When I reflect on my years as an educator and administrator, I remember those educators who mentored and coached me—and how much they impacted me as a classroom teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, or superintendent. I am now in my 23rd year as an educator and my 17th as an administrator, and I understand the importance of the relationship among administrators. Working together, administrators can make a significant impact on teachers’ instruction and students’ performance. Likewise, when that relationship is not positive or secure, teachers and students can be negatively impacted.
I was a middle school principal for nine years in a large district in an Atlanta suburb. When I was a principal, though our district was large, our superintendent always made himself available. I am now in my sixth year as a superintendent in a small, rural district in northwest Montana. As a superintendent in a small district, I always work to make myself available to our principals. As different as these two places and experiences are, they have many things in common. No matter the location or size of the district, the relationship between the principal and superintendent is critical to the success of a school, its teachers, and its students.
Consider implementing these tips to build a lasting relationship with your superintendent.
Keep Your Superintendent in the Loop
As a principal, I once allowed something to reach my superintendent before I contacted him. At the time, I thought I had a good reason for not sharing the information with him first. But, no matter the reason, I wish I had taken the time to let my superintendent know what was going on, because he could have been better prepared to support me had I talked with him first. As it turned out, the 10 minutes I saved by not calling him cost me about 10 hours working through a situation that got worse before it got better.
As a superintendent, I trust our principals and their judgment, and I work hard to establish an environment in which they keep me updated on situations. With this approach, our principals know that if I am going to learn about something from an email, text, phone call, visit, or the media, I need to hear it from them first. I appreciate it when they help me understand their perspective, share a situation with me, or let me know when something didn’t go well.
Having open discussions with your superintendent will help build a trusting relationship.
Don’t Rush Big Decisions
As a young, inexperienced principal, almost every decision seemed like a crisis to me, one that I had to address immediately. In one instance, a parent wanted to change the details around a big event we were hosting at our school. It was a crazy, hectic day, and in my haste to get to the next “crisis,” I agreed to this parent’s request. By the time the event arrived that afternoon, my quick decision impeded other decisions we had already made as a school. My impulse decision negatively impacted others. I should have taken time to consider its consequences first.
Unless someone’s immediate safety is at risk, most decisions a principal makes on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis can be done after taking time to think through the decision, asking for input when appropriate, and considering the full consequences of the decision.
It’s OK—and expected—for a principal to reach out to the superintendent outside of crises. Being willing to discuss decisions with your superintendent will help them better understand your role and daily experiences, as well as stay more connected to the school they are there to help lead and serve.
Don’t Miss Deadlines
We’ve probably all been in situations where someone didn’t complete a task and made excuses about being busy. Don’t get in the habit of making excuses. If you miss a deadline, be sure that it is an exception, not the norm.
Being a principal is a fast-paced role. It’s often crazier and busier than being a superintendent, and most superintendents understand that. There are discipline concerns, schedule requests, teacher needs, lunch duty, parent conferences, class changes, student meetings, and bus videos to review. Don’t let these important daily responsibilities keep you from meeting other deadlines. Make a calendar. Stay on top of due dates. Ask for help when you need it.
Most superintendents have been a principal or building leader and understand the responsibilities involved. Your relationship with your superintendent will be stronger if they can count on you.
Know the People You Serve
In my first two years as a principal, daily discipline situations were handled by assistant principals. I got involved on heavy traffic days or in major situations. After all, I had spent my previous two years as an assistant principal doing discipline for what felt like all day, every day. At a summer leadership retreat, our assistant superintendent said something that has stayed with me. He said that if principals aren’t involved in the day-to-day discipline of the school, they aren’t really leading the school. That stung. I worked hard every day and wanted to make excuses—but he was right. Working through discipline situations does so much more than resolve a problem. It lets you get to know students, it is essential in supporting and understanding teachers and staff, and it helps assistant principals value and respect your input.
Don’t turn over discipline to an assistant principal. Don’t assign all of the extracurricular duties to your athletic director. Be a part of the heartbeat of the school. It’s often easier to assign lunch duty to others, but a lot happens during lunch. It’s a social hour, and students love talking to their friends and the staff on duty. Use this time to really get to know your students, to build relationships, to ask them about their lives outside of class and school.
Knowing your school, and the people in it, helps your superintendent have confidence in your leadership and decision-making.
Believe in Yourself
As a principal, I was sometimes frustrated when I wanted support from my superintendent; I would be facing what I perceived to be a complex situation, and I sometimes wanted him to tell me what he would do. He would give me ideas, suggestions, and options, but he always stopped short of telling me specifically what he would do. He wanted me to trust myself and to make decisions based on my knowledge, background, and confidence. He never let me stray so far that I would make a horrible, irreversible decision, but he refused to make the decision for me.
Through this, I learned that it’s OK to fail, and it is expected that you will make mistakes—but you have to own those failures. Don’t be afraid to admit those mistakes and to work hard to make them right. It’s far easier to work with a principal who takes ownership than a principal who is defensive and fearful of not getting everything right. Remember, we’re all learning together. My philosophy is that if a decision or action is not illegal, immoral, unethical, or unsafe, I am going to try to support our principals in those decisions, even if it means guiding them to see the bigger picture, helping them understand different viewpoints, or supporting them as they work through challenging decisions.
When you’re willing to take risks and make difficult decisions, not only will you trust yourself, but your superintendent will trust you as well.
The relationship between a principal and a superintendent is based on trust, mutual respect, and confidence in each other. Working together, we can all serve staff and students better and see better outcomes for our students, schools, and districts.
Laurie Barron is superintendent of the Evergreen School District in Kalispell, MT.