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Best Advice for New Principals

By Carol Riley
February 2013, Volume 36, Issue 6

Prepare, prepare, prepare. In any situation, preparation can make the difference for success. This message is echoed throughout our lives and careers as principals.

Over the years, we’ve worked with over one thousand mentors in the NAESP National Mentor Training and Certification Program, and their collective feedback has clarified some big ideas on preparation and the principalship.

Our most recent training in Mesa, Arizona, in January, 2013, brought principals together from around the country to discuss what their seven hundred years of collective education experience and knowledge of working with new principals has taught them. They identified several issues that can be critical tipping points to success in school leaders’ early years on the job.

One of these is the gap between preparation and practice. Being a new administrator brings challenges that are complex, multifaceted, and sometimes unexpected. The best way for a new principal to face them is to listen to those who have walked in their shoes and paved the way. Here’s what veteran principals had to say to new principals about filling in the gaps in preparation.

Manage Your Time
New administrators contend with many demands on their time, from management responsibilities to instructional improvements to “on the spot” requests. A principal’s work is comprised of tasks that are short in duration and rapid in pace; one study indicated that 85 percent of a principal’s time is spent on tasks lasting less than nine minutes.

Accountability begins immediately upon receiving a new position, and effectively managing your time can make the difference in accomplishing your goals. Find sanity in your packed schedule by identifying the issues that require attention on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Discover what to drop off your plate, and pay attention to the details of the important issues.

Also, protect your personal time to keep work tasks from overtaking your life. Keeping equilibrium between home and work is an important strategy to function effectively and efficiently. Identify your personal needs. A balance of emotional, intellectual, and physical development creates a comfortable synergy that will bring out your best thinking and performance.

Create Your Vision
New principals often take on too much at one time, missing the overall perspective on the critical issues that will achieve the results they want. Ron Krause, an NAESP Coach, refers to this tendency to take on too much at once as the “Tasmanian Devil” approach to leadership: spinning uncontrollably without seeing the big picture.

Creating a personal vision, sharing it, and living it each moment will focus a new principal’s efforts. When a new principal can intentionally take the time to reflect and center themselves on what is important, the vision becomes action.

Manage Your Interactions, Maximize Your Team
Leading adults to common ground on issues takes skill and experience. Knowing how to involve everyone in decision-making and bringing about consensus are skills that develop over time in leaders. But new principals who come into the position with good problem-solving skills will be in a position of control and will be able to positively manage interactions.

As a school leader, there is no greater responsibility for you than to harness and acknowledge the power of teachers’ collective skills. This does not happen accidentally. A new principal’s ability to understand the theory of team building is a significant factor. Develop an “Engagement Inventory” upon receiving your position, and identify the stakeholders who contribute to the school and larger community. Schedule appointments to introduce yourself to each staff member and community leader. A priority timeline and a record of conversations will help to confidently express your belief in an open and welcoming environment.

Also, recognize your strengths as a leader. Knowing what you do well and developing those skills to their optimum will result in confidence and action. The NAESP mentor program uses the Stengthsfinder by Don Rath to explore a personal journey of discovery. When you know what you do well, you can empower the people around you to also use their strengths for the common good.

Combat Isolation With a Mentor
Even though new principals are prepared in the technical skills of management and instructional leadership, the reality of the position is that they often to not have the advantage of delaying decisions until they can reflect or discuss them with a trusted confidant. The job is demanding and the principal who is in control of situations and stays calm in the storm demonstrates the attitudes and culture that they are trying to solidify in their school.

A new principal should seek out a mentor to understand the position from a personal and reflective perspective. Private and confidential discussions whenever possible allow you time to clarify the action to be taken. Many of the issues that arise require on-the-spot decisions and many require additional information. Being able to discern the difference and act accordingly is a difficult skill to develop, and one that a mentor can help with.

Carol Riley, NAESP National Mentor Certification Program.

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