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Find the Joy: Words of Advice to a First Year Principal
by Monique Darrisaw-Akil, Ed.D.
Recently a close friend of mine became a principal for the first time this year. Soon after celebrating this awesome career achievement, the reality set in about just how challenging and stress-inducing this job can be. Usually when she shares the joys and pains of school leadership I try to approach the conversation as a friend, not as someone who coaches and supervises principal and has been a principal for eight years, but those conversations have prompted me to think about my own experience and the advice I wished I had received. So here are some of my reflections and words of advice for first year principals:
Focus on what is really important to you as a leader.
I recognize that as a new leader you want to fix it all, after all they hired you because they knew you could get things done. Just you remember you can't do it all in one year, so I challenge you to pick the three most important things you want to work on this year and devote the bulk of your time to getting those things done. There will be distractions; other issues and even demands from your supervisors that will seem to take precedence over everything else you planned, but try to discipline yourself so that you can distinguish between the urgent and the important and use your energy to focus on the things that really matter.
Invest in your staff and find opportunities to celebrate them.
Even if you think the majority of your staff is less than stellar, take the time to find out what untapped talents they may possess. Perhaps with the right motivation they might unleash those talents and start something wonderful to benefit students; but you won’t know if you don’t invest in getting beyond the surface and into a deeper understanding of your school community. In other words, don’t be so quick to write off the “resistant” teacher who seems stuck in her ways. She just might be waiting for the right leader to help her get unstuck.
Remember that adults need affirmation and encouragement too. A colleague of mine interrupted his staff meeting to take his entire faculty to show them an exemplary bulletin board in their hallway. The bulletin was comprised of student writing, actionable teacher feedback and a standards-aligned task posted. He explained to his staff why he thought this was an effective display of students work and congratulated the teacher for a job well done. The teachers listened attentively and quietly went back to the faculty room after the presentation. The principal didn’t understand the group’s lack of reaction but continued on with his meeting. After the meeting one teacher came to his office and thanked him and explained that the former principal had done the exact same thing with the staff but for an entirely different reason. The former principal took them in the hallway to see an example of a poorly constructed bulletin board then demanded that they weigh in on ways to make it better. The simple act of acknowledging teacher effort proved to be a “win-win” for my colleague that the staff would always remember. Seek out the good things your teachers and staff are doing, and let them know you appreciate it. This may feel forced when there are a lot more salient things that you need work on but that purposeful investment in your staff can make them more receptive to buying-in to your vision.
Work on a more balanced schedule.
This is a tough one, even for the veterans; but working really late hours and stretching yourself too thinly actually decreases your productivity. Establishing set times to leave the office can give you more time to reflect so that you can have the distance you need to manage the complexities of the job.
Create your own principal peer network.
I can't stress this enough. You have to be intentional about involving yourself in a networking group that meets regularly, (I suggest monthly), in order to have focused dialogue around work issues, managing stress and combating the isolation of the principalship. Do not leave this to chance or wait until there is a crisis to reach out for collegial support; you have to work on building a support network before you need it. When I was a principal in Bushwick, Brooklyn my colleagues and I began our own monthly leadership circle. We found that having a safe, trusting space to discuss our issues helped us to become better leaders. Each of us took turns hosting the group and we used utilized protocols to address authentic work challenges. Those sessions not only provided us with collegial support but they also helped us find the answers to persistent problems like how to raise the level of expectations among our staff, how to foster shared commitment to school-wide goals and how do we really know that our school is accomplishing its mission of providing our low-income and first generation college-going students with the tools they need to be successful. Each of us would attest that leadership breakthroughs were made and school improvement occurred partly as a result of our principal leadership circle. Commit yourself to finding or creating your own principal support network.
Find the joy!
Lastly, being a principal is really, really tough. The pressures of the role can be enormous and many people don't last long. You have to find the joy in the work in order to survive. For me the joy was in seeing the transformation in the lives of young people impacted by educational community I fostered. There is no greater reward. Work towards that joy. Make the time to meet with students, sit on a book club, get out of your suit and sign up for the student vs. staff volleyball tournament. Don’t let your position prevent you from living your passion.
Find the joy and hold on tight!