What I Have Learned In Four Years as a Principal

by Marc Smith, Principal of Forestdale School, Sandwich, MA

Smith HalloweenWhen I think back to what I thought I knew about school leadership and where I thought the most influential levers in school improvement lay, I almost laugh out loud.  Each principal enters the role of principal for the first time with his/her perspective of what the job entails, beliefs about how best to influence change and a set of priorities for his/her leadership agenda.  However, experience has shown me that most of us did not have a realistic or complete picture of the role of principal.

I also have gained just enough wisdom to know there is a lot I have left to figure out.  I actually wish that I could have a conversation with “Five Years from Now Me” to see how much of what I believe today will shift as time passes.  That being said, I do think that there are a few things that I have learned in my first four years as a principal that will stand the test of time.

# 1 – Perspective

I have found that a huge part of being a successful school principal is being able to consider the other person’s perspective.  Whether it be an upset student, irate parent, reluctant staff member or another member of the district admin team, I have had my most successful conversations and done my best problem solving when I am able to step outside my viewpoint and consider the other perspective.  Considering the other perspective does not mean doing what everyone one else wants, however, it does mean forcing yourself to suspend your own beliefs for a period of time to understand where your conversation partner is coming from.

In my first four years I have found that one of two things will happen when I do this.  First, I may find myself thinking about something in a new way that either affects the way I decide to move forward with a decision, or changes the decision itself.  Second, I may not change my mind at all, but taking time to understand how the other person sees the situation helps me to maintain a positive relationship with that individual.  Additionally, considering their perspective can help me to understand the root of their beliefs and address those if necessary.

I have also learned in my first four years that no matter how hard I work at understanding where my conversation partner is coming from as a principal, the majority of time my conversation partner will not be giving me the same courtesy.  I have come to know that most often when you are having a conversation in the principal’s office, the burden for keeping the conversation on track, respectful and inclusive of all perspectives falls at the feet of the principal.

# 2 – Patience

Change is slow…. really slow!  Sure, there are some things that I was able to quickly improve during my first year as a principal, but there were all low-level, procedural changes (parent drop off and pick up procedures, schedules, duty assignments, etc.).  But real substantive change around big issues like instructional practices, culture, morale, teacher leadership, curriculum and a comprehensive approach to social emotional learning take a long time to fully implement.

Additionally, I have learned that you can only try and make a few substantive changes at a time.  There are always more things that need to change (most not your ideas but ideas that come at you from central office, the state, parent groups, staff suggestions, etc.) than you can possibly execute successfully; therefore, I have learned that the principal has to make decisions about what should be worked on now and what needs to be put off to a later time.  Which brings us back to the section above; when you put off someone else’s idea you need to first expend significant energy ensuring you understand why this idea is important to them.  Acknowledging the values and beliefs that drive their idea, help this person feel heard and gives you a chance to share the “why” behind your decision… even though most times your partner in this conversation is not going to work as hard to see things from your perspective 😉

# 3 – Almost Everything is Connