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Advice for New Principals: Know Your Boss's Expectations

Advice for New Principals, part 4

In our fourth installment of advice for new principals, Education Week talked to Ben Rodriguez, who spent the last eight years as the principal at Benson High School in Benson, Ariz., not far from Tucson.

Rodriguez will find himself on new ground when the school year starts—as the new principal of Buckeye Union High School, in Buckeye, Ariz., a Title I school with about 1,800 students, more than double the enrollment at Benson.

Rodriguez was named the state's distinguished secondary school principal of the year last year.   

Previous installments in this series included an interview with Kevin Armstrong, a middle school principal in the Nashville, Tenn., district, Melissa Hensley, a principal, in Shenandoah County, Va., and Sue Park, the head of school at Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland, Calif.

The interview with Rodriguez has been edited for brevity and clarity.


 In his first year as a principal, Ben Rodriguez faced the usual jitters and learning curve any newbie would.

But Rodriguez also faced the enormous pressures of opening a new high school at the same time.

That meant the rookie principal had to shoulder duties unique to opening a school: Hiring every single staff member and setting up the varsity sports programs, to name just two.

"Opening a school meant worrying about whether you had electricity on the first day because they're sort of building the school," Rodriguez said. "I was learning as the year went on."

Rodriguez's five years as an assistant principal—under a principal named Angela Chomokos who knew Rodriguez aspired to be a school leader—gave him many opportunities to experience different aspects of running a school.

"I did not realize that when you're in charge of discipline, and testing, and working as a team, and working on a school improvement process... you learn a lot of skills, and you get good at it," he said. "It's reassuring when you have a leader that's trained to develop you to become a principal. With Dr. Chomokos I was allowed to see what that felt like. I was blessed with that, and when I started that school I had an incredible amount of experience which gave me confidence to be able to start that school."

EDUCATION WEEK: What is the best advice you received in your first year as a principal or before you became a principal?

RODRIGUEZ: As I mentioned, opening a school, I had to be really organized. So the piece of advice was be organized. You are doing everything from hiring, to the calendar, to the way you want everything to look, your PD days. Just put everything on the calendar that you want to possibly plan for.  

Ben-Rodriguez-headshot.jpg

I would not have known how to anticipate everything a principal does, because being an AP, you are so entrenched in doing things. You are doing supervision, you are doing discipline, you are doing these other things. Now you've become the visionary as the principal. There are times when you don't know what it looks like or know how to anticipate, so you need to be prepared to ask for help. 

That was great advice because you could network with other principals who've been through year one, who you can ask for help when you need it, or to know how to anticipate what graduation preparation feels like, what testing preparation feels like from the principal's standpoint. 

EW: Rodriguez also shared advice he didn't get until later in his career, but he wishes he'd had in his first year.

RODRIGUEZ: [I've] worked under 13 superintendents at this point in my career.  In the district where I opened the high school, I had a different superintendent each year for those three years. What I didn't realize was that when you change superintendents, it's like starting over again. It's like year one over again in the sense of knowing that they expect. Where I failed was that I got hired and then I just kind of did my job. I realized that in year three. I went back to my mentor, and I asked what advice do you have for me when you have a new superintendent and you're a new principal? And the advice to me was to make sure that you ask that new superintendent, what do you expect of me?

That was extremely valuable from that point on. With each new superintendent I had, I had to make sure that I did that. I am so happy that I did because each of them had a different focus, had a different charge, and they actually respected that you're actually asking them what do you expect of me. It really helped me to stay out of trouble. It helped me be proactive and be in a positive relationship with the superintendent. I think that's important because I failed a couple times with that.

If one superintendent really cares about athletics, then they care about how you take care of the fields—baseball fields, football fields. One year, I was told I watered the grass too much. I didn't know that was an expectation of me. I thought that maintenance took care of watering the grass. Those kinds of things reflected on my evaluations though. And that was my lesson learned. 

EW: What do you know now that you wish you'd known in your first year or before you started your first principalship?

RODRIGUEZ: The first one has to do with something that Billy Martin [the colorful former manager of the New York Yankees] said. He would say, 'I know I have 10 players that are going to run through brick walls for me. I know I have five players that are going to be sitting on a fence and are just thinking about whether they want to follow me or not. Five that absolutely won't—either don't like me or don't want to get on board with the team.'

