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Principals on the Move:
Tips for Making
A Smooth Move


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Part 1: Listen a Lot, Connect With the Custodian, and Go Slooooow

Want to make a good impression in your new school? If you have just been assigned to a new school for next school year, or if youre taking your first job as a principal, this article is for you. Included: Members of our Principals Files team who have been-there-done-that, offer tips for what to do and what not to do.

Click to read part 2 of this article:
Connecting With Teachers, Kids, Parents, and the Community

Click to read part 3 of this article:
Moving On: More Tips and Advice from Principals

So the superintendent is shuffling things -- and principals -- around. You got the word that youll be leaving your comfortable school setting for a new assignment clear across town. Whether you see the impending move as a terrific opportunity or a dreaded sentence to Siberia, members of Education Worlds Principal Files team who have been there, done that say there are steps you can take to ensure the transition goes smoothly.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: LISTEN A LOT

John Durkee was an assistant principal for three years before landing his dream job at Marcellus (New York) High School. As a fledgling administrator in my prior district, I had the best mentor, who gave me this advice: Two eyes, two ears, one mouth -- use them in that proportion.

That advice has become my mantra, and, for the most part, I have experienced my biggest successes while following it.

For Laurence Anderson, a similar approach serves as his best advice for principals who might find themselves in a new school this summer. I subscribe to the Triple L school of thought, said Anderson. I Listen, Look, and Learn every hour of the day.

Trading Spaces

A new administrator needs to make their own space right away, Vickie Luchuck told Education World. If you need to, bring in your family or friends and do it one evening, but setting up the office right away is important because once the job begins, you'll have no time for things like that.

Setting up the office might mean arranging your phone and computer in a way that will be comfortable for you; setting up a file drawer or bookshelf to create a space that you know well and use often; or bringing in photos and other accessories, said Luchuck, who is assistant principal at South Harrison Middle School in Lost Creek, West Virginia.

When Luchuck landed her current job, she also set up a new key ring for keys she needed to have quick access to.

I guess -- to sum up -- do all those seemingly insignificant things right away, because they will make normal daily routines go more smoothly.

Anderson reports that this philosophy has served him well in past assignments and this year, his first year as principal of AHRC Middle/High School in Brooklyn, New York. He suggests that the listening might begin in a meeting at the superintendents office.

One of the first things I suggest is to meet with the superintendent to determine your schools priority needs from her perspective. After that, meet with the outgoing principal to gather his analysis of staffing, curriculum, the student population, the PTO...

Even though your perceptions a month into the school year might be different from those you collected in those meetings, youll have gained some background that will serve as a starting point for your principalship.

CONNECT WITH THE CUSTODIAN, SECRETARY

Ernest Elliott, principal at Mountain Home (Idaho) Junior High School, reports that he has changed districts or schools about every four years in his long career. My routine is to -- first and foremost -- get acquainted with the office staff, custodians, and kitchen staff. Those people are the unseen heroes and a wonderful source of information about what really goes on in a building. I have saved myself from numerous headaches by building relationships with them and heeding their warnings.

Custodians and secretaries are the heart and soul of most buildings, added Tony Pallija, principal of North Canton (Ohio) Hoover High School.

Principal Teri Stokes of Weatherly Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, agrees. Go out of your way to find good things to say to the secretary, office staff, and custodial staff, she told Education World. They can support you and make your job much more pleasant, or they can do nothing and make your job harder. And be sure to ask their opinions on things relevant to their jobs.

Even once he has settled into a school, Larry Anderson takes a daily tour of the building to check in with the custodial and office staff because they play such important roles in the operation of the school.

The custodian is one of the first people Kathy Crowley connects with too. Ask him or her to give you a full tour of the building, she said. Tour all the nooks and crannies of the school, and find all the important utility service valves and electrical circuit breakers.

During the summer that Crowley took over the reigns of Ponderosa Elementary School in Meridian, Idaho, she stopped by the school from time to time to check in with the custodial staff. She wanted to know if there was anything they needed or if they had any questions for her. Doing that let them know that their concerns were her concerns.

Principal Ernest Elliott takes that awareness a step farther. He likes to get to know the custodial staff in his school by working shoulder to shoulder with them. I worked my way through college supporting my wife and three children by cleaning toilets in office buildings on the night shift, explained Elliott. So it isnt a big stretch for me to come in early in the morning or stay late at night dressed to work hard. I man a broom, mop, or toilet brush -- whatever it takes so the custodians understand that I know what their job is like.

I joke with them about how every mess a kid makes is job security.

