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I wish I had some sage advice, but I am also a first year principal. My school hasn't even opened officially yet, so I am still in the building stage with my teachers.

I am looking forward to hearing the advice from others.

Good luck in all you do.


I couldn't resist a comment. I am in my 4th year and to me the best thing to work on in year one is creating a positive school climate or culture. Doing too much too fast is a death sentence. Most teachers need to have trust in leadership before they will embrace change. I had an old principal tell me that all you need to worry about in year one is that the building doesn't burn down! I think his point was the management and organizational issues will need attention before you can begin focusing on instructional leadership.

Good Luck!


I just completed my third year as a principal, and I'd like to build on the last comment. Unless there is something about the school that is in crisis, I agree that you should not attempt much in the way of change. You all need to get to know one another before trusting, and trust is a requirement for change. Even seemingly small things can trip you up - until you've gotten to know the staff, you'll have no idea what the "sacred cows" are unless you accidentally attempt to mess with one of them. Honor and respect their history, first and foremost, before thinking you can walk with them into their future.

See and be seen, talk with staff, dedicate yourself toward learning about the school, its students, and its community. Set an example as a learner, a listener, one who changes himself, first. Some will follow your example. Others will not, at least not right away - but they will NOTICE your example, and that's vital in building credibility.

Some on staff will nudge you toward big changes they'd like to see in the school. If the changes they advocate for are ones you think may be positive, nudge those nudgers toward change - but don't try to go much wider. If the others, the non-nudgers, believed the change was a good idea, they would have already pushed for it, yes? So, don't think that you can get them to change their perspective unless they've gotten to know you (and you, them) and you've earned their respect.

Whenever you can, spend the first hour or so at work (okay, the first hour or so AFTER the first 10 minutes, when you've checked for any urgent messages and taken stock of your day to come) OUT of your office. Be in the lobby or hallways as students and staff arrive; visit classes right off the bat. It'll be the BEST part of your day, and it'll make even the non-best stuff better, because it'll give you perspective - but if you start your day behind your desk, you'll never get out from behind it. (This is something it took me far too long to learn, and it continues to be one of my major goals!)

Finally, I remember being surprised at how much my actions were "watched". Not in a negative way, at all - people just notice what you do, what you say, and who you talk to. And those things carry weight you probably cannot imagine. When you stop to pick up some trash on the ground - they'll notice. When you park somewhere other than the closest available spot - they'll notice. When you talk with someone who's not accustomed to speaking with the principal - they'll notice. When you treat a student with firmness but kindness - they'll notice. When you stand up for someone who deserves to be stood up for - they'll notice. From the moment you arrive at work until the time you go home, you'll be living in a fishbowl - but, far from being a bad thing, if the way you choose to swim around is a way of honor and passion and professionalism, it will be the most amazing part of your job.

Congratulations on your new position. Enjoy it - it's the best job in the world!

Kevin W. Riley

I have been a principal for 17 years and in three different places. Prior to being a principal, I was a race relations consultant in San Diego City Schools. That is where I learned about the "Change of Leadership Workshop" and I have been doing them ever since. They follow a simple formula:

A core group of teachers, parents, and student representatives are invited to an all day workshop. It is facilitated by someone neutral-- who does not work at the school and who does not have a dog in the fight. (A fellow administrator can do it, or a curriculum director type... someone good at facilitating.) Throughout most of the meeting... the new principal is NOT present.

The main structure of the meeting goes like this:

1. The facilitator leads the group in establishing their ground rules... like "all ideas are valued", "listen to each other speak", "no put-downs of anyone--including the last principal!" etc.)

2. Then the facilitator leads the group in a series of brainstorm responses to questions like: "What are we really good at at this school? What is our brand? What are we most proud of?"

3. Then: "What are the core values which we will NOT compromise as a school?"

4. Then: "What are the areas that we most need to improve as an organization?"

5. Then: "What strategies or innovations would lead us to significantly higher levels of achievement for kids and services to our families?"

You get the picture. They are being lead through a collective self-evaluation.

All answers, even the goofy ones, are written on chart paper and they are all posted up in the room.

It takes a while... most of the day in fact. At the end of the process, they then call in the new principal to join the group. At that point, a spokesperson (maybe several... maybe someone other than the facilitator) present each of the questions and responses that are on the charts. Meanwhile, the new principal takes notes, listens, ask clarifying questions, takes it all in.

What they are handing you is a blueprint for the next five years!

