What makes an effective principal? This question used to have a fairly standard answer: someone who serves as a mentor and inspiration to educational staff and students…someone who keeps the supply cabinets stocked and the busses running on schedule, and so on. While the above still holds true, there are also complex social dynamics that principals must also master. To help you navigate your way and avoid common first-year blunders, we’ve pulled a few pieces of advice from Marilyn L. Grady’s book, 20 Biggest Mistakes Principals Make and How to Avoid Them.
Avoiding First-Year Blunders: 5 Tips for Principals
It may be necessary to lock yourself in the office every now and again, but even then, make it part of your daily schedule to greet teachers, students and support staff.
There are innumerable ways to interact with students and teachers: try greeting students in the mornings as they step off the bus; attend sporting events and sit with a different group of students each time; visit classrooms; sit in on a ceramics class and spin some clay…whatever it takes to interact with students.
Teachers and students may grumble about your policies and take issue with some of your decisions, but ultimately they crave your support and attention. As Grady points out, “Although one may assume that teachers, as adult professionals should be able to experience their own self-actualization on the job, in fact teachers look to the principal for direction and support.”
Be Mindful That You are Not Playing Favorites
It’s a fact: You’re going to connect with some of your teachers and staff more than others. But as a principal, you must keep yourself in check and never play favorites.
Do you visit some classrooms more than others, or share inside jokes with a select group of teachers? Be careful about this.
While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that you should not befriend your colleagues, we do agree with Grady’s assertion that “Principals who build their friendship networks at school with students, faculty, and teachers often tie themselves to personal relationships that thwart their ability to make sound professional decisions.
Make Yourself Visible
Principals are social creatures who have learned to tolerate social scrutiny. Make yourself visible: build relationships with the local media, attend as many after-school events as you can, and arrange community meetings and discussions. These opportunities must occur regularly so that the principal has current and accurate information about community issues and concerns.
One last note on visibility: Be well-rounded in your attendance. People notice if the principal attends basketball games, but does not attend school plays or band concerts.
Pay Attention to the Written Word
We all have unique talents, but if writing is not your specialty, for goodness sakes recruit someone to provide constructive feedback and proofread your work before you ship it off to parents, students, or the media. You could be the most brilliant person in the world, but if you are using incorrect spelling, syntax or grammar, you’re intellectual credibility is going to be placed under considerable scrutiny.
In addition to this, keep the following in mind:
- Communicate regularly
- Consider the audience and be careful not to condescend
- Stay positive—never write when you are tired or on edge
- Be direct
- Be readable—the human eye is drawn to bold headings and bulleted information
- Always make a copy and save it when documentation is needed for a continuing problem
- Keep it brief
- Don’t hide behind a letter. Nothing replaces face-to-face conversation
Accept that You Will Be Compared to Predecessors
Knowing ahead of time that everything you do will be measured against your predecessor will save you a lot of grief and restless nights. Comparisons are going happen. You are going to hear things like, “Principal X didn’t seem to have a problem with this,” or “Principal X would never have done this.” Ditch your gut reaction to react defensively and use these moments to ask questions and engage in an open discussion.