The First 100 Days of a First-Year Principal

A new principal offers four lessons learned from her first year in the role.
By Courtney Goodman
Communicator
November 2019, Volume 43, Issue 3

There I sat in a conference room, surrounded by a dozen or so parents from the community, a Board of Education member, and the district superintendent. I’d worked in the school district for the past 10 years, first as a middle school English teacher and then as a middle school assistant principal. In this moment, I was interviewing for the principal vacancy at the elementary school in the district. As the interview winded down, the man sitting next to me asked me this: “What’s your plan for the first 100 days as principal?”

A million thoughts raced through my head, and I think I said as much. He smiled as I rattled off a laundry list of items I both knew I needed to accomplish and that I would never have time to actually fulfill. At that moment, the dichotomy of my principalship began. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned in my first 100 days as a first-year principal.  

1. Get to Know Your Staff

Relationships are important. They are critical for teachers and students, teachers and parents, parents and administrators, and administrators and teachers.

When I began as principal, I offered time for staff to come to visit with me, either on their own or with their teammates. I kept these meetings loosely structured. I shared, in advance, with staff that I would love to hear about what makes the school special, what they were most proud of or looking forward to this school year, and what they’d like to see changed or what I could help them with this year. These meetings set a tone for my leadership—a tone of partnership, listening, and validation of the good work the staff had accomplished over the past many years.

2. Be There. Be Present.

Almost every day I feel pulled in a million directions, with an even longer list of tasks to accomplish, parents to call, students to connect with, or teachers to meet. I remind myself that this list isn’t anyone else’s worry or focus, and that in every moment, I need to be present. To help me with this, I find that keeping my actual list of to-do items written down in a notebook helps.

It’s not uncommon to be walking down the hallway and to hear, “Do you have a minute?” As much as I can, I answer, “yes, sure.” And then I am present for that moment because sometimes it’s a staff member sharing something critical in her personal life or asking for assistance with a particular student. Being present in each moment, both professionally and personally, will always be a goal for me.

3. Know There’s Never Enough Time

I think back to all of the items I listed during that interview and my first 100 days. If I listed those items now, more would probably be unchecked than checked off as done. As cliché as it sounds, there is just never enough time.

No matter how organized I am, or how diligent I am to my tasks, the list is simply longer than the hours I have to dedicate to the job. And this is OK—because it has to be. It doesn’t always feel good, that’s for sure. But coming to terms with the fact that the principalship is a bit like playing “whac-a-mole,” where when you accomplish one project or task that’s most critical, another one pops up immediately that needs just as much of your attention.

4. Make Time for Mentorship

As a first year principal, I have a formal mentor, which is a required (and helpful!) component of my first year. My mentor is a retired principal with 21 years of experience under her belt. She and I meet regularly, each week for one hour. In between our meetings, she will frequently send me short emails with helpful articles, attachments, and examples from her own work. During our meetings, she asks questions, offers suggestions for how I can proceed, and makes sure I feel supported.

I am also fortunate to work in a small school district, where the superintendent is accessible via phone and email. She and I meet once every other week for support. I connect regularly with several other administrative colleagues to bounce ideas off one another or simply to vent. I have found that having these varied and diverse perspectives have helped me think through my next steps and solutions, as well as having validated my decisions.

Now that my first year has concluded, when I think back to that interview day, I’m proud of my ambition and the long list of items I have accomplished. I know that my relationships with my staff have continued to improve and strengthen. I also know I still have work to do, getting to know them more personally. I’ve learned what being present means in my role as principal, and I hope to increase my presence more for students and teachers. Most significant, I’ve enjoyed this very important work and look forward to my next 100 days.

Courtney Goodman is principal of Middleton Elementary School in Skokie, Illinois.

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