I was recently at a small, rural elementary school. The school serves approximately 300 PK – 3rd grader. I was meeting with the principal to work on some district initiatives, but the conversation soon moved to another topic all together.
The principal is in her first year and she finds that she struggling with herself. Like most first year principals she has promised herself that she will be different. She won’t turn into the stereotypical, me-versus-you, autocrat. I asked her how that was working for her and she admitted not well. I listened to her for a bit and what she is going through is typical for the majority of first year principals.
So I gave her my “What your professors and bosses didn’t tell you about being a principal” rules. If you are asking why I would know the rules and not professors and bosses, the answer is experience. Most education professors haven’t been principals and most bosses don’t remember what they went through during their first year as a principal (after all, it generally was a long time ago). I on the other hand, spend a lot of time with first year principals on their campuses trying to speed up their learning curve.
Here are the rules:
1. The first year of being a principal is the steepest learning curve you will face in your entire career. This is primarily due to the fact that you are now accountable for everything. This forces you to consider every decision in light of this fact. It slows you down right when you are starting a job that moves faster than any position you have ever had before. Don’t worry though; Year 2 will be much easier.
2. The more dysfunctional the campus, the more autocratic you must be. This is tough, because this is not who you want to be and not what you signed up for. But your first priority is to lead the campus. Set the vision, set the expectation and enforce both. As the staff builds capacity and understanding, you will be able to become more collaborative.
3. Don’t worry about morale. Don’t even get in this fight. You’re new, you represent change. New and change is the recipe for a dip in morale. Instead focus on student performance, especially short-term measures. As the staff sees student performance improve, their morale will bounce back. Performance Leads Morale!
4. You have a honeymoon, use it. As soon as you get on the job, make the changes that need to be made. Don’t wait to assess the situation for a semester, do it now. The staff may not like it, but they all expect something different to happen. And the best time to make a mistake is when your boss expects one or doesn’t yet care.
5. If you want a friend get a dog. The Principal’s job is to lead. If you do it right, someone is always upset with you. Your job is to ensure that student needs are being met and the school is improving. You can aspire to being respected and admired, but don’t fret over whether or not you are liked.