“Are You Wearing Your Seat Belt?” ~ Tips for New Principals

It was around this time nine years ago that I got my first job as an elementary school principal. After a few moments of excitement I wondered if I was ready for the task. Someone had enough faith in me that they were going to put me at the helm of a school with a few hundred kids and educators. I hoped I would do a great job! I’m now in my fourth school as a principal. I am beginning my fifth year in the same school. What a luxury that is! So much has happened on the journey I’ve taken in this role — things I was prepared for and others that caught me completely off guard.

Getting a new school year started is a lot of fun and yes, a lot of work too! As a novice principal, I had my rose-tinted glasses on. They allowed me to see things as they should be and keep me moving towards the utopian notion of education in my head. Figuratively speaking, my glasses are now a little dented and scratched but thankfully, the rosy tint remains and my enthusiasm has not waned! As I think about new school leaders getting ready to step into their big roles, my reflections lead me to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing lessons I have learned on my journey.

Know that your tone speaks louder than your words. You have the privilege of setting the tone for your school and your organization. You are like the mood to the mood ring of your stakeholders. Be positive and your tone will be mirrored back within your organization. Be negative and critical and watch that tone swirl around in your school. This should be your most important non-negotiable ingredient. Don’t go to work without it! Be thoughtful when you communicate verbally or in writing. Don’t say the tough stuff via e-mail – it is quick and certainly easy to hide behind an e-mail message but it will hurt your efforts to build relationships. Saying the tough stuff face-to-face is difficult, but if it is done honestly, respectfully and objectively, it will reflect the culture you value. Take time to think through what you want to say before you say it. And, don’t forget about the tone of your school. Is it invitational and welcoming? Do joy, humor and laughter ring through the building? How does your team respond to people who come with issues and concerns? Is there a happy and warm feeling in the school? Is the learning of children celebrated in hallway displays? When someone steps in, will they sense that kids are important in your school? Will they sense that kids will always be treated respectfully? Take the time to make this an important part of the culture of your school. It begins with you!

Keep your 3 R’s in your toolkit. These are more than reading, writing and arithmetic! I carried respect, relationships and responsibility with me to school and talked a lot about my 3 R’s. Accountability and high achievement are big buzz words in education and these R’s will help you take your school there. No one works hard when they are hit on the head and told to do things. People do what it takes when they know that their strengths are respected and their contributions acknowledged. Trust does not just arrive on a silver platter. It has to be earned. These R’s will help you translate your tone into action, establish trust and create a culture where people take responsibility for the success of students.

Build connections with your stakeholders. This is a huge group and they all need something from you. Their needs should be at the top of your ‘plate’ and your interactions with them will help strengthen your school. In a leadership role, it is easy to feel tugged and pulled from different directions. Take time to understand what’s on their minds and focus on building a shared vision. A leader’s vision might be profound but it is meaningless if it is not shared by others and communicated within the organization. For this to happen, you have to cultivate a culture when people know they can share what’s on their minds openly and honestly. And you can cultivate this with ‘consistency’ – consistency in the way you respond, regardless of what they have to say to you.

Be clear about what is non-negotiable. Safety and supervision in the classroom, on the playground, on the bus, on the sidewalks, in the parking lot, etc. are non-negotiable. What structures do you have to make them a priority? As a special education teacher I used to work with children who had spinal cord and head injuries from accidents. That put safety very high on my list of things to accomplish very early in my career. In every school that was one of the first things I tackled – I reviewed procedures and made sure we had adequate supervision. Yet I learned, sadly from experience, that despite our best efforts, as a wise colleague said, we’re all just one heartbeat away from our own accidents. Learn about what is in place, and involve your central office staff to resolve any red flag issues.

