Back to School: 11 Thoughts for Principals

The excitement builds each day as we get closer to the first day of school. This time can be busy for principals as we make personnel decisions, attend administrative team meetings, receive new PD and training, finalize schedules, welcome new students, host open house, and much more.  As I begin year #22 in education and my 10th as a principal, here are 10 things that are on my mind.

1. Teacher burn-out, quitting, and fewer people going into the profession are real problems. What action steps can you take this year, different or in addition to those in the past, to support individuals on your staff that might be battling those realities?

2. Push back against new laws/rules/regulations that are bad for kids. Encourage your district to use exemptions against the 3rd-grade reading law. Decades of research showing the negative impact on retention are not reversed because a governing body with minimal expertise in educating students passes a law.

3. Provide feedback to your most effective teachers. They have a burning desire for it and frankly, deserve it.

4. Think about one teacher on your staff that you haven’t yet built a strong personal relationship. Ask them more personal questions during the first few months of the year about their interests, kids, and background. Take notes if you need to. Have meaningful conversations with specific information when passing them in the hall. Take tangible steps to build that relationship.

5. Treat your staff as people first and employees second. Always. What is most important to them is their families. Support that. Always. With no questions asked.

6. The way you handle every interaction with students, parents, and staff sets the tone for the culture created in the school. If you show respect for people in every single situation, especially those when parents/students/staff are in high emotional states, it will set the expectation for how people are treated at the school. Respect the parent yelling at you, the student kicking you, and the staff member frustrated by you. The ability to show kindness and respect for those with differing opinions than ours is tragically missing in our society. Believe that you have the power to positively change that.

7. Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on the “bottom 30%” or just “students who need intervention.”  Don’t just hold data dialogues or team meetings on isolated segments of students. Focus on all kids. Emphasize growth for them in all areas, not just academically. Again, don’t just use rules and regulations imposed upon you when you know they aren’t best for kids. What is best for kids is assessing the progress of ALL of them and building plans for them ALL to grow.

8. Don’t use the word “low” when describing a student and their academic performance. Stop labeling kids based on an arbitrary timeline of learning and expectations that have significantly changed over time.  First, is this professional and kind?  If that was your child, is that how you would want others talking about them?  A more accurate phrase might be, “the learning acquisition levels of this student, which are individual and developmentally unique to them, have not yet matched the random timeline and skills we have decided they should have mastered at this time.”

9. You are not great at every single aspect of your job. It’s OK. Other principals are doing things in certain areas of their work that are better than you. It’s OK. You don’t have to be an expert at everything. Identify those areas that are not yet strengths for you (my list is long). Write them down. Find colleagues in your district, on social media, or in professional organizations that can support you in those areas. Show and share that vulnerability with your staff.

10. Delegate. Build capacity and trust others. There is simply not enough time for you to do it all. Communicate those priorities to staff, parents, and supervisors.

11. Keep your life in balance. You know your mental and emotional state better than anyone. Your time in education is a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t allow the job to overwhelm me, stress me out, or rattle me anymore. I know what to expect, self-assess regularly, and use strategies to prevent the walls from caving in on me. When people ask how I’m doing, “busy” will never be my answer. This is what I signed up for and I know the expectations and reality of the work. Be real and true with yourself and find ways to make sure you are the best version of yourself for your family and school.

We are fortunate enough to work in the greatest profession in the world. We have the ability to positively impact so many people on a daily basis. If I can support you and your work in any way, don’t be afraid to ask. 

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