Trials of a First-Year Principal: Living in Two Worlds

A middle-level principal explains how he balances closing out a school year and developing a vision for the next one.

If ever there were a time for a pulse check, it would be now. We are heading into the homestretch of the end of the school year that, for most, has already lasted longer than the previous year. Staff fatigue and student behaviors tend to skyrocket this time of year, as our focus begins to shift to preparing for next school year. As administrators, this presents a tricky dance of how to be fully present in meeting the immediate needs of students and staff while developing the vision for the next school year.

The Immediate Needs

In this human business, the excitement for the beginning of the school year has long subsided and the routines, good and bad, have been established for the school year. Some students are feeling the pressures of standardized tests or promoting to the next grade. Others are exhibiting spring fever. Students are ready for summer with weeks yet to go in the school year.

Teachers and support staff are also ready for some relief from an exceptionally difficult year. They are pouring every ounce of energy they have into maintaining a great classroom environment, preparing students for testing, and getting students prepared for the next level—all while caring for their own families and each other. On my campus, the staff has the added stress of changes that occur when there is new administration.

It is easy during this time of year to get tunnel vision on starting preparation for next year and forgetting to invest in what students and staff need now. Lend a listening ear to get a frustration off their mind. Find a way to give them a few extra minutes to breath after a difficult class. Let them run with great idea that is a seed ready to plant and grow. Our students and staff need to know that we are there, as Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly, with the empathy needed to connect on a human level. I would not say that I have been great at this all year long, but it is something I am working on to be a more effective leader for our learning community.

Planning for the Future

While we live in the moment and care for the immediate needs of our campus staff, the work of planning for next year starts now. Staffing, budget, master scheduling, improvement plans, summer maintenance are just the start; the list is long and all of it is important to ensuring a successful start to the next school year.

Determining which tasks can be delegated to other leaders and which need direct and immediate attention is a bit of a balancing act. Organizing them in order of importance and due date helps me to meet deadlines while keeping all the plates spinning. As the emails for upcoming deadlines pour in, this is where a high performing and collaborative team becomes effective and critical to the mission. I am learning how to leverage the strengths of our team to complete key components of planning to prepare for next year.

One of the most exciting components of planning for the next school year, for me, is meeting the incoming students who will join us next year. I have had the pleasure of visiting fifth-grade classes at the elementary schools of our future sixth-grade students. For my district, this is the transitional year from elementary to middle school. I can sense the excitement and, in some cases, fear of the unknown in our future students. This serves as an opportunity for me to get our future students excited about their new learning community. They have the best questions: “How do I join band?” or “How do I go to the restroom?” If you can imagine it, they ask it. This is my opportunity to foster an excitement in our future scholars that can develop a better culture within our community.

Living in two worlds is difficult, demanding, and essential this time of year. While spreading yourself in multiple directions, remember to take care of yourself. You are tired, too. You have worked hard for your learning community. You have sacrificed throughout the year just like your amazing colleagues. Be sure you find the listening ear or breathable moment that you need to be the best leader that you can be. As a mentor of mine says, you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself.

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