The first year. We all remember it, and some of us remember it more fondly than others. Both of us remember our first year as principals. It was fun, scary, exhausting, exhilarating, full of laughter, and yes even some tears.
As we sit at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), we were both reminded of our first year. And as we were reminiscing and sharing stories, we had an idea! Why not share some of our ideas on how to make your first year as a principal be the best it can be! We’ve both made plenty of mistakes and learned tons of examples of what TO do and what NOT to do.
So here are a few of our favorite ideas on how to make sure that your first year (or any year) as a principal is the best year ever!
1. Before making any moves stop and have a conversation
At some point in the year you will have to ask staff to help you or your school. It is so important to start your relationship with them by getting to know them. Learn about their family, what they love about the school, what they would change about the school, and how you can help them. Staff will appreciate you taking the time to hear them out and get to know them.
2. Learn every staff member’s name before you start working with them
There is something powerful about hearing your name. Knowing that someone knows your name. But also that they know how to pronounce it correctly. It’s so important that when you become a principal that you utilize tools at your disposal (yearbooks, website, school secretary, etc) to learn the name of every staff member before you even meet them. Set the tone immediately that they’re important to you.
3. Be a servant
One of the best ways to lead is by serving. Every chance you get take time to serve the staff, students, and families around you. One thing we both do is morning, lunch, and afternoon duty every single day. It’s so important for your team to see that you’re willing to get down in the trenches with them. It lets them see that you’re willing to get your hands dirty and that you’re not just sitting in your office.
4. Be visible, every single day
Your reputation will get set pretty quick with parents, students, and staff. It is important that they see you everywhere, especially the first few weeks. Talk to teachers before school to see how they’re doing. Greet students as they arrive. Go out to recess and lunch. Especially the first few weeks, go into every single classroom even if it is only for a few minutes. Be so visible that parents, students, and teachers are tired of seeing you everywhere.
5. Find Ways to Lighten Loads, Not Weigh them Down
Your job as a principal is to move your school forward and improve the school. There are many ways to improve your school without adding to all that your staff already does. Find those ways. When the load becomes too much, listen to your staff about what adds to their stress, and take what you can off their plate. They’ll respect you so much more when you notice those “extras” and remove what you can.
6. Read with Classes
One of our favorite things to do is to read with classrooms. We make it a point to get into every classroom a couple times a year and read. We read books we like, books that cover our themes, or even books recommended by students or other teachers. When a principal reads to a classroom it shows that literacy is important.
7. Feed Them
It is amazing how food can change the tone of a meeting or a Friday. We both know that budgets can be tight and there are sometimes rules around spending money on food. But find a way to treat your staff. It might be something as easy as popcorn and chocolate at a staff meeting. Or maybe a nacho bar on a Friday. Find a way to treat your staff from time to time.
8. Listen More Than You Talk
One of the most important things you can do as a first year principal (or any year for that matter), is listen more than you talk. And genuinely listen. Ask people how their day has been, and wait for an answer. Ask how you can help, and then help them! Ask your staff for feedback, ideas, and more! Listen, listen, listen.
9. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll get back to you”
There will be parents and teachers that want answers to their questions, and want them immediately. As first year principals we both didn’t deal with that pressure well and would give answers too quickly. It is important to know you can tell a staff member or parent that you don’t know or you need more time to think about it, and that you will get back to them. Make sure you do get back to them in a timely manner, but just know it is ok to step back and give yourself time to make the best decision possible.
10. Stop and Take Care of Yourself
As principals, whether we’re a first year or not, we can forget to take care of ourselves. Sometimes the load becomes more than we can bear. It’s important to remember to stop and breathe sometimes. Schedule in time to sit and eat if you need to, take a moment to close your office door and have 5 minutes to clear your head, go sit in the middle of a kindergarten classroom and be surrounded by wonder and awe. Whatever is “your thing”, find time to do it. When we don’t take care of ourselves we injure the whole team. It’s like the saying goes, “when the principal sneezes, everyone gets a cold”.
BONUS: You’re not in this alone
It’s incredibly important to remember this point: you are not alone. Being a principal can be one of the loneliest education jobs out there. There is a constant incredible amount of weight placed on your shoulders. Find your people. Utilize social media (twitter, voxer, blogger groups, etc) to connect and surround yourself with others who will lift you up, hear you out, and challenge you all at the same time. Don’t try to do this job alone.
Being a first year principal brings many ups and downs. There will be days you leave school thinking you are the greatest principal in the world and days you leave thinking that there has to be a better leader for your school. Just know being a principal does matter. The job you’re doing is an important and worthwhile job. You will make a huge difference for your students, your teachers, and your staff.
Being a principal is hard. It’s not meant for everyone, and can often feel like a very lonely position, but we wouldn’t change our decision to step into this role for a second.
As you begin getting ready for a new school year, we hope you consider using a few of the ideas we’ve come up with above. Both of us absolutely loved teaching in the classroom but we can honestly say that being a principal is the best job in the world.