15 Tips for the New Principal

My most read blog post is an attempt to provide advice to new principals. Originally written 10 years ago on my blog Principal Reflections, the advice below (with some light editing) still works:

This is the season of new beginnings. Administrators search for novel ways to inspire their staff and balance exciting initiatives and necessary mandates into a vision that will move a faculty. But for many educators, it is their first taste of the Principalship as they receive an endorsement from a School Board and Superintendent to be a building leader for the first time.

I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Bals, a fine administrator from New Jersey and a member of my PLN, at an Apple Conference in Boston a while back. He direct messaged me on Twitter:

Kevin: I became a Principal this summer. I am at High Technology High School in Lincroft, NJ. What advice do you have for a new principal?

Me: I’ll think I write a blog post on this. Thanks for the inspo and congrats.

Kevin: OK. Sounds good. I’ll look for it.

Here’s my advice:

  1. Meet with all of your staff in the summer.

I’ve found the best way to discover the true flavor of your building is to simply listen to the players who make up the school. Do not offer advice but take good notes and let your new teachers, paraprofessionals, specialists, office crew, kitchen staff, and custodians all give their perspectives on what is working and what is not. In one of my Principalships, I tabulated the results of my interviews (kindly sanitized without criticism of individuals), and it became a component of my goals for that year and a major topic at the opening staff meeting. These actions validated the opinions of all of the staff.

  1. Honor the history of your school.

As a new principal in my mid-30s, I thought that I had it all figured out and that the veteran teachers were nice people but perhaps not privy to the latest in pedagogy. Not only did I find that not to be true, but the “vets” also hold the history of your building and the culture that binds the school together. Sure, there will be changes that need to be made over time, but earning their respect in the short term will gain influence in the long run.

  1. Identify the major players and support them.

Find those teachers with passion, a hunger for knowledge, and an ability to take measured risks and give them all the support they may need. Perhaps the best support is your confirming words. But while you do this, be careful to…

4.Be fair to all.

This will be difficult. It’s only natural to spend more time with those who share your philosophy, simply match your personality, or those you can trust. But it’s crucial to be seen as even-handed. One former Principal colleague of mine lost her job over time because she was seen as having favorites. Thus, while humanly difficult, it is important to…

  1. Be kind, caring, and respectful in all of your relationships, and be willing to apologize.

While cliche, relationships really do matter. Too many leaders are afraid to look weak, and thus apologies are rare. Asking for forgiveness and being forgiven is a sign of strength for both parties and usually leads to respect and healing. In your first year, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong while holding your ground respectfully when you’re not.

  1. Focus on school and classroom culture.

I am surprised that more pre-service teacher programs don’t highlight the enormous importance of classroom management for success. One of the most popular and proven approaches in this area, Responsive Classroom  has conducted research that shows the unsurprising link between the culture in one’s classroom and academic achievement. Spend time with your new teachers and help them succeed with their management. Be visible in the hallways, cafeteria, and playground. A colleague of mine often says, “visibility is credibility.”

  1. Budget

Like your facility, do not leave the responsibility and knowledge of your budget to others. This includes the student activity accounts, as more Principals are fired due to mismanagement of these accounts than any other reason. Have your administrative assistant regularly check the line items, so you don’t grow short in any area. Also, ensure that you legitimately spend what you have budgeted. It’s not good to have large overages toward the end of your fiscal year, as this is a sign that you didn’t need this funding anyway.

  1. Develop some leather.

When I was in the classroom, I had few enemies. It appeared that everyone liked me. I was cool enough and became close friends with many of my colleagues. As soon as I became a principal, I found that the Teflon began to crack and that my decisions had a larger effect on my co-workers and their lives. I couldn’t make everyone happy anymore, which was difficult at first. Angry at me? I’m a nice guy! I soon realized that I had to grow a bit of leather and be content with making the right decisions, maintaining my respect for all, and understanding that I will be unpopular at times.

  1. Get to know your facility.

I was not blessed with fix-it skills. Just ask my wife. Yet, I have learned the wisdom of knowing what makes a physical plant tick. Do you know where all of the electrical panels are? Where are the shut-off valves? What areas of your building most need repair? What’s the status of your maintenance plan? I guarantee you that while the Business Administrator or Facilities Director may have responsibility for your facility, no one will care as much or advocate as well as the principal.

  1. Set fewer and more succinct goals in Year 1.

Your vision for the school won’t be met in one year. Don’t kill your staff with initiatives in year 1 but set goals that can be met with an eye to 3-5 years for longer-term goals.

  1. Model great practice.

Be sure that your staff sees you as a learner. When you communicate by the written word, include a professional article. Staff meetings should be professional development sessions, not informational diatribes. Lift up great practices from your passionate teachers.

  1. Keep your Superintendent in the loop.

Earning the trust of your Superintendent is crucial in your first year. If you make a mistake, admit it to your Sup long before the public or the press find out. As one Superintendent told me, “I don’t like surprises.”

  1. Communicate well with your staff and community.

Find your best methods. Utilize podcasts, videos, blogs, newsletters, and social media. One of the greatest factors in leadership success is communicating one’s vision clearly and consistently, and often it takes multiple mediums to reach your goal.

  1. Find a mentor.

The Principalship can be a lonely place. If you are in a smaller elementary school, you may not have an assistant principal, and in that case, you may be an “only.” In addition to tapping your professional learning network, be sure to find other administrators in your district or outside your area to be there when you have a critical question or simply need to vent. A former Superintendent and Principal of mine were life savers for me in my early years.

  1. Schedule yourself to be with students.

Always be out front when the kids arrive and be there when they leave. Ride buses. Play hoops at recess. Walk around and chat with kids during lunch. Get to their competitions outside of school. Play chess with them in your office and modify the stigma of the “Principal’s Office.” Ask them questions during your classroom walk-throughs. Read to them and have them read to you. Tell them they are the most important part of your school life.

My career as a Principal was exceedingly rewarding. Working together with my colleagues, we change the world every day. Learn from everyone, even when it doesn’t seem possible. Exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Forewarn those you love that you will be searching for a new balance in your life and to be patient.

It really is a great job.

About the Author

Bill Carozza recently “retired” from public schools after 12 years as a teacher and 26 years as a school administrator. He is honored to be Co-Executive Director of NHASCD.