Breaking in a New Principal

Regular readers might recall my triumphant treatise on “leading from below” in the face of turnover in school administration.  At the time, my school was dealing with the transition to only our second principal in its history.

Fast-forward five years and we are about to welcome our fourth.  I can say with confidence that I still believe in the idea of shared leadership by educators and support staff to ensure consistency and foster a positive school climate.  Moreover, as our large district moves toward a choice-based model for assigning students to schools, the reputation that our school has developed will help us to attract those families who value the advantages that a strong and cooperative faculty can provide.

However, it has become even more clear to me that the principal of a school wields tremendous influence over many aspects of the community.  Whether we like it or not, she can affect the attitudes of educators, parents, and even other administrators.  She can choose whether to throw her support behind parents, teachers, and/or administrators, and change her mind a million times.

A principal can set the course for a school, both in terms of its goals and its outcomes.  He can choose which teacher leaders get to have a voice, or he can choose to listen to everyone and decide when action is needed.  He can emphasize test scores or he can value personalized instruction.  He can visit every class every day or he can drop in unexpectedly to see how the faculty does its job.

In choosing their own style and adapting to the philosophy of a particular school, a principal represents change in both the school and in the person himself.  Knowing that every school leader has a unique opportunity to absorb expertise when they first set foot in a new place, I would like to offer my wishes for our new principal.

Be flexible.  Stay true to your values, but recognize that when dealing with both staff and students the best solution will likely lie in the middle.  Realize that you will not hear the whole story from just one person.  Take it all in, and render your decision with confidence.

Take risks.  Everyone realizes that you are the one person who will be held responsible if something very bad ever happens.  You will probably receive much of the credit for our success as well.  No great achievement in education was ever reached without a leader stepping forward and making a risky decision.  Read this piece by Karl Fisch, and realize that a “bold school” will outperform an “old school” every time.

Never stop learning.  This is more than just that “lifelong learner” BS that everyone loves to talk about these days.  It’s also more than just demonstrating that you mastered the job of “teacher” before moving into school administration.  It’s about staying relevant, engaging with staff, and seeking out what the thinkers of our time are writing and the researchers are finding.  And, yes, it might mean installing an RSS reader (or, worse, finding out what RSS means) and following some important voices in the world of education.  I’d be happy to suggest a few.

Be authentic.  You have lived longer than most of those under your stead.  You have seen things and done things that would amaze the average middle schooler.  Don’t feel the need to become like those around you, relinquishing your own persona in the process.  Stay true to your self and let the doubters come to you.  Trust me.


I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of the universe, or understand how women work, or even how to fix a toaster.  And, I definitely don’t know everything about education, or middle school, or even eighth grade science.  But, while we only get one chance to make a first impression, becoming a successful principal is a never-ending process.

Did I miss anything?

2 thoughts on “Breaking in a New Principal

  1. Be skilled at reading people. See your faculty clearly. Each member will have his/her own strengths and weaknessess. Utilize peoples’ strengths so that each person is a useful cog in the clockworks of the school. This has the added bonus of making people feel valued.


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