Accepting Unsolicited Advice
Topics: Early Career Principals
If you’re fortunate enough to have colleagues, leaders, and mentors to lean on for support, you’ll hear lots of advice on your journey to the principalship, solicited and unsolicited alike. In fact, unsolicited advice is probably more common.
Once you become a principal, you might be surprised to find that the unsolicited advice doesn’t stop. I know that I got more advice than ever before, including from people I had never met or known. I remember thinking, “I’m a principal now—I know things!”
Unsolicited advice often comes from a place of love and help. Listen, learn, and take what you can from it, because each nugget is a gift, even if it tells you to not do or say something. Below are some of the favorite tips others have given me, and what I learned from each.
Share the Change
The first piece of unsolicited advice is, “When initiating a change, share the change in small groups so you can see the whites of their eyes.” This means checking others’ expressions and body language—as well anything whispered or said—when announcing a change.
While this counsel might sound harsh, you might struggle to understand the need to manage change in small groups. But sharing change in small groups will make staffers feel less like something is being done to them, and it might encourage more trust and buy-in.
In “seeing the whites of their eyes,” you can see and gauge staff reactions. Such reactions are priceless not because they are unexpected but rather because they can provide a window into how staff feel and how you could support, encourage, empower, and manage them.
One Thing at a Time
Some advice isn’t very constructive. I had heard the leadership quotation “People by day, paper by night” before becoming a principal, but I was in my first years when I heard it said to me. It was 2020, I was drowning in COVID-19 paperwork, and the comment hit me hard.
For any principal—especially an early career principal—this is terrible advice. It causes self-doubt and adds to stress. I took the advice at first, but don’t make that mistake; the people and the paperwork will always be there. That leads to a better piece of advice: “Take it one bite at a time, or you will never make it.”
Set time in your day to complete paperwork, delegate, train your instructional leaders to help, and most importantly, model work-life balance. Put time on your calendar for paperwork, shut your door, and do it. Tell your staff what you’re doing and why. Once the paperwork is done, the people around you will love and respect you even more.
Beware the Agenda
My mentor, Eric Worcester, told me this right before I started as an assistant principal: “Be wary of anyone who first approaches you in your new role, because they have an agenda. Listen for it, thank them, and wait.”
Everyone will have needs and come to you for help. Some of these requests will be positive; others, self-serving. Listen, learn, thank, and wait. Time, relationships, and experience will determine what you might or might not do with the information.
Mind the Budget
Finally, there’s this from a budget guru who constantly reminded everyone in leadership that the budget can either be the key to your success or sink you: “Your budget is yours alone; own it.” This is 100 percent true!
Be transparent about the budget, share it with staff, and educate teacher leaders and APs about it. If you don’t know how accounting procedures work or what kind of budget you have (site-based, zero-based, central-based, etc.), find out.
I’ve been successful enough in managing my budget to prevent overstaffing, support staff initiatives, replace furniture and equipment, build a STEM lab, and more. Budget messes make huge stresses, but a good budget is the new principal’s friend. Cozy up to it, learn it, and love it.
Are you bad at budgets? Strive to be better and be your best, and each year will progress more smoothly.
You’ll hear lots of unsolicited advice during your career as a principal. Some will be useful, some will be counterproductive, and some will be obvious. Listen for the nuggets that might help you grow as a leader, and if they help, pass them along to your colleagues.
Laura Vasquez Gazda is executive assistant at the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and a former elementary school principal.