7 Tips for New and Transitioning Principals

Whether you’re a first year principal or transitioning to a different campus, there’s a common experience of both celebrating and questioning your decision to embark on this scary journey. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this endeavor. Many individuals have gone before you and have lived to tell the tale. To assist you in navigating the unfamiliar territory of leading a campus, here are a few helpful tips.

1. Don’t forget to take care of YOURSELF

With so many other tips I could give, why would this one be the very first? The reason is simple: we consistently place ourselves at the bottom of the list. Our duties, deadlines, predicaments, meetings, and events consume us. Students and teachers rely on us, and the array of essential tasks seems endless. We get so busy caring for others, we often neglect our own well-being and lives beyond the confines of school.

It’s time to put yourself at the top of the list. Prioritize nourishing yourself by avoiding skipped meals. Keep a stash of your favorite healthy snacks for those moments on the go, en route to classrooms or meetings. Make sure to stay hydrated as well.

Set a concrete schedule to leave work early on a few evenings each week. Let late nights be the exception rather than the norm. Striving for a harmonious work-life balance is crucial. Your family and personal relationships outside of school should take precedence. Don’t feel guilty about leaving work, for it will still be awaiting you in the morning. However, you won’t have a second chance to witness that significant baseball game or dance recital.

Allow yourself to recharge, rejuvenate, and refocus. By doing so, you’ll become a more effective leader. The timeless adage rings true: you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re sick, stressed, or utterly burnt out, you won’t be able to support the students, teachers, and staff effectively.

2. Start fresh

Unless you have the good fortune to be the first leader of a brand new school, it is highly likely someone else held this position before you. They undoubtedly did what they felt was best for the students, staff, and families.

It’s crucial to remember that you do not need to live in their shadow or compete with them. Embrace your individuality and be true to yourself. Rather than wasting valuable time searching for their shortcomings or criticizing their choices, direct your energy toward showcasing your unique contributions that will foster a love for learning and foster a strong sense of community.

3. Fix small things

You’re excited and full of new ideas, but begin with small steps by tackling everyday challenges. These small victories will demonstrate your attentiveness and responsiveness to the campus environment, as well as address concerns. Of course, if a significant issue arises, approach it carefully and involve the administration and campus leaders whenever possible. Otherwise, be patient, you’re committed to this school for the long haul.

Take your time and ensure you get it right. You’ll encounter various issues scattered throughout, but there’s no need to unpack or resolve everything all at once.

Get to know the teachers, students, and staff, establish trust, and gather valuable data. Through this approach, you can bring about lasting, positive transformations that propel both the campus and the community toward a bright and productive future.

Preserve school traditions! These traditions serve as a defining aspect of schools. While leaders and teachers may come and go, these traditions provide a consistent and cherished experience shared by generations of attendees. Eventually, you can introduce new traditions, but only after establishing a lasting presence without disrupting existing ones.

4. Listen, learn, and build relationships

It’s highly likely that when you arrive on campus, the teachers will have already left for the summer. This is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with the office and custodial staff, as you can gain valuable insights from both groups. 

Dedicate some time to interacting with the custodians, who can provide you with knowledge about the building and inform you about any areas that require fixing or enhancement. Additionally, the office staff can offer you a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of “life in the main office.”

It is often said that the school secretary runs the school, so make an effort to establish a connection with them. Discover what aspects are functioning well, identify areas that need improvement, and ask for their suggestions to enhance the overall functioning of the school.

Relationships form the foundation of every campus! Strong connections among administrators, teachers, staff, students, and the community foster a positive school culture that instills a sense of worth and significance in individuals. Cultivating relationships demands effort, but the rewards are invaluable! When teachers return to campus, take the initiative to reach out and organize group and one-on-one meetings with them. To deepen your understanding of them, consider asking these significant questions:

  • What suggestions do you have to improve the school? Your job?
  • What are the strengths of our school? (notice I said OUR) 
  • What advice do you have for me? 
  • What’s your favorite candy? 
  • Name one thing would make your job easier

Engage, take notes, but most of all listen

Share your thoughts about what you hope to do in your first year. It may be tempting to make promises, but don’t, nothing destroys trust like unkept promises. Keep your message clear, simple and consistent. 

Take the time to genuinely understand your staff and let them know that you value them as individuals, not just as professionals in their respective roles. Show interest in their personal lives, including their families and pets, and discover their unique interests. When engaging in conversations with them, be authentic and sincere in your approach.

5. Be present

Minimize your time spent in the office by acquiring a mobile desk (trust me, they’re fantastic) and venture into the heart of the action as frequently as possible. Extend your assistance throughout the school, whether it’s opening doors for students in the car rider line or welcoming them as they step off the bus. Make time to do the same in the afternoons. It’s never favorable when chaos reigns in the cafeteria while the new principal remains secluded in their office. Engage directly by opening ketchup packets, clearing tables, and sweeping floors.

Prepare a schedule to visit each classroom during the first week of school. No need for grand gestures, simply drop in for 5 or 10 minutes, greet the students, and quietly observe. Leave an encouraging note for the teacher following the visit. 

Demonstrating your active involvement in the day-to-day occurrences of the school is the most effective way to exhibit your commitment to the community and ensure the smooth functioning of the school.

6. Share your goals and core values

The sooner you communicate to your staff what your campus goals and core values are, the better. It’s important that they understand the underlying purpose (the “why”) behind these goals and recognize how your core values guide decision-making. Ideally, you’ve set your goals based on your discussions with teachers and staff, ensuring their input and fostering a sense of collaboration. By sharing this information, you significantly enhance the likelihood of garnering their support in achieving your shared campus goals.

7. Find a mentor or peer group

Stepping into a new position brings forth various obstacles, and at times, all you require is a supportive presence or a reliable confidant to share your ideas with. Mentors or individuals sailing in the same boat can provide invaluable assistance. They can see things from different perspectives and offer insights you may not have considered. It’s highly likely that they have experienced situations similar to yours, enabling them to suggest strategies or offer solutions that have proven effective for them.

If you’re experiencing any lingering nervousness, keep in mind this inspiring quote by Winston Churchill: “Success if not final, failure is not fatal: it is courage to continue that counts.” Out of numerous candidates, you were selected as the most suitable person to lead the campus! Embrace boldness and courage, and if everything else falls short, consider granting them a denim day or two – they will surely love you for it!

Teia Hoover Baker is an educator, published author, and entrepreneur. She is an innovative, devoted educator whose career has been dedicated to coordinating programs that support struggling learners. Her passion is meeting students where they are and guiding them to excel. Her main focus is always what is best for children. Teia holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s of Education. In her spare time, she enjoys being Lovie to her growing grandchildren.

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