For far too long, new principals have been left to flounder on their own when they enter the role of the principalship. Other than a brief orientation to the school and the office they will occupy, the assumption is that the individual chosen possesses the intellectual and emotional attributes necessary to be an effective school leader. And that’s not quite fair. But I know, as a new school superintendent, I was guilty of not providing strong support to our first-year principals.
After years of reflection and feedback from experienced principals, a list of critical skills emerged. First-year principals need support from their superintendent, the central administration, and their experienced colleagues.
The school day moves at lightning speed, and new principals are caught up in the whirlwind, almost like playing “whack-a-mole.” Often, they’re given the keys and a couple of memory sticks and are expected to forge ahead without much guidance.
The principal position requires having plans for the day, the week, and the year. Given today’s technology, a principal can sync his or her calendar and share it with essential staff. Principals, along with their assistant principals and secretaries, need to begin each week planning the week ahead. Meeting with staff weekly will ensure a coordinated effort and clear delegation of assignments and work functions.
Time management—it’s an essential skill often talked about but rarely examined thoroughly. We often hear the phrase, “My door is always open.” While the use of that phrase suggests that the leader should always be accessible, it violates the essential principle of good time management.
Principals—not others—must be in control of their own time. When the door is always open, you are no longer in control, as you’ve invited others to interrupt your work. A closed door prevents the “drop-ins” that are sure to occur when it is open. Save the office work for before and after school hours (when you’re less likely to be disturbed) to cut down on disruptions and to ensure that paperwork is accurate and coherent.
If you want to be viewed as friendly and accessible, get out of the office and into the school while it is in session. Be sure to make frequent visits to all classrooms. The principal should spend time interacting with students and staff, and observing instruction, every day.
New principals may also need to be reminded to set digital boundaries as well as physical boundaries. Believe it or not, principals can be too accessible, to the detriment of their own health and personal relationships. Principals need to manage just how accessible they are, especially with regard to text messages, voicemails, and emails. Just because you can be available 24/7 doesn’t mean you should be.
Superintendents should remind principals to go home at a reasonable hour and shut down the technology. Of course, their personal phone number must be available to key personnel in case of a crisis.
Supervision and Evaluation of Personnel
One of the most important roles a principal performs is the evaluation of personnel. Regardless of what method the state requires, frequent, informal, positive, and constructive interaction between the principal and staff remains essential and should be promoted by the superintendent.
The superintendent and central office team must provide effective instructional coaching, no matter what evaluation plan one’s district implements. Coaching must take place in the schools, be ongoing, and incorporate frequent classroom walkthroughs with the school principal.
A graduate course in theories of leadership may provide a theoretical base for how one is to behave effectively. However, putting theory into practice requires much training and reflection. New principals need to “walk the talk.” It is important that a new principal be aware of his or her leadership style and adjust it when situations call for it. The superintendent should ensure that discussion of effective leadership be part of every agenda.
Social and Emotional Learning
A new principal must provide social/emotional instruction to students and be familiar with current research-based models. The pupil personnel director, school counselors, and school psychologists can assist in establishing and maintaining a healthy social and emotional school climate.
To enforce the shared responsibility for discipline, principals should insist that teachers join them in responding to students who misbehave in the classroom. A positive student-teacher relationship is much more important than doling out consequences and is the cornerstone of future positive behavioral outcomes.
Fiscal Allocations and Building Operations
Business administrators rarely visit schools unless there is an emergency or a capital project underway. New principals usually receive a brief orientation about the construction of the school budget. This is not sufficient to grant a thorough understanding of the expenditures, revenues, and allocations of resources. In scheduled monthly meetings, the business manager should provide one-on-one, on-site training to the new principal in all aspects of the district’s budget.
Political Awareness and Support
The superintendent can serve as a great resource to a new principal to help him or her recognize and understand the political influence of the various power brokers in the community. This person should share how political influence impacts the school, and how principals can gain community members’ support.
Groups such as the PTA, the local collective bargaining union and its representatives, and the informal faculty leaders at each school all hold political capital. The principal must establish clear boundaries and good working relationships with each of them.
After conducting a thorough search and selecting the best candidate for the position of principal, a district’s superintendent and central administrators should do all they can to ensure the new principal’s success. While the job description may be exhaustive, the job of principal is also worthy of praise. Be sure your system supports the principal and periodically celebrates and acknowledges his or her dedication, hard work, and value to the school district.
John T. Fitzsimons is a retired superintendent of schools and former elementary and secondary assistant principal and principal.