The reason why I use that example is that Billy Martin said he spent time with the 10 that are running through brick walls. So the question to me was, 'What am I doing for the people in my organization that are running through brick walls for me?' The answer was, nothing. I was spending more time with the five people that weren't buying into the program, weren't wanting to get on board. I was spending all my energy there instead of thinking about it as 'what about the people that are doing the great things at the school'?

I re-shifted my whole thought process and started putting all my emphasis into people who're running through brick walls for me—showing value, showing appreciation, doing everything and anything I can do to support them. Meanwhile, the ones on the fence, they're only two ways to go. What they tend to do is that when you take care of the ones who are running through brick walls, they tend to join the team. The few that don't join the team, those are renegotiations. Those are just conversations to basically tell those folks that I really want you to be happy and if you are not happy here, let's renegotiate where you should be next year. And that's how I handled it every year after that. That was powerful for me with culture.

The other big one is understanding the power of relationships. Everybody knows about relationships; however, that requires listening, that requires purposefully, deliberately going in and talking with people. If you do that, you are building trust. Just like a marriage, there has to be trust. If you don't do that, what tends to happen is they only view you as the boss. And if they only view me as the boss, they are not going to go the extra mile for the organization.

I found out I could get more energy from them when you build relationships, and that was crucial for us moving forward.

That was a huge transitional strategy—a deliberate strategy for me to do that every week. I wouldn't leave my campus, unless I'd contacted every single employee to tell them one thing, one compliment, one piece of appreciation, and that became my commitment. And the dividends for that was us remaining an 'A school,' us becoming an 'A-plus' school of excellence, us becoming a model high school for the nation. That wasn't all Ben. That was a group of people bringing energy, but I'm the one that established that.

I heard the Ritz Carlton CEO and coordinator speak at a CTE conference, and they inspired me. They are about best customer service. They win all these awards, but their management team is where the game is being played. They are out there where the landscapers are, out there where the front offices are. They are not in their offices. That was the point. And for me, I am working on doing two days out of my office. My secretary schedules the other three, and during the time when I am not in the office, I am with staff, I am out and about, just being visible and being present. It's not an evaluation scenario or anything like that.

EW: What words of wisdom do you have for new principals?

RODRIGUEZ: Number one is focus on detail. Part of knowing the detail is having a clear target, it's crystal clear. It's not complicated by 29 goals. It's three goals, and it's clear. It's clear to staff; it's clear to you.

Two is managing your own emotional state. We are the role models. Everybody notices our face, our facial features. They know our tone of voice. Are you the one leading the good mornings? Are you showing appreciation? And then again, daily practice. What could you do every day that would bring a smile to either students' faces or teachers' faces to reduce their stress?

Three is relationships. I mentioned this already, but here's what relationships do for me and the staff. It influences energy. There is trust, and there is buy-in. And again, it has to be deliberate. How do you monitor relationships on your campus? Even if teachers don't get something, bring them in the next day and develop them. We're not very good about developing [teachers] if they don't know how to do classroom management [for example]. Instead, we write them up and put them on an improvement plan, and we look to remove them from being a teacher. That happens quite often.

Four is keep things simple. I look at it as complexity is the enemy of execution. I tried to do too much. Teachers—great teachers;—will try to do too much. As the principal, you have to help them keep things simple, too, or else they'd want to do the next best program, and by the time you know it, they are doing 15 things.

My fifth is evaluate the strategy.  When a teacher does an instructional strategy and it works the first hour and then it doesn't work the second hour, the question sometimes is why do we keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? So, evaluate the strategy and be willing to say, 'I am going to try something else.' Be a risk taker, be innovative. And you can fail. You have my permission to fail because anybody who has moved to greatness has failed.

EW: What advice do you have for new principals on how to avoid being overwhelmed by the job? 

RODRIGUEZ: Focusing on detail, really sticking to that. Because if you don't...the educational whirlwind consumes you. When you're consumed, you won't leave your office, you'll have paperwork, you'll have every situation hitting you, and you won't spend the two days on the campus where the game is being played, where kids are being impacted, teachers are at their best—or not—and you're stuck in your office because you let the whirlwind consume you.

Use weekends for rest. Be present [with your family]. Reenergize.

I feel for anybody who is aspiring to be a leader. I have mentored APs in our state, and at my own school, and their fear is one, will they have a life and career, and two, how can they possibly know everything?

I just share with them—be yourself. Be able to be present. Be yourself and continue having the passion for being part of education. And with that, know that you can make it through—you can make it through any challenge that comes your way.

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