Trials of a First-Year Principal: Transition Plan

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Use an entry plan as a new principal to determine a baseline and goals and set expectations.
By Christopher Bailey, Ed.D.

Have you ever signed up to do something not actually thinking you would be chosen for the task? If so, you know the feeling of “yikes, what do I do now?” After receiving the call from my current superintendent that he was recommending me for the principalship and after a moment of exhilaration, that reality set in for me.

I spent the next 24 hours with my mind racing about the next steps. How do I communicate with my current district? When do I put my house on the market? Where will my kids go to school? How will I meet the new staff? The questions mounted with no quick answers in sight. Accepting a new job leading a campus is not just career-changing; it also can be life-changing.

The Entry Plan

During the time leading up to the official start of the principalship, I began to lay the groundwork of communication with as many stakeholders as possible as outlined in my entry plan. This work was especially important as a new principal in a new school district.

The coronavirus pandemic presented a challenge in meeting stakeholders, but it also marshalled in new avenues of communication. I met with both the staff and the administrative team via Zoom meetings. I also sent a letter to the staff and an email to parents introducing myself and expressing my core beliefs as a leader of learners. Regardless of the medium, think through how you will make your first impression. This will be your foundation of support as you begin the work of leading a campus.

Then it was time to listen, listen, and listen more. Whether you are becoming the principal on a campus you currently work in, another school within the same district, or in a different district, listening to every person possible connected with the school will help create the road map for the direction you intend to travel. I started by reaching out to the previous principal to gather where the campus was in the staff hiring process for the next school year and to get a baseline on current practices within the learning community. This was a helpful launch point to understand some of the conversations with other staff members to come.

After visiting with the outgoing principal, I met with the administrative team, current teacher leaders, special education staff, athletic coordinators, and teachers from each content and grade-level. As I continued to have conversations, a pattern of strengths and areas to explore became evident.

While most of the hiring process took place prior to my appointment, understanding the current landscape helped inform my decision-making for the last few hires and what structural changes needed to take priority.

Data Analysis

The qualitative data that is derived by listening to stakeholders is important to understand in comparison to the quantitative data. Being new to the campus and district, during the interview process, I did not have access to much instructional or cultural data other than what was publicly available. Once I had access to district resources, I was able to compare the thoughts of stakeholders to the campus data. In some areas, the information matched, and in others, there was a level of variance.

For example, discussions about student academic achievement aligned closely with data on assessment history. However, when listening to stakeholders about student discipline, there was some discrepancy compared to discipline reports. As a new principal to campus, it is important to develop the deepest level of understanding possible by researching every possible point of data. This has served me well in the infancy of my principalship by narrowing my focus on areas that need immediate attention.

Modeling Expectation

In the few times that I have changed jobs, I have always taken the opportunity to refine my own practices. I realize that each time that I make a phone call, send an email, or have a face-to-face (or virtual) meeting, I am training others in what my expectations are professionally. Therefore, as I started having conversations with my new learning community, I was intentional about how I scheduled meetings and modeled how I hope others would communicate with me and the rest of their colleagues. Communication skills such as speaking with a professional tone, timely return of emails and phone calls, and how to share productively in a team meeting are all skills that we can all continue to develop. I am positive that I have not gotten it right every time, but working on these skills has allowed me to have richer conversations with more stakeholders as I continue to learn about the campus.

Laying the groundwork of listening and developing understanding of how to communicate is paramount to getting off on the right foot as a new principal. As my father would often say, “You have two ears and one mouth; Use them proportionally.” I have worked to listen more than I speak, which I hope has given me a solid body of information by which to begin implementing change. We’ll discuss that next month.

Christopher Bailey, Ed.D., is principal of Clack Middle School in the Abilene Independent School District in Texas. Connect with him on Twitter at @stixbailey.