May 31st marked the official end of my first year as a principal. I have intentionally tried to fill the past week with reflections of events and decisions throughout the year. This has been the most challenging year of my life. It has also been filled with invaluable learning experiences that will stay with me for the remainder of my career.
From the very first day, every situation, every problem, every decision has seemed like an impossible feat…
But, I’ve done it!
Through perseverance and sleepless nights… I’ve done it.
There are so many lessons to be learned from my first year. I would like to share some of the recurring themes of my reflections.
Relationships are Critical
It may seem as though this is an obvious observation, it is not one to ever be overlooked. No matter the knowledge or drive that a person may have, nothing can be accomplished without positive relationships. As a new principal, I’ve had to work to develop relationships with many different people; staff members, parents, students, administrative team members, community members and organizations. This is challenging because these relationships are the root of any real, sustainable change within a school. I’ve spent a year meeting people, learning names, sharing myself with others and asking people to share themselves with me. I still have a lot to accomplish within my school community, but I feel good about how far we’ve come. My relationship goals will carry forward into year two of my Principalship.
Don’t Wait to Make Critical Changes
I have heard some seasoned school leaders give the advice to keep everything the same during your first year, that the year should be spent learning the school culture, developing relationships and finding your way. Other leaders will tell you to make changes right away if they are needed. I have found that a balance of the two is really the best way to go. When you come in as a new leader, some people are anxious for some changes. If you make them wait an entire year to see some changes happen, they come to expect more of the same. At the same time, change is difficult for some people. I have tried hard to be selective about the most critical changes needed. Everything can’t (and shouldn’t) be changed in the first year. My rule of thumb has been to leave the routines and activities that make the culture of the building special intact. If I have seen a need to work toward a change, the emphasis has been on instruction and student learning. Teachers have been very willing to work together to make improvements for the sake of student achievement. The changes have been small, manageable chunks because we all recognize that it cannot be accomplished in one year. Therefore, we made decisions that would have the most impact first and left other decisions and changes for the coming years.
Make Others’ Lives Better
On a daily basis, look for things that can make someone else’s life a little better. I see the Principalship as a job of servitude. That means that people are the most important part of my job. If I can use my sense of humor to make someone laugh, I will do that. If someone needs a break from their classroom, then go in and teach for a while so they can regroup. If a family is in crisis, sit down and listen to them, then try to find ways to get them the resources they need. Call a parent and tell them how much their child is needed and loved at school. Wipe down some tables in the cafeteria. Send a positive email. The small things add up to big changes and positive relationships. Take the time to be kind to others.
Be the Lead Learner
My most important role as a principal in the era of college and career readiness is to be the principal learner. I need to continue to read books and journal articles. It is critical that I get out of my building and attend professional development. I need to participate in learning activities with students in the classrooms. I should be reflective in my practices and ask teachers, students and parents to do the same. I should never keep my new learning to myself. Share often, so others can learn. Learn from others. A learner is never afraid to admit when they don’t know something, so use that as an opportunity to model for others. Learners make mistakes. That’s how people learn. A learner also admits mistakes, and apologizes when necessary.
Being strategic means so many things. It means being careful about how you frame conversations. What you mean and what people hear and believe can be two different things, if you haven’t been strategic in in the way you’ve communicated. Make the right decisions. More importantly, make the right decisions at the right time. Keep in mind what your staff has on their plate. Can information about the next set of report cards wait until literacy night is over? Should a decision about professional development be shared now, or after testing? Don’t be afraid to sit on a decision for a few days. Sometimes strategy means taking your time to allow a problem marinate. You cannot expect to fix a problem overnight.
Do What’s Best for Kids
The the ultimate litmus test for every decision made in a school should be the “What’s best for kids” test. People are not always going to be happy with your decisions and they may even encourage you to make choices that are better for the adults than the children. Follow your instincts and always try to do what’s best for kids.
Take Care of Yourself
I am not going to lie. There have been days that I’ve plugged in the ipod and turned it up as I’ve shut my office door. Your door doesn’t always have to be open. Give yourself a break. Spend time with your family. Laugh often. Have fun and remember, that you chose this career.