Reflect! Reflect! Reflect! Make it second nature! As I looked back on the posts I wrote over the past year, (wow, it’s a year since I started blogging) I realized that the tips shared here have been reflections that unfolded in my writing. The title of my blog includes the words ‘Thoughts About Learning & Leading’ – words I put on many a journal and binder cover. Learning and growing happens when we are stretched, when we deal with challenges and engage with problems – and you’ll get a lot of practice with these things on the job! I assure you, the growing pains will just make you a little stronger and figuratively taller after each bout! My reflections typically float around in my head, but sometimes I share them with colleagues and now some have spilled into this blog. Whether you think, write or talk about the things you experience as you wrestle with the choices and decisions you make everyday, the important thing is taking the time to reflect. Don’t see it as one more thing to do – start with whatever plays in your mind and take a few minutes to engage with your thoughts and ideas. You will find this incredibly valuable.

Don’t second guess yourself. In your job, you will go from one situation to the next, sometimes at breakneck speed. You will tackle issues, make decisions, listen, nurture and actively care about others. Leadership is about people, not things, and so emotions are involved – yours and those of others. It’s easy to take things personally. It’s also easy for me to tell you not to take things personally, yet struggle with this in my work. We have to grow a thick skin without falling into the trap of becoming jaded and cynical about the things we deal with. I am learning to draw my sunshine from those who share constructive criticism respectfully, support me and want to see me get better at what I do. I am learning to not struggle with what one of my friends calls ‘immovable barges’ while knowing that they are an important part of my work and I have to engage with them. A former superintendent, who was an incredible mentor, shared with me words of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt. An excerpt from ‘The Man in the Arena’ now sits in front of my desk and helps me find my centering. Remember that you were hired for your strengths, and over time you will continue to gain strength. Keep your chin up!

Make learning a priority. Learn with others, learn for yourself. You are in an organization with a mission tied to learning. That mission should be embraced by adult learners as much as it is a goal for students. Engage in professional development with your team. Your most important role is to help your teachers be the best they can be. For that to happen, you have to stay tuned-in to what’s happening in the field of education. Take a few minutes every day or every week to read from a book, an article, a blog in the field. When you model this interest in learning, it will permeate into the culture of your organization.

Tap into the pulse of your school. There is a lot to accomplish in schools, yet, rushing things might end up slowing down the very change you want to see happen. Or if the change happens, it might not be sustainable. Oh, how I wish someone had given me this advice before I stepped into my office the first time! I tend to be flexible, am willing to try new things if they seem worthwhile and I welcome change. I soon met individuals who were not on the same wavelength with me. As I worked to put into place things that I thought ‘needed to happen’, people pushed back. I had a sense of urgency about the things we needed to accomplish for kids. Others didn’t read it the same way. Yogi Berra wisely said, “You can see a lot just by observing.” It is prudent to be an observer in the first few months as you engage with your stakeholders. Learn how they ‘read’ the organization, take time to gauge their interests and needs and generally tap into the pulse of your school before you make changes. When one steps into a new leadership role there is a lot of excitement and energy in the air. However, once the ‘work’ begins, suddenly the newness of the leader and the way she does things differently from her predecessor become a big deal. Whether or not people are happy with their bosses, there is comfort in familiar expectations – what I call going into ‘auto-pilot’ mode or knowing what is expected and how things will unfold. With a new leader, people are less sure of the expectations and they don’t know how you will respond or react. The way in which you do things is new for them (not just for 3 office staff but for all the teachers, support staff, students, families, etc.). They have an idea in their minds of how their school works, and because you can’t do things exactly like the person before you, you are bound to step into this landmine where they think you want to ‘change’ things. It is helpful to reach out and ask them to tell you what they need, and to cultivate connections and invite them to tell you what’s not working for them or what is difficult. There was a time when I might have looked at this as putting the brakes on but now I see that it is a critical step if I want the changes we make to be sustainable.

Be visible. It’s easy to spend most of your day putting out fires – dealing with discipline issues and other problems, meeting with people who want to see you right then and there. There are meetings to attend, phone calls to return, reports to complete, paperwork to be done, data to collect and analyze, evaluations to be scheduled and completed, professional development to be planned and so much more. As an instructional leader, staying engaged with kids and their learning means we have to make being in classrooms and engaging with kids and educators a priority. Carving out time to do this given all the other things tugging at us means we have to make this tug at us harder. It’s something I’ve improved over the years but it remains on my ‘things to improve next year’ list. The important thing is that you keep building from one year to the next.  And, remember that being visible to your community is also critical and it can be accomplished in many ways. I supervise car-rider drop off and pick-ups where a smile and wave to parents as they drive off has helped me build many relationships. I write a letter to families in our monthly newsletter, take part in school events,  share comments with parents about the things I’ve seen their kids do and sometimes meet families in their neighborhoods to connect with them. These opportunities have given me a big boost in getting to know a lot of parents at my school, several on a first name basis. I ask them to use my first name – it helps break the ice and hopefully ‘meeting with the principal’ then becomes a less intimidating experience for them. If they know you care, they will be more willing to partner with your school.

