Running a school can be exhausting and overwhelming, especially in the first year. Staff Writer Denisa R. Superville spoke to three experienced principals who offered candid advice and lessons they learned, as well as what they wish they had known in the first year on the job. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What's the best advice you received in your first year as a principal?
Kevin Armstrong, principal of Dupont-Hadley Middle School, Old Hickory, Tenn.: You are going to have to make some tough decisions in this business, but it's all about how you treat people. I can bring you in and give you a reprimand, but it's how I give you the reprimand.
Two of our kids, [one of their parents] just passed away, and we are going to the visitation and funeral. These are kids that have actually just left us and are going to high school next year. But it doesn't matter. Some principals might be, 'Oh, they are going to high school, I don't have to go to that funeral.' No. It's all about how you treat people.
Every single decision that I make in this building, I make it through the lens of what's best for kids. That means that as an adult in this building, I can't be lazy. I feel like some principals and other school leaders make decisions based on what's best for them, not what's best for kids. What's best for kids is that I am visible, I am in the building, I am walking around, that I am popping into classrooms.
Melissa Hensley, principal of Central High School, Woodstock, VA.: Joe Dudash was the first principal I ever worked for as a teacher. When I started to go down the administrative path, he said here's my advice to you: Be where the action is. By that he meant be in the hallways, be in the classrooms, be at events, be in the community to learn the culture to have a firsthand understanding of what's going on.
Sue Park, head of Yu Ming Charter School, Oakland, Calif.: It was just how important and critical establishing a culture of learning, improvement, and collaboration is.
Before you can do any substantial work around student outcomes and teacher practice, creating that culture and buy-in among folks—that learning and improvement—is what we do. We are learners. We are constantly in a cycle of improvement and we do it together. We collaborate. That is truly baseline, most important.
What advice do you have for new principals on how to avoid being overwhelmed by the job?
Armstrong: Just the fact that in this role, it's impossible to do it all. And that's going to be your first inclination—to try and do it all. You'll try, and it won't work, and you'll be exhausted. And you'll get to a point where you realize that you'll have to begin trusting people by giving them opportunities to lead.
Micromanaging doesn't work. You have to begin to develop trust in people, where you can give things to people and move on.
Park: This profession can be so consuming. You can always be doing something for a child and a family. So learning [that] it isn't a sprint, it's a marathon; you are building a cathedral not a shack. Cathedrals take a hundred years to build, even more. And if you are going to stay in this for the long game, you need to be doing good work, you need to retain that sense of urgency ... but also make space for the things that feed you.
Hensley: One of the things that I do with my staff at the onset of each year is that I let them know what my parameters are: that I am available to you through email, text messages, or phone calls. However, if in the evening hours, it's not an emergency and it can wait to tomorrow, let's wait until tomorrow and deal with that. For two reasons. One, it's respectful of my time to step back from the role. And it's saying to the teachers, 'It's OK for you to step back and take that time for yourself.' It's a culture that you build within your school.
What words of wisdom do you have for a first-year principal?
Hensley: One thing that really comes to mind—and it is something that I know I've struggled with, but I've learned the deeper I've gotten into the career—is just the concept of being emotionally vulnerable with your staff and having the courage to be who you are and to not let a top-down model drive what you think administration should look like.
I think that's very hard for a first-year administrator, who comes in feeling that I have to draw strong lines between [the principal and staff]. If you really want to get buy-in and build those relationships with people, you are going to have to be vulnerable with them. You have to know your people [and] what's important to them to gain those feelings of trust, buy-in, and leadership within your organization. [When] people trust in what you're doing, the productivity will be greater as well.
Park: [Finding a mentor is] the most impactful thing. That also helps with not letting the job overwhelm you—it's finding that wiser person who is a few years ahead of you, who has been through it.
Making sure that you make the time and space for your professional people, but also your personal people, and commune with them frequently, so that you are maintaining your sense of self and values. And making sure that you are making space for the activities that feed you—whether it's practicing mindfulness or yoga or cooking or the things that keep perspective.
What resource(s) would have made a difference for you in that first year?
Park: I think the one thing [that would have made a difference] is a dedicated mentor or coach, which I didn't get. Someone who might have been observing my meetings with teachers or my leading a professional development and giving me active feedback after the observation. I created my own network and my own mentorship.
If you don't have a coach or a mentor assigned to you or somebody that you think you can learn from, you need to go out and find who you admire the most, who is doing the most inspiring, visionary, cutting-edge things, and highly effective things, and go and make friends with them.
Armstrong: For me, it's having mentors. I wouldn't even say veteran principals. If you're a first-year principal, you can get a second-year principal, a fourth-year principal, and a 10th-year principal and learn just as much from all three. Because I think you need someone that just has another year or two above you. They are still kind of green, too, and they get it. It just happened to them last year or the year before.
Veterans may not be able to recall what it was like in the first year. And even if they do, it was like 10 years ago. It was just a different time. I would even say having mentors outside of education. You need people that are kind of slightly oblivious to what you do, so that when you talk to them, they come at it from a fresh angle—just somebody that's going to help you through stress. ... You need those folks in your life, too. I call it mutual mentors, people that you check on just as much as they check on you. You are kind of pouring into each other.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known in your first year or before you started your first principalship?
Hensley: One of the things that came to mind is that the position has no power. People say, 'You are the principal, tell them to do that.' And I'm like, it really doesn't work like that. It took probably about two years to learn why these folks won't do what I'm asking them to do. They're not going to do what they're not going to. I can sit here or be out in the classrooms and say this will work and this will really be effective. But it's not that way. The best way that I have found—and that I wish I had really known this—was that it's OK to share that leadership role. Not only is it OK, it's imperative for success to breathe in a building.
Armstrong: You go in to do this job having weaknesses. Some of us have never dealt with the financial aspect of a school. I'd say the vast majority of [principals] have not. That's huge: dealing with bookkeepers, and auditors, and signing checks, and signing requisitions and all these other things, and this huge budget—we have a $3 million to $4 million budget here—and hiring everyone. To think that you're in charge of programming $3 million to $4 million, it can be overwhelming at times. But you get used to it. With my math background, I like the money part, because I can budget. I am fine with that. But others aren't.
You don't know what you don't know. You kind of learn by messing up. It's that fail-fast mentality. You've got to fail fast. Because you're not going to know everything, and you're going to make mistakes, and you can't beat yourself up. You just have to learn from it and move on. Document the error, and the next time it comes up, you're like, 'Wait a minute, this happened a couple of weeks ago, what did I do? I remember. Don't do this.' So you learn.