics, and reforming schools in general," said Les Potter, principal at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida.

Unless everybody is on board and agrees that change is necessary, any kind of change will be a long, slow process, Potter added. "I had to do a lot more cajoling, politicking, and back-stepping than I would have if I realized that change would be such an ordeal to some people."

"I have heard it said that when it comes to school reform and bringing about change about a third of the people will get on board with you, a third will be neutral, and the other third just don't care or might even sabotage your ideas," said Potter.

In Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, assistant principal Jim DeGenova admits to making some erroneous assumptions when he jumped on the teacher empowerment bandwagon. "Thinking that all teachers would want some control of their work environment was based on my beliefs and desires without consideration of other personalities," DeGenova told Education World. "What happened was a resounding thud. It took time, but I came to the conclusion that with empowerment comes responsibility for the decisions made. Many teachers did not like the repercussions from parents, other staff, students, upper administration, and the community."

"As a result of that experience I now take a 'middle of the road' approach," explained DeGenova. "I try to enlist those who are interested, lead those who aren't sure, and allow those who don't agree with me to continue in their current direction if they are successful at what they do. That allows for individuals to be individuals, and it allows individuals who are looking for professional development as a teacher to grow."

Potter recalls one school he led that was in need of real change -- in just about every respect. But the staff was basically happy with the status quo. "Even though our test scores were near the bottom in our school district, most staff members were content. Our drop out rates, discipline stats, and attendance were at the bottom too. As one teacher put it to me: Well, somebody has to be at the bottom.

"In fairness, there were a number of very fine teachers at the school who were doing their best -- but they weren't looking to change," said Potter. "As you can imagine, implementing change in that high school was very difficult."

"Change isn't difficult just in low-performing schools," Potter added. "I was principal of a perceived excellent school, but test scores were falling. Even when I showed the data to the staff, most were skeptical about the need for change and fought it every step of the way."

More Principal Lessons

Tony Pallija, principal at Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio, has been a principal for more than 15 years. His years in the principal's office have taught him many lessons, including the following:

* Don't make excuses, the buck stops at the principal's door. Even if someone else in the building makes a mistake, take the responsibly that comes with the principalship.

* Always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you don't know the truth, you have to go out and find it.

* If you are having trouble with your new boss -- the superintendent -- and he or she is not the one who hired you for the principalship, learn to get along -- or dust off your resume.

* If you make a mistake, admit it, say you are sorry, and try to fix it as best you can


Another P-Files principal, who chooses to remain unnamed, has several years of valuable lessons under his belt. One of the most memorable was in his early days as an elementary principal, when he wanted nothing more than to please. It had been drilled into him during his administration program that what teachers wanted most was a principal who was there when they needed you, had the supplies required when they needed them, and had the ability to step into the classroom to help when they needed it.

"So, when one of my teachers asked me to help her with a parent-gift project that would involve technology and writing," he said, "I jumped at the chance." Her plan was to make a calendar with the class picture on it and some student writings scattered throughout.

"As the project neared an end, I noticed that we were getting awfully close to the Christmas break," the principal explained. "I learned the project would be ready for printing at the end of the day so, at day's end, I fired up the printer, loaded the paper tray, and began to print the document. The file was huge and the printer slow. About a third of the way through the job, my printer ate the print cartridge."

It was after 10:00 p.m., and no extra cartridge was to be found. Early the next morning the principal drove into the nearest town of size, but no cartridge was available. He drove to the next town of size, purchased a cartridge, and headed back to school.

"It was early afternoon the day before Christmas break and this 'gift' was less than a third complete," he explained. "I worked throughout the night to print the needed 21 copies of this calendar. When the staff arrived the next morning, the calendar was ready for delivery to the teacher."

The calendar activity taught a valuable lesson. "I learned to never underestimate the time required to infuse technology regardless of how simple the task," the principal explained. "I also learned to ask more questions about projects before agreeing to do them for someone else. And most importantly, I learned to establish a timeline for a project that fit my schedule, not just the teacher's schedule."

"Helping others is what principals are about, but sometimes helping someone can transfer all the responsibility from them to you, and that is not what principal help is really intended to be," he concluded.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 11/16/2004
Last updated 04/30/ 2007