Congratulations! You have just been appointed a building principal. You have the ability to impact hundreds of students. What kind of impact do you want to have? Will you be that principal who is busy putting out fires and running from meeting to meeting or will you be that person who others look back on and think, “that person changed my life for the better”?
Two quotes helped me grow into my first principalship. First, when I walked into my elementary school office for the first time one August day a few decades ago the previous principal had hung a paper banner on the office wall that the students had made at the end of the previous school year. It read, “Welcome to our new PrinciPAL.” and was signed by all 380 students and the staff. The message was clear. We want someone here who likes us and we can trust. The second quote has been attributed to Ron Edmunds – “A student doesn’t care what you know until he knows that you care.” If you want to be the kind of principal that will be remembered as someone who made a difference for kids, it starts by truly caring and showing it. Learning is a social experience and relationships from the foundation.
The principal’s chair can be a very daunting place. You not only have to handle conflicts and disputes between kids; you have a building full of adults who sometimes also have conflicts. Add to that, the school exists within a community with needs and goals that are sometimes not congruent with those of the school. It’s easy to become that firefighter principal and become immersed in stamping out little blazes here and there and filling out reports every day. You need to decide if that’s the best use of your time. To me at least, my number one priority was being in all 15 of my classrooms every day. I wanted to immerse myself as much as possible in the experience of school my students and staff had.
Here are some tips for a new building principal:
Be in the classrooms often. The best way to know what is really going on in your building is to be in the very classroom as often as practical. A principal is an instructional leader and you need to have a clear understanding of the instruction going on in every classroom.
Listen more than you talk. A great leader understands that we have two ears and one mouth because that is a good proportion. Listen first and most.
Be a mediator. Try to put yourself in the shoes of both sides of a conflict. Try to understand what is being asked from both sides and look for root causes. Often, the presenting problem is only a symptom of a larger issue. An effective principal sometimes acts more like a mediator. Every action you take has consequences. Think about the unintended consequences of your actions.
Learn what kinds of recognition your staff wants. Not everyone wants to be publically recognised in a large-group setting like a staff meeting or school assembly. How do you know how your staff wants to be recognised for great work? Ask them. Send out a staff survey at the start of the year and be sure one question is, “When I do great work I would prefer to be recognised by ___.”
Do the hard stuff. Lead by example. Be with students in the lunchroom and at recess. Be visible at music and sports events. Just showing up says volumes to staff, students, and community. I learned more about what my school was really like by being out with the kids at lunch recesses. I also became a very good foursquare player.
Know your stuff. Subscribe to and read journals like Educational Leadership to learn what new research is revealing and share that information with your teachers. Facilitate book studies on one or two books a year. ASCD member books are a good place to start.
Delegate, delegate, delegate. There are people on your staff who are simply more interested and/or better are some things than you are. Seek those people out and involve them in meaningful ways. For example, I knew that recognition events and cute little gifts and tokens were important to many on my elementary staff. I also knew I wasn’t that kind of person but one if my teachers was excellent in that arena. I asked her to take on that role for the school and supported her as she ran with it.
Becoming a building principal carries with it an awesome responsibility. You truly have the future of hundreds of students within your control. The environment you establish for both the adults and children who report to the school every day will in large part determine the kind of adults those children become. Bare in mind that for at least some of your students, school is the one place they feel safe and cared for. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “I never teach my pupils. I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.” You have a large number of hats you sometimes wear as a principal – from recess monitor to custodian to disciplinarian to minister. The hat that should always be on and the base for all other hats is the one as an instructional leader.
Howard Pitler, Ed.D. is an international speaker, coach, and facilitator with a passion for improving education for all learners. He was the Executive Director and Chief Program Office for McREL International from 2003 to 2015. Prior to working at McREL, Dr Pitler spent 29 years in K-12 education as a teacher, assistant principal, elementary school principal, and middle school principal in Wichita, Kansas.