In the end, as the new principal you thank them for their time and ideas. You promise them that you will continue to work with them to protect those areas that they are most proud of... and grow the areas that they all know they can be better at.

Going forward, you can attribute ideas and innovations and changes to the "Change of Leadership Workshop." No one will ever accuse you of not listening or not understanding the culture.

If you would like more information about this powerful process. feel free to email me at kevin.riley@cvesd.org.

BTW... when everyone walks out of the room there should be one, unmistakable core value that everybody shares with you that and everyone recognizes as inviolate: WE ARE ABOUT CHILDREN!

Dave Meister

Visit the classrooms on a regular basis. Try to see each teacher during their prep...just a short visit on a regular schedule...listen, listen, listen! Do not sugar coat reality. Tell it like it is.

10 years in the principalship


Michael, good luck.

You have entered a great opportunity - an opportunity to learn. The above comments prove that - this is GOLD for a first year administrator.

As for me, thirteen years, three districts, not all 100% successful in my mind. The difference for me was my less successful years I thought I had the answers.

Then I took my current position and had over half of my faculty with 25+ years experience in that building! Good teachers, excellent people, challenging faculty - why? I had to earn their respect, it wasn't a gift. The good part is that I did see their quality and sat back a lot more than pushed. This allowed me to genuinely see what they valued and what worked. One of the things I HATED upon arrival I have defended to the hilt to several subsequent superintendents, and I still do today.

Jeanette mentions getting into the classrooms, etc. early in the day, and that is VERY true. My philosophy is slightly different as I am a workaholic. I like to arrive between 4:30 and 5 AM, get paperwork done by 7:30 and then start to "mingle" around with the faculty, staff, and students. Yes, I get into the classrooms, but the hall and the Commons/Lunchroom is key for students. By the end of the day, I have seen everyone I hope 2-3 times if only briefly. Custodians, cooks, teachers, associates - these are the heartbeat of the school. Students are the body we pump blood and life through.

At the end of the day, I get another 2-3 hours in before the home event or activity to supervise. That is more paperwork and such I get to get done. I am in a small school, and I know I wear several hats, but it really drives me. My goal is that very few people actually see me do paperwork and such. That is before and after school - the day is to see people and talk with them (good, bad, meetings, staffings, planning, evaluations, brainstorming, student recognition/discipline, etc.). What I hope they see is a guy roaming around loving his job and working with people.

One word on "note" only. Don't be surprised if the BBQ idea doesn't fly as well as you hoped (and I hope it is smashing). When I arrived, not knowing the culture, I was crushed when I suggested a similar gathering and in a faculty meeting was basically smacked down for suggesting we get together. My prior experiences with this were excellent, but it flew in the face of this particular faculty (remember they are good people, just don't do this as a group) at that time - we have done a few small things since, but always minimal. My mistake was to take this as a personal "we don't want you or care to gather with you" response instead of recognizing their culture-of which I was an outsider.

Overall, wade into the pool. You have to earn the trust and respect before you set the world on fire...but if you do this, the school is your tinderbox!

Jan Borelli

Develop a reputation for being a straight shooter. Tell people what you see. If you see someone making a mistake, then take them aside and share what you have seen. Whatever you ignore will be thought to be something you accept.

Addie Gaines

Congrats! I am going to post an article that I wrote for the Elementary Principal, which is the journal for the Mo Asso. of Elementary School Principals several years ago on this very topic:

Dear New Principal,

It is your first day on the job. You have hung your diplomas on the wall, put your family pictures on the shelf, spun around twice in your new chair and you are thinking, “I am in charge of this place. Now what?”

To put it bluntly:

1. Don't be a know-it-all to try to cover for any natural insecurity you might feel as you step into the position. Nobody likes this. Get to know the teachers in the building and find out who the natural leaders are in the bunch. Figure out which teachers are reflective and wise in the group and seek their ideas, as well as listening to ideas you don't agree with and trying to learn from them. Never play favorites. Always keep confidential information in confidence. People must be able to trust you.

2. If you are changing schools, don't try to make it like your old one and don't constantly compare it to your old one (at least verbally). I was given this advice, followed it, and it served me well. Each year (at least in my building) there are new people and this changes the composition of the group. Each year you and your faculty/staff need to reassemble as a unique team with its own identity, respecting the traditions of the past, but also looking at the current reality and making the changes and updates that are necessary for improvement. Don't make changes for the sake of change or to prove you are in charge. Everyone knows that you are in charge.

