What to keep in mind in your first school principal job
For Administrators

Getting Off to a Great Start as a School Administrator

By Brian Gatens September 2, 2013

OK, so you’ve landed your first school leadership job. If you thought all those years of teaching and learning to get this job were hard work, be prepared: The really hard work begins after you secure that assistant principal or principal position.

What to keep in mind in your first school principal jobHow do you lay the groundwork for a successful transition into your new position and continued success after the start of the school year? Try these tips from somebody who’s been there a few times:

Start before you start

If your “official” first day is the first time you start thinking about and planning for your new position, you are already behind the eight ball. All school districts, no matter how similar they may be, are unique and interesting places. What matters most is spending as much time as possible learning both the basics of your district (student and colleague names, building maps and locations, etc.) and its philosophical and curricular underpinnings.

The sooner you understand the district’s basic structure, the sooner you can start focusing on the larger issues that need attention and start connecting more and more with the students under your care.

Make connections early

It’s also vital in the days leading up to your first day as an administrator to be making connections with your colleagues, community members and students who are integral to your success. It’s best to keep these meetings separate from your job-transition activities and to keep them conversational in nature.

Your sole goal is to learn as much as you can about the district, the position and how you can best help the children in your new job. After those meetings, follow up with a thank-you email or a note capturing the essence of the conversation.

Recognize the power of your words

One my earliest lessons as a new administrator was that my words became much more powerful. As a classroom teacher, I could make an offhand comment and not have it mean much. Not so as the person in charge.

As a school administrator, you represent both your district and your position. It is crucial to remember this from Day One of your new position. Comments or criticisms of students, parents or teachers will travel far beyond the circle you make them in. Never put your superiors in the awkward position of defending an ill-timed comment you’ve made.

Pay attention to how you pay attention

A very wise colleague once told me that I spend time on what is important to me. This goes even further as a new administrator. Your priorities drive the focus of your time and energy.

Take a moment to think of what message your presence, or lack thereof, sends to your colleagues and the students. From your very first day, it is essential to avoid becoming trapped in your office. Make time to get out into the hallways and communities. Ask your administrative assistant to make a regular schedule of classroom visits for you.

Be ruthless in how you protect your time. It’s a constant, never-ending struggle to find all the time that you need, but it’s one you have to focus on to succeed.

Walk, don’t run

All new administrators are given a “honeymoon” to learn the ins and outs of their new position. Unless you are presented with a crisis or an extremely inequitable situation that needs to be remedied, I strongly suggest that you take your time in making decisions and spend the necessary time consulting with those who have knowledge of the situation and will be affected by it.

Making a rash decision — especially one you may have to retract later on — is far more painful than being accused of moving too slowly.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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