Find a mentor whether or not your organization assigns one to you. Ask this person to make the culture and routine of your organization more transparent to you. When you are new, you may not be aware of the ‘things’ that are traditionally a part of your school. And when you don’t know, it’s difficult to figure out what questions you should ask. Your mentor can alert you to things you should be doing at different points of time during the year. Also, enlist some teachers, parents and other support staff to put similar things that they see as relevant on your radar. Don’t assume this will happen automatically – seek it out. This is helpful for the school to run smoothly as you transition.

Take care of yourself. You have to recharge your batteries so that you can continue to give to your school community. I’ve struggled with finding balance between work and home. Each time I switched schools I had to start from scratch – building relationships, earning trust, learning and growing with my new school community. Sometimes it was easy and at other times tough. It’s so easy to become a workaholic. All the paperwork you didn’t get to during the day has to be done sometime… and that spills over when the school day ends. The emotional stuff floats about in your head and can be a drain on your energy. Then you come home and switch to the role of spouse or parent and navigate the responsibilities on that front. It’s easy to end up in a situation where you seem like you’re taking your family for granted as you get ‘caught up’ with your work. Carve out time for your family and time for your work. Take time for your hobbies, to exercise… even small chunks of time will calm your mind and help you feel better able to give more of yourself at home and at school. Know that this is not easy to do (no wonder lots of books on time management get written) but remember to make it a priority. Also remember that it is important for your staff as well and see what you can do to help them find balance.

Celebrate little and big moments. We all need to know that we’re making a difference. Find ways to compliment and celebrate children and staff, volunteers, people in different departments who support your school, etc. Say something meaningful, write a note, share lots of smiles and you’ll touch the lives of others. Do something for yourself too. Set up a treasure box and save notes, cards, e-mails, and other things that come your way when people acknowledge your work. When I’m feeling down I will sometimes open a box where I save these and reading them helps me bounce back.

And, my ‘seat belt’ for principals… it’s the beliefs that ground my work. We all know that wearing a seat belt is important and can save our lives. And yes, it is a law in many places but not everywhere. Either way, it seems like people choose whether to wear it. We can wear it for short trips or long ones; when the drive is slow and bumpy or when we’re traveling at high speeds down the highway. I often don’t even remember that it’s on while I’m driving – I just know that I will not move my car without clicking it on. The beliefs that undergird my work are similar to a seat belt – I take them with me to school everyday. They are there when I chart my course, when I interact with stakeholders, when I navigate myriad decisions everyday and especially when I am on rough roads. They are always in the back of my mind – the white noise of my work day. I do know that in crucial moments they will help me like my seat belt. They tighten up as I am navigating a sudden turn or when I have to slam down on my brakes. They help me think about what I might do differently the next time. I choose to wear my seat belt at all times – law or not. It is a useful habit. And yes, there are no laws governing the carrying of beliefs by leaders in any organization, yet, they can be our conscience and our ethical compass so it’s useful to be clear about our beliefs and hold them close.

It is an honor to be at the helm of a ship full of learners (kids and grown-ups). I hope you will love your job, work hard and learn a lot! I wish you the best of luck in your adventures ahead and hope you get to take the best turns at crossroads as you continue your journey. More importantly, I hope you stick with it and stay on for the ride! Stay engaged, enjoy what you do and always remember to wear your seat belt!


One response to ““Are You Wearing Your Seat Belt?” ~ Tips for New Principals

  1. Pingback: Let's Grow Leaders | Real Leaders, Better Business | Important Ideas on Change and Transitions: A Frontline Festival

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