3. It seems like knowing all the policies by heart is a priority, but it is my experience that the policies are written in a book about 12 inches thick and no one could possibly have it all memorized. However, acting by policy and consistently is critical to keeping yourself out of trouble, so when in the least bit of doubt, look it up.

4. Definitely find a mentor. You will have successes to share, challenges to hash over, and mistakes to cry over. You are in a unique position where sometimes there is no one in the building you can really share with.

5. On mistakes, you are going to make some. Get used to it and learn from them.

6. You will never please all the people, all the time; so don't set this as a goal for yourself. Be fair, be consistent and you can respect yourself in the morning. If this doesn't work in your district, my advice is to find one where it will.

7. Be very, very, very nice to your secretary and custodian. They will get you out of more jams that you can imagine.

8. Speaking of secretaries, your secretary is a key person. Meet with him/her and set some parameters for how you want things done and how the two of you can best work together right off the bat. I told my secretary that the main thing I wanted her to do is "keep me out of trouble and if you see me doing starting to do anything that seems stupid, please tell me before I do it and I will never be offended. Help me understand the way things have been done and are being done and why. I expect that I will be able to trust you with everything." The second thing I told her is "I don't like to talk to salespeople. If I want to buy something, I am perfectly capable of researching this on my own and will do so." She screens all my calls, saving me countless hours of my valuable time. My secretary is totally awesome. The very best thing she did is at the beginning of the year when I knew no one, if I got a call from a parent, she quickly filled me in on who the person was, who the children were, what class they were in and any information that she received about why the parent was calling. This was the best, because even though I may have had no clue about any of this, as far as the parent knew, I knew the child, the class, etc. It is not very impressive to parents when they feel like you don't know their child or what is going on, after all, you are in charge. Some parents would be understanding and forgiving about this at first, knowing you are new, but these parents are particularly grateful and impressed when you can come across as knowing who they are and what is going on.

9. Don't make "snap" decisions unless it is truly an emergency like a fire or a snake in the hallway. Most decisions do not have to be made this way. Gather all the information and think through the possible consequences of various courses of action. Ask questions of all involved and never assume. Sometimes things are not as they appear.

10. Always keep what is best for kids at the heart of everything you do and don't be afraid to do the right thing.

Good luck in your new position.


P.S. Yes, you have to get up and go to school today. You are the principal.

Reggie Engebritson

Congratulations Michael! You are getting a lot of good advice here. I just finished my first year and so will just say a few things:
1. Build relationships with your staff and students.
2. Have the integrity to put the cards on the table and tell it like it is.
3. Communicate clearly what you mean.
4. Enjoy it!

Jeanette is right -you are in a fishbowl and people will watch what you do and repeat what you say. It's amazing how fast something can get around a building that someone "thought" you said or saw you do.

Best of luck to you!

Daniel Winters


These are exciting times for you and you've got some great advice in these here comments. Kevin's strategy is a great one with our without the Principal. I did something similar and was part of the process and it helped in terms of developing an improvement plan that was generated from the staff. I would reiterate that for the first few months, your biggest task is to listen and learn about the culture and try and make small changes that everyone supports. I wrote on this last summer and offer some ideas here.

1. Articulate a Clear Purpose and Compelling Vision.
2. Go Team! Build collaborative teams.
3. Embrace the numbers and squeeze 'em for all they're worth.
4. Be clear in the valley of decision.
5. Intuition is sometimes better than a mountain of data.
6. Recognize effort and achievement creatively and frequently.
7. Be the change you want to see in your school (apologies to Ghandi).
8. Face the hideous beast (AKA Confront Unproductive Behavior Productively).
9. Laughter is good medicine or "A spoonful of sugar makes the initiatives go down".
10. If you're not improving instruction, you're not doing anything.
11. You blow it sometimes, so deal with it.
12 A balanced diet will keep everyone fit and frisky.

You can read more detail if you have the energy. http://roadrunnerlearning.blogspot.com/2007_07_01_archive.html

Enjoy the ride.

Mike Waiksnis

WOW, thank you all for the great advice. I will keep all of this in mind. I agree 100% with the listening and learning piece. My first priority is building the relationships. Thanks again for the wonderful advice.

Tracy Rosen

Congratulations! What a journey you are about to begin!

Greg Carroll

I always laugh that one of the best bits of advice I got as a very new principal (in a two teacher school of 35 children mind you)was to open the mail with the rubbish bin between you knees.

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