By the time they step into the position, most principals have already spent years—even decades—in the classroom as teachers. This experience certainly comes in handy, but rarely is it enough to keep new principals from being broadsided by new challenges. While experience is often the best teacher, we’d like to help new principals avoid common first-year blunders by sharing 10 tips from 20-year veteran principal, Jan Borelli.
The First Year: 10 Tips for New Principals
Learn to distinguish between alliance and friendship
Indeed, teachers thrive when they have the support of their principal. What they could probably do without, though, is another buddy. An ally, a mentor, and someone who can successfully run the school will always trump the buddy-principal.
Recognize that “let me think about it some more” is a legitimate response
Here’s one of our own tips: You’ll quickly learn that you can never get everything done, but don’t resort to careless, off-the-cuff answers just to get parents and teachers off your back. Difficult decisions often require time and thought. If you need to mull something over, take the necessary time to do so. Ask the parent or teacher to send a reminder email so that you don’t forget to get back with him or her.
Rely on your teacher leaders
You’ll never be able to interact with teachers and staff as candidly as other teachers can. For that reason, you must forage a strong alliance with your teacher leaders. They can be your eyes and ears. Rely on them to converse with other members of the faculty to see what the concerns are in the school.
Don’t change anything the first year
People like the comfort of routine and are sentimental about the school culture that was there before you were. Instead of making drastic changes, spend the first year developing relationships. Know who is who and what is what. As Borelli suggests, “teachers really resent change, so any change better be warranted, accepted and acknowledged by most as needed.”
Meet with your faculty regularly
If your staff suspects that you dread faculty meetings, they’re probably not going to be very engaged either. Faculty meetings are as useful as we make them. Preplanning, coming with a positive attitude, letting everyone know what is going to be discussed in advance, and respecting people’s time is the best way to make faculty meetings count.
If the parent comes to the principal’s office angry about a teacher
When angry parents demand to speak to you, tell them to contact the teacher first. 99 percent of the time, you’ll never hear from the parent again.
Keep current with professional organizations
Become a member of ASCD, read their monthly publication, attend conferences and find a mentor. Whatever you do, don’t stop learning. As Borelli puts it, “Nothing is worse than a has-been—except a might-have-been.”
Write notes of appreciation regularly
Here’s another one of our own tips: Whenever you are able, send a personally written—preferably, handwritten—note of thanks or appreciation to teachers "caught" caring or pulling off terrific classroom projects. Send at least a dozen of those notes each week. Keep a copy for the teacher's file; later in the school year you will be able to draw on those positive moments as you compose teachers' evaluations.
Know the difference between support and unconditional support
If someone is wrong, find a way to help him or her save face. But never “cover” for inappropriate or unprofessional conduct.
Risky, but not too risky
Principals must be willing to try new things and take risks, but they must always have stopgaps in place that allow them to fail without losing the farm.