Making Connections: Advice from Mentors and the Field

Veterans share their tips on how principals can get the best from their careers.

This article is part of a series focusing on The Principal Pipeline, brought to you with support from The Wallace Foundation.

November, 2016, Volume 40, Issue 2

The best place to find advice is through someone who’s done the job. With that in mind, NAESP queried its National Mentor Principals and National Distinguished Principals on their best advice for how to survive—and thrive—in your early years as a school leader. Here’s what they said:

1. What is your best advice for a new principal (that they may not have gotten elsewhere)?

“Choose a focus and don’t try and do it all in one year. Learn the strengths and personalities of your staff. Don’t expect to change everything overnight.”

—Susan Townsend, Director of Instruction and Learning Services,
Jackson County ISD, Michigan, NAESP National Mentor Principal

“In your first year, focus on relationships and establishing the systems you want in place at an organizational level. Use the year to understand the culture of school setting and where bigger impact can be made. Fulfill the necessary pieces of the role with supervision and safety. Develop a task force part of the way through the year to get input on larger projects.”

—Joe Stanzione, Elementary Principal, American School Foundation
of Monterrey, Mexico, NAESP National Distinguished Principal.

“Building relationships with community partners is something that I see is overlooked, especially at the elementary level. It is important for principals to reach out to business partners and government leaders immediately.”

—Lisa Johnson, Principal, Lawrenceville Elementary, Lawrenceville, Georgia
(Part of Gwinnett County, a Wallace Foundation Principal Pipeline district)

“Read your policy and procedure manual cover to cover. Know what is your district’s policy verses your practices. Make sure you know the difference between law and ‘what has always been done.’”

—Michelle Sumner, Jenks West Intermediate School, Jenks, Oklahoma
NAESP National Distinguished Principal.

“Try to eliminate the word “I” from your vocabulary. Everything in schools is a “we” thing. Similarly, be careful about using the word “they” when describing others (e.g. district administration, parents, teacher, students). Use the word “we” to lead with integrity and solidarity.”

—Brad Gustafson, Greenwood Elementary School, Wayzata Public Schools, Minnesota, NAESP National Distinguished Principal.

2. What are the most critical skills and knowledge you need on the job?

“Learn how to listen and meet individuals where they are. Relationship-building is key. Equally important is your ability to coach individuals forward through collaborative efforts and cultivate that culture of being comfortable with change. Organization is imperative.”

—Michelle Sumner

“There really is no replacement for content knowledge and classroom experience. Learn as much as possible about the various sections of the school and the social system within the school.”

—Joe Stanzione

“People skills! How to work well and develop positive working relationships with all stakeholders!”

—Charles Schultz, NAESP National Mentor Principal (retired)

“When we think about leadership traits we typically think about vision, communication, and integrity. However, the digital age demands more and a new leadership skill has emerged. A critical 21st-century leadership skill is “connectedness.” By building relationships in both a face-to-face sense and using digital tools we can cultivate new levels of connectedness that increase our leadership traction.”

—Brad Gustafson

3. What has been the most useful professional learning experience that you’ve had? How did you find it?

“For the role of principal, my most useful professional learning has been shadowing, discussing scenarios and being mentored by great principals. As an instructional coach, I find professional reading to be my starting place and then seek out authors I want to meet and hear in person.”

—Michelle Sumner

“I have readily attended the PTC (Principal’s Training Center) for the last eight years. I found it through coworkers and would recommend it to any educational leader.”

—Joe Stanzione

“NAESP principal mentor training! I found it via my NAESP membership!”

—Charles Schultz

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