Elliott does the same thing in the kitchen and school office too. I have peeled onions, washed dishes, and had some great water fights with the cooks. And I often make copies, file papers, and answer the phones when the office is busy -- even though I have to warn callers that I am not trained to safely transfer their calls!

WHATS THE RUSH?

So youve just been assigned to a new school. You know some changes will be needed; your superintendent has made that clear. But how do you go about introducing change to the staff, many of whom have been in the school and done things one way for a number of years. Do you spend your summer plotting change? Or do you ease into the job? Those are questions many new principals must ask themselves.

Ernest Elliott has found himself the new sheriff in town a few times, and he offers this advice: Do not come in and immediately demand wholesale changes -- even if you have been directed by the central office to clean house. By the time youve done their dirty work, the staff will have rebelled against you and the school board will be getting daily calls from disgruntled parents who the staff has turned against you.

Join the Conversation

Since most of you --- at least once in your careers --- have moved into a new school setting, were hoping you might be able to offer some advice for principals who are facing a move Click to join the conversation.

Every building is a minefield that can destroy you before you begin, said Elliott, adding that each school has its own culture and power structure, or pecking order, and a new administrator must first get a strong sense of who might be amenable to a new vision and who will be more reluctant to head in a new direction.

Making quick and difficult changes right off the bat is the best way to ensure you will be left alone on an island of discontent and looking for new employment, added Elliot.

Instead, Elliott recommends, negotiate with the central office on a two- or three-year plan to make the needed changes.

Principal Layne Hunt suggests easing into a new school too. That is not always easy to do, since most school leaders are highly motivated to bring improvement to their school, but Hunt recommends resisting the urge to tackle major changes until at least the second semester. In the meantime, establish yourself through professional and informal relationships.

Engage staff, students, and parents at every opportunity. As you do that, they will come to know who you are, and you will get to know them, added Hunt, who is principal at Ypsilanti (Michigan) High School.

If you feel the need to take on one task, Hunt added, you might begin by conducting monthly data-analysis sessions with staff members. Those sessions will help you and the staff learn about your students academic achievement. Doing that will be productive, and it will let the staff know that you will use data and the best interests of students to make many decisions.

STOP, LOOK, AND LISTEN

Most school leaders agree that any principal who is new to a school will learn far more by observing and listening than by taking swift action that might fail.

Good principals do a lot of observing the first year, said Vicki Luchuck, and I'm not talking about formal observations and evaluations. Im just talking about looking around, taking it all in. Watch who interacts. Who are your super-star teachers? Which staff members are always negative, and bring others down? What does the community expect you to do?

By simply observing, and making small incremental changes here and there, you'll make headway.

Teri Stokes says one of the most important things any new principal can do is to be visible and available to everyone. The worst thing a principal can do is to isolate herself.

Change is difficult for many people because everyone has different learning styles and tolerances for change, she added. Actively involve the staff in any essential changes that need to occur immediately, and have them be a part of developing the plan for additional change.

Principal Ginger Vail warns against moving too fast too. Make no assumptions, she said. Processes that might have worked in another school are not automatically transferable to a new environment.

Patience is key, added Vail, who is a partner principal at two elementary schools in Atlanta. Recognize that you alone cannot change all of the processes and procedures at one time or even in one year. You can, however, facilitate change over time through your leadership.

BUILD ON WHATS ALREADY IN PLACE

In the past five years, Sue Astley has observed several principals as they moved into new school settings. While it is very tempting for all of us to talk about our previous experiences and to use those as models, I think it is very wise for a principal to take a year to get the feel for the culture of any school community, she told Education World.

The opportunity for change is exciting, but it should be tempered with an appreciation for the work that has been done before they became part of the team, added Astley, who is a principal at St. Martins Episcopal School in Atlanta.

Larry Anderson agrees. Whatever you do, try to maintain a healthy respect for traditions and past practices and policies while simultaneously making changes and recommendations for future changes based on your analyses, he said.

Lee Yeager is another principal who advises against making too many changes too fast. You need a thorough understanding of the culture of the building before you do too much, said Yeager, who is principal at S&S Middle School in Sadler Texas. Find out why a campus does the things it does. They may seem strange to you, but the folks in that building are comfortable with them.

Click to read part 2 of this article:
Connecting With Teachers, Kids, Parents, and the Community

Click to read part 3 of this article:
Moving On: More Tips and Advice from Principals

A complete list of the principal contributors to this article appears at the end of this article.

Article written by Gary M. Hopkins
Copyright © 2010 Education World®

Originally published 05/14/2007
Last updated 02/02/2010