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First-Year Principals, Some Advice for Doing This Job in a Pandemic

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Dear first-year principals and assistant principals,

Congratulations on your new role! I've seen your Facebook posts, tweets, and Instagram pics in the last few weeks announcing your appointments.

You've accepted a job that demands a lot from you and your skills: instructional leader, chief of morale, astute politician, parent whisperer, student advocate, master communicator (the list goes on and on).  And that's in a "normal" year.

But you're starting this gig in a global pandemic, in a divisive political climate, and in an economic collapse. You may have teachers afraid for their health and lives. Parents despondent over indefinite periods of remote learning or upset that their kids have to wear masks in school. Students who have lost ground academically and will need support to catch up.

Finding your footing in your new role—and for many of you, an entirely new school community—will be extraordinarily challenging.

Here are some key pieces of advice (with links to dive in deeper) that are essential for any first-year principal, but are critical for those of you starting the job now.

1. Lean on your boss.  Your supervisor—we're assuming that's your boss's title, but it could be assistant superintendent or director—exists to support you. Their job is to onboard you into the role, answer your questions, translate decisions coming down from central office, and more than anything, coach you on how to be an instructional leader. Getting help from this person is so crucial for rookie principals, said Michele Shannon, a former principal and administrator who is an executive with the NYC Leadership Academy, which trains school leaders and school system leaders around the country. 

"It's likely that the supervisor had a big role in selecting you and believing you are ready to take this on," Shannon said. "You should have that person on speed-dial and speed-Zoom."

Scheduling regular check-ins with your supervisor not only provides you with an outlet for getting your questions answered, it helps build a relationship with the person who should have a vested interest in your success, Shannon said. 

You'll also want to ask your boss: What are your expectations for me?  Document those and partner with your supervisor on how to reach those goals. Principal Ben Rodriguez goes even deeper on this.

2. Use your principal coach (and if your district didn't give you one, find someone to fill the role). This person, who has more experience as a school leader and who presumably knows the ins and outs of the district you're working in, is another regular contact you need.

Granted, their experience doesn't include leading schools in a pandemic, but as Shannon said, "they will learn alongside you and be a person to help you think through the issues and help you problem solve."

Even if you have an assigned coach, you can reap big benefits from having a mentor, too. This can be someone you choose because you admire their leadership and share their values. Principal Sue Park explains how important her mentor was in her early years on the job.

3. Reach out to your fellow principals. Seriously, the role can be lonely in a typical year. Don't dismiss the value and need to have a posse of colleagues who are struggling with the same issues you are. This can be your safe space to blow off some steam and to steal good ideas from one another, Shannon said.

Finding this community of peers can help immeasurably with things like writing a welcome back letter or learning from how they plan to do professional development for teachers. 

"The bottom line is that you don't need to recreate the wheel," Shannon said. "Try to rely on some of the resources around you as you develop your vision and your plan."

4. Ask your school leadership team for help. This may be your assistant principal (if you have one), teacher leaders, and other staff members who are respected in the building. They can give you the historical context of the school, including what life was like before COVID-19, Shannon said.

Listen to what they tell you and whose stories they tell (or don't tell), Shannon said. "You want to keep your equity hat on... and really listen for the students who are talked about and the students who aren't. Then you can home in on those missing voices."

Principal Melissa Hensley explains that too many principals think they can't show their more emotional side, but she strongly advises that being honest about what you don't know and showing vulnerability is essential to building trust. 

5. Do a listening tour, regardless of what school looks like.  You want to talk to students, to families, to teachers, and to staff. That still needs to happen, regardless of the circumstances, Shannon said. 

"Taking the time to do this is so important," Shannon said. "This is how you're going to get to understand the different constituency groups, their needs and their wants." 

You will inevitably face tough decisions and make choices that people don't like. Principal Kevin Armstrong said establishing an authentic listening ear, working to really understand your community, and treating all players with respect can make those decisions more palatable for those who may disagree.

6. Don't forget to take care of yourselves. The job can burn you out fast, especially now when the lines between work and home are so blurred. So turn the job off and take time to do things you enjoy. I know that's easier said than done, so follow these tips from Principal Bill Zimmer on how he managed to do it.

Good luck!

Image: Getty


For even more advice and lessons learned from experienced principals, we have a whole series for you:

Advice for New Principals: 'It's All About How You Treat People'

Advice for New Principals: 'Be Emotionally Vulnerable With Your Staff'

Advice for New Principals: Make Sure You Have a Mentor

Advice for New Principals: Know Your Boss's Expectations

Also, if you've got questions that could use some expert perspective, you can send them to The Principal Is In, bi-monthly advice column written by two seasoned school leaders. Send it to [email protected], and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

You can also sign up for EdWeek's weekly newsletter for school leaders, The Savvy Principal.

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