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Great Starts: Veteran Principals Offer Opening-Day Tips

Are you a first-year principal? A veteran with many years under your belt? It doesn't matter! All principals will learn a thing or two from this article about making the first day of the new school year a smooth one for kids, parents, teachers, and you! Included: Tips for a great first day!

Education World's Principal Files principals have seen it all. They have survived the opening day of school -- some of them 20 times or more! These old hands have experienced every first-day problem you could possibly imagine, and then some. Apprentice principals -- and experienced principals too -- stand to learn a lot from these masters as they offer their best advice about surviving opening-day jitters, avoiding pitfalls, and coping with problems on the first day of school. In addition, they have some advice for helping ease the stress parents and kids feel about opening day.

Planning Ahead Is Key

Principal Les Potter's advice for the first day is simple: Plan, plan, and plan.

"Look at hiring staff, the master schedule, student schedules, transportation issues, orientation, supplies, bell schedules, the school handbook, facility repairs, new student registration and schedules" Potter said. "The list is long, but if you don't plan first, the first day -- or the first weeks -- can be a disaster.

"Review all the possible scenarios in your head and on paper, create checklists of what you need to do, then be prepared for the unexpected," added Potter. He also suggested meeting with an experienced principal or two from nearby schools to pick their brains about planning for the first day.

Organizing the first day from start to finish is key to starting out the school year on a successful note, added principal Ernest Elliott. For new principals, Elliott had this advice: "Rely on the experienced, professional teachers who have been through many first days of school," said Elliott. "They will be a wealth of information about problem areas or areas that might require special attention -- such as the playground and the hallways. I would suggest having an overload of supervision in those places."

"I work very closely with the head custodian before school starts," says principal Tony Pallija. "I have a checklist that includes everything he needs to get things ready." That way, the custodian will be 'on your side' when you make those inevitable requests on opening day, added Pallija.

"You can't be too organized on the first day of school," concluded Pallija. "Put everything in writing, then keep it in a database for next year."

Make a List of Lists

Having lists of things to do before school is extremely important. But having lists prepared for Day One is essential! "Have lists that indicate where kids should go when they first arrive at school," principal Don Finelli told Education World, adding, "Homeroom lists should be posted everywhere. They should be copied to all staff too. Monitors who also are carrying lists should be in the hallways, prepared to meet-and-greet and respond to questions."

The most common questions during the first days revolve around What's my schedule? and What time is lunch? Readily available lists will help staff respond to those questions, said Finelli.

Locker assignments are a big deal on the first day too, said Finelli. Ernest Elliott agreed: "For new students in the building, lockers can be their biggest dread. If you have lockers, be sure to have individuals available who can open the lockers with a key or have lists of locker assignments and combinations and know the correct way to open them."

The Welcome-Back Letter

The back-to-school letter is a staple of many teachers and school principals. "My back-to-school letter gets mailed home in early August," said principal Lolli Haws. "That letter always includes the name of the child's new teacher and invites parents to write a letter to the teacher! That gives parents an opportunity to tell the teacher everything he or she might want or need to know about the child on the first day of school."

Before the First Day of School...

Our principals offered the following thoughts about some things you can do before opening day

"Delegate everything you can," said Brian Hazeltine. "Once kids arrive, teachers want to be with them. They don't want to be dealing with not having enough desks or texts, or with wrong placements. Leave yourself the wiggle room to be able to handle those or other problems as they arise."

"I always get out last year's photo album prior to the first day," suggested Lolli Haws. "That helps refresh my mind about kids' names, so I can welcome them back by name on the first day."

"I also walk around on the last afternoon before opening day, so teachers can show off their rooms to me," said Donnette McNeill-Waters. "I always like to schedule start-of-the-year training so teachers get a 3-day weekend before opening day."

"Put welcoming signs or banners in the teachers' room," suggested Jean Carolyn Williams. And don't forget the bus drivers. "Present them with a welcome-back, glad-to-have-you note and a cup of coffee, a pin, a pen, or whatever else you can to show appreciation for the contributions they make to the school."

Haws' annual welcome letter also invites students and their parents to drop in for a "Meet Your Teacher" event late in the afternoon two days before school starts. "That event, which lasts an hour, gives students a chance to go to their classrooms and find their desks, cubbies, or backpack hooks, and to meet some of the other kids who will be in the class," Haws explained. "It gives parents a chance to put a face to the teacher's name and to chat informally." While this is going on, the school PTO holds an ice cream social on the front lawn. That way, parents drop in on the classroom and then move right back out. Traffic does not get bogged down in the classrooms.

In addition, the letter provides details to help pre-empt jitters the child might have about going back to school, added Haws. It includes such information as the time the child should plan to arrive at school on the first day and where the child should go when he or she arrives. The letter helps relieve parent stress by sharing details about an orientation session held on the second day of school for parents who are new to the area or school. It also announces the date of Open House, which is always held during the second week of school; most returning parents can hold their questions until then, Haws noted.

"Finally, the letter provides a link to the teacher's Web page," added Haws. "The teacher Web pages list the supplies students should collect for the first day of school and provides links to fun Web sites that offer information about topics they'll be studying when school starts."

A back-to-school letter is a great way to introduce yourself if you are a new principal, added principal Addie Gaines. A phone call is better -- but that might not be doable; a post card is almost as good and can save money, she added. While you are in a letter-writing frame of mind, why not write a letter to the teachers too?

"A letter is an easy way for a new principal to touch base with teachers and let them know you are interested in getting to know them over the summer months," said Gaines. "[When I was hired], I sent out a letter introducing myself and stating my goals for the year. In that letter, I gave teachers a link to a survey I had created on the CreateSurvey Web site. I asked each teacher to complete the survey when they had a chance." The survey helped start before-school e-mail conversations with a handful of the teachers, noted Gaines. Among the questions she asked teachers to respond to were:

  • What can you tell me about yourself?
  • What are your professional goals for the year ahead?
  • What do you like best about teaching?
  • What do you like best about our school? What would you change?
  • Is our current discipline plan working?

"The final item was an open-ended opportunity to tell me anything else I should know," said Gaines. "Although I did not get a 100 percent response before school started, I continued to ask teachers to do this. Eventually, I got answers from everyone."

Easing Stress on Kids Too!

Some principals address their welcome-to-school letters directly to students instead of parents. "If a new principal wants to get the year off to a successful start, I would suggest writing a letter to the students," said principal Debbie Levitz. "Talk about yourself, your family -- including your pets! -- your interests or hobbies, and, most important of all, your vision for the children in the year ahead.

"Be sure to add a P.S. that says 'Please remind your parents of these important dates,' and list events such as Back-to-School Night and the date class pictures will be taken."

But, Most of All . . . 

Probably the most important thing for a new principal -- or any principal -- to remember about the first day of school is to BE VISIBLE!

"This is not the day to hide in your office," said principal Kim McLean. "Greet students at the door, wander the halls, poke your head in on the classes, walk out to the busses"

"Put everything else on the back burner," urged principal Nancy Jenkins. "This is the day to meet and greet and to smile, smile, smile. The community wants to see if you really care about kids, and you show that by being visible."

"See that you are visible in the building and out on the grounds," recommended Ernest Elliott. "Do this for staff, students, and parents. All those people need to see that you are on the job and that you are 'in charge.'"

"Forget the large, impersonal assembly on the first day," suggested Debbie Levitz. "Instead, visit each classroom to welcome students and share some of your expectations in terms of respect, effort, and behavior. Sit down with kids in the lunchroom and ask them how their first day has been. Be outside after school to say goodbye."

"Whether you're a new principal or a veteran, there is absolutely no substitute for visibility at the start of a new term," concluded Larry Anderson. "Being visible sets the tone for the remainder of the year," added Marguerite McNeely.

"Don't schedule any appointments," cautioned Lolli Haws. "Keep a notebook with you all day. Jot down things to do in your office after the last child has left the building or tomorrow -- but don't plan or arrange to be in your office all day."

"And take time to get to the kindergarten classes shortly after school begins to help ease anxious parents out the door so teachers can get on with the first day," added Haws.

Or you might do as principal Jean Carolyn Williams does. "Parents who are leaving kindergartners -- or any student who is new to the school -- are nervous. Have a small 'welcoming center' for them and make yourself available to calm their worries."

Wrapping Things up on the First Day

Making sure that the end of the first day of school goes as smoothly as the start of the day is important to a number of our P-Files principals. "At the end of the day, I like to go to each class to see how the teacher's day went and to find out if they have any questions," Kim McLean told Education World. "I make sure to compliment them on a good first day and to reassure them that the rest of the days will be good ones too."

"The first day is stressful for everyone, so I put a little treat in each staff person's mailbox," said Lolli Haws.

Nancy Jenkins likes to end the first day on a positive note too. She makes it a point to stay upbeat, and to not mention anything she saw that might have raised an eyebrow. "There will be plenty of time later to tweak things," Jenkins said.

At the end of the day, Jenkins will be worn out but invigorated by the great job her staff did to pull off a successful opening. "When I taught, I taught to make a difference to the kids," Jenkins reflected. "Now I administer to make a difference to the adults who, in turn, impact the kids. It's a tough job, but it is so rewarding."

We hope -- after all that first-day advance prep is over, and after all the meeting and greeting is done -- that you will see the impact you have and feel the same way Nancy Jenkins does.

And that the second day of school is even better than the first!

For more resources to help you and your teachers prepare for the first day of school, don't miss Education World's special Back to School page!

This Month's Contributors

The following principals offered their insights in this article:
* Laurance E. Anderson, Gunther School, North Bellmore, New York
* Ernest Elliott, Hacker Middle School, Mountain Home, Idaho
* Don Finelli, Catskill High School, Catskill, New York
* Addie Gaines, Kirbyville Elementary School, Kirbyville, Missouri
* Dr. Lolli Haws, Avery Elementary School, Webster Groves, Missouri
* Brian Hazeltine, Airdrie Koinonia Christian School, Airdrie, Alberta (Canada)
* Nancy Jenkins, Guin Foss Elementary School, Santa Ana, California
* Deborah Levitz, West Elementary School, Stoughton, Massachusetts
* Kim McLean, Calgary Academy, Calgary, Alberta (Canada)
* Marguerite McNeely, Oak Hill High School, Hineston, Louisiana
* Donnette McNeill-Waters, Bennion Elementary School, Taylorsville, Utah
* Tony Pallija North Canton Hoover High School, North Canton, Ohio
* Dr. Les Potter, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
* Jean Carolyn Williams, Turner Middle School, Lithia Springs, Georgia

Click here if you are a principal who might like to contribute to a future Principal Files article.


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
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