Reflections of a First Year Principal: 5 Keys to Surviving the First Year

oneyearI had the best of intentions when I began this endeavor of the principalship one year ago… I would take it slow, develop relationships, reflect daily, and not make any changes.
Last July, I began in a new role in a new district.  I had left a school and district that I love; a place where I knew the 500 students’ faces and names, as well as those of their siblings and parents.  I was connected with the district staff and knew who to call to get things done.  But my mentors had helped me develop skills and encouraged me to take the leap.  So I did what I do best: I made a plan.  I had a blueprint in my mind for how this transition would take shape and ideas of what would be the priorities for our school.  During the summer, I spent time talking with district administrators, teachers, and families. I poured over the details of how I would ready the school for staff and students, what I would say on opening day, and how I would greet and get to know over 450 students and their families.  I planned out topics for monthly staff meetings and curriculum meetings. I developed a detailed spreadsheet with a timeline to complete observations and evaluations.  I scoured our student database so that some of the faces might look familiar and I could maybe know a name or two.  I was scared to death but, ready or not…
Year one came and went in a flash.  As I try to step back this summer to reflect on how I have developed as a professional and a person and how we have grown and changed as a school, one thing I am sure of is that not one of those plans went as I had envisioned.  I am pretty sure I failed miserably.  My presence alone was a major change to the culture.  Student and staff needs surfaced immediately and things started to move quickly.  Decisions had to be made and shared when I hadn’t yet been able to fully establish an understanding of where our staff members’ beliefs and understandings had stemmed.  The deep daily reflections I had penciled into my calendar fell by the wayside and happened only when I remembered to eat lunch and breath (next to never!).  Our lobby floor was cracking, students were struggling, the population was growing, and there were simply some things that I was not okay with– so, contrary to the grand plan, changes were happening.
I have quickly learned, as I have so many times in the past, (like every year of teaching, or when I moved to 5 states in 6 years, or the reality of raising children) is that plans are worthwhile and they are made to be broken.  Despite veering from the meticulously prepared plans, I believe the year went well overall.  While in the moment I am not always able to recognize or appreciate the heavy lifting that is actually taking place, these quieter weeks of summer have enabled me to see the accomplishments of this first year.  Although leadership courses and books as well as experiences as an assistant principal and director prepared me for this first year, the keys for my  “survival” mirror what we know about great teaching practices:
  • Honor history– Everyday I am learning how the past is deeply woven into the beliefs and actions of the present.  Getting to know the history of the school is an ongoing process for me.  I am so grateful for the time I had with my predecessor who shared invaluable information about the school’s past, personal and professional challenges the school culture has faced, etc.  People are attached to routines and things, even those that they don’t particularly like.  Replacing old and ragged lobby furniture can entail a grieving process for some.  In order to create our new culture together, acknowledging, respecting, and honoring the past is crucial.

  • Be yourself–  In this role, often spending 14 or more hours of my day at school or school related functions, I find it best to be myself.  I believe that being upfront and honest about my core beliefs and fierce commitment to students has enabled me to engage in critical conversations with staff members and parents.  Being myself and being honest has set a foundation for staff to trust me.  Admitting that I don’t know many answers but I’m willing to work to discover them together has been my mantra.

  • Model– People are watching… everything… all of the time.  So I try to model what I believe to be best teaching practices in the way I facilitate meetings.  I work on listening and watching more and talking less.  I do my best to respect teachers’ time.  If I said I was going to do something, I did it most of the time.  When I couldn’t do it, I was sure to admit my shortcoming to those it affected.  I expect students and teachers to take risks and fail forward so I need to model this mindset in everything I do.

  • Get connected– Making connections with staff members, students, and families is mostly selfish.  It is why I love being in school.  Simple things like making sure I write a personal birthday card to every staff member and student has facilitated conversations that enable me to get to know each person on a personal level just a little bit.  Spending time in classrooms on the floor with students while they are working on a project, participating in math games, sitting down with them in the cafeteria, and chatting on the playground enabled me to get to know students, staff members, and the school culture.  It has helped me to delve deeper with parents and teachers when we are discussing student progress, social dilemmas, or teaching and learning.

  • Stay connected– Connections with other school leaders and mentors have been a lifesaver.  Knowing I could pick up the phone or text my past principal with a dilemma just to talk it through and affirm that I was doing the right thing was invaluable.   I also found it self-serving to pay it forward to the person who took on my previous role as I was able to help problem solve and offer advice without the newness factor that surrounded everything else.  Similarly, participation in a new principals support group was crucial in enabling me to step out of school monthly to hear from others, reflect, and share different yet common experiences.  On the same note, speaking with my colleague principals in district, meeting regularly, and having a direct line to the assistant superintendent, business manager, and superintendent has been essential.  Staying connected is both grounding and validating.

So when people ask me with bated breath: “How did the first year go?”  I answer not only “Still standing,” but also, “Still smiling.”  In the end, after just one year of this principal thing, I continue to see how similar it is to teaching and learning- and thank goodness, as that, after all, is why I got into this school business.  Now, back to planning for year two.

BeccaRebecca Brogadir is Principal of Elm Street School, a K-5 elementary school, in Walpole, MA.  She has taught grades 2 through 12 as well as undergraduate Spanish.  After living around the country and working as a non-profit business leader, she returned to her initial plan of a career in school leadership. You can connect with Becca on Twitter @beccabrogadir and Elm Street School @elmwalpole

Are you interested in sharing your ideas, insights and questions? If so, click here to sign up for a post. Julie Vincentsen, Principal of Ruggles Lane School, will reach out with specifics. Are you interested but nervous because you’ve never blogged before and don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry – as long as you know how to use Microsoft Word you will be up to this challenge. We write for our communities all the time – this just changes your audience. You probably could even take a current newsletter you’ve written and repurpose it for your colleagues.

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