School staff and faculty greeting the new principal
For Teachers

When School Leadership Changes

By Jennifer Gunn August 9, 2019

When principals retire or move on to different opportunities, a school can feel a bit unanchored navigating the transition and on-boarding new leadership. Perhaps a new leader has some bold ideas to completely change the culture or a radically differing philosophy than your own. Here’s a look at how to successfully navigate a leadership change, find your place, and ensure your school has a successful year.

Embrace the fresh start

No matter how close — or adversarial — you were with your previous principal, a new leader is a fresh start. It’s an opportunity to grow, step out of your comfort zone, and expand your boundaries. When we work for the same leader for a while, our practice and our philosophies may grow a big stagnant. Even though uncertainty is uncomfortable, a leadership change is truly a new beginning. “There are many teachers out there who have been unfairly (or fairly) judged in a negative manner by their former principals. For these teachers, a new principal is an opportunity for a new start,” says Mike Janatovich, an elementary principal in Ohio. “If your new principal is an effective leader, they do not judge you based on what you have done in the past. If they are an effective leader, they will focus on what you will do in the future… Having a new leader will allow you to take an educational risk that will create incredible learning opportunities for your students.” Even if you had the best relationship ever with your former principal and feel nervous about the change, try to see it as an opportunity to shine in new ways. 

Show ’em what you can do

New leaders don’t really know “how things are usually done” at a school, and they may not be interested in constantly hearing about it. It’s a big and daunting task to step into an existing school with existing staff as the new leader — especially when that staff may be resistant to or nervous about change. Welcome your new leader and offer to be a resource to them, rather than a doubter. Make your talents, skills, and passions known and share what you can do to help the school and administration. When leaders see educators as team players and indispensable resources, they’re more apt to embrace your strengths and know your worth.

Get to know their leadership style

Every leader is different. Some have a wide-open door while others prefer a little distance between admin and teachers. The key is to figure out what your new leader appreciates, so you can work best with them. “I’ve worked with administrators who simply want straight talk at all times, and who actually invite staff to come to them with honest (meaning sometimes less than glowing) feedback,” says author and educator Dave Stuart Jr. “But then I’ve also worked with administrators who do not desire negative feedback from their staff members; they aim to make clear that there is a role difference between administrators and staff. The key is this, however: figure out which kind of administrator yours is. Some will respect you speaking truth to power; others will not.” How do you find out what kind of leader has joined your staff? Feel free to ask about their communication preferences and their willingness to hear ideas and concerns. They may be interested in setting up some formalized systems for communication and you may be able to help. 

Accept that change is inevitable

Here’s the truth: Your new leader is going to make changes you don’t like. There will be at least one new thing that is uncomfortable or downright not your thing. When a new leader takes over a school, they bring with them a vision that may not match what’s been done or is to everyone’s tastes. And while new leaders should respect the talent in the room and acknowledge a school’s existing glows, they are for sure going to address the grows. Knowing that and accepting it is key toward easing the transition. Change is inevitable. Sometimes new leaders go a little too far with sweeping changes and that can be frustrating. Pick your battles. If it’s truly something you feel is not in the best interest of the learning community or the students and this is your battle, share your concerns. Before you do, however, truly consider why you’re so upset. Is it because it’s uncomfortable for you? Is it because the new idea seems to discount the work you’ve been doing for a long time? Do you feel undervalued? Overworked? How does it affect the students? Do you have an alternative solution? Consider if your feelings are personal or truly rooted in doing what’s right for the students before you proceed. 

Be kind and work for good

In the end, a new school leader is just a person coming into a new work environment and that can be difficult. It’s easy for school staff to gossip and snicker when things go wrong, but it’s much more effective and kind to recognize that your new leader is a real person with real feelings, who is attempting to do what they think is best. In the interest of kindness and doing right by your school — seek to help and understand. Encourage others to ditch the negativity and work toward compromises and solutions.

Jennifer L. M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and is co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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