First-Time Principals: How to Start Right at Your School

Beginnings are important.Robyn Conrad Hansen

The public conversation around the start of school usually focuses on students, and to a lesser extent, teachers and school staff. For first-time principals, the first day of school is a major milestone in a leadership career.

No national data about the demographics of first-year principals exists. Robyn Conrad Hansen, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says people at various life stages become principals: mid- to upper-20s, as well as those in their 50s and 60s.

The most traditional pathway is at least a four-year degree, often a master’s degree, plus a teaching certificate, and three to five years’ of teaching experience — although some have far more years in the classroom, and some have none at all.

If a new principal is starting in your school this fall, Hansen’s advice is to go and greet the person. “They’re walking into your home. Let them know you’re here to support them,” says Hansen. “When the staff is warm and welcoming, it helps set the climate for moving forward.”

First impressions

Ideally, a principal is hired well in advance and has months to prep. Some districts scramble in the final weeks before school starts to make hires. Whether a new principal has months or days, being as visible and accessible as possible right from the start helps everyone forge connections.

“Meet and greet families. Make sure they know you,” says Hansen. “You’re the center of the community.”

In the summer, that may include logging onto Facebook. If everyone’s talking about your arrival on social media, it’s best to be a part of the conversation.

Be physically visible on the first day, shaking hands with kids, welcoming buses. Don’t schedule much ahead of time — Hansen says the plan for the first few days should be spending as much time getting into classrooms, and learning the names of kids and parents. “The first week is crazy,” she says.

Throughout the year, visibility in classrooms and the cafeteria is a solid strategy. Be aware that you’re always modeling behaviors and standards for your staff to emulate: mannerisms, how to dress, how to relate to people.

One is the loneliest number

For elementary school principals in particular, the most common challenge the first year is feeling isolated. High school principals usually have vice principals and other senior leadership, but elementary school principals often don’t.

Loneliness and concerns about doing a good enough job are standard.

The success or failure of their entire building seems to rest with them, and taking that to heart is a big stressor.

“The feel the weight of the world is on their shoulders. As a teacher-leader, they may have felt a safety net,” says Hansen. “But now, the buck stops here.”

Hansen, who teaches courses on critical issues in educational leadership as well as on becoming a principal at Northern Arizona University, recommends that all new principals seek out an experienced mentor. Ideally, the mentor will be based at an outside district. That way, politics won’t get in the way.

Learn from these mistakes

The first year has a steep learning curve. It typically takes three to five years to make a lasting impact at a school, so it’s important to think about the long game. Here are the most common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Too many changes, too soon. If something really affects the health and safety of students, or there’s a prominent gap in terms of missing services, then address it directly. Understanding the existing climate and culture of a new school takes time. “Try to learn before making changes,” says Hansen. Listening to staff and parents, and properly assessing what needs to be accomplished over the months and years won’t happen overnight.
  • Neglecting self-care, health and wellness. “This job can tear you up. Whatever you don’t finish today, will be there tomorrow,” says Hansen. Make the time for health, family and friends.
  • Not staying up-to-date with professional development to stay aligned with evolving needs. Seek out a mentor and/or a professional learning committee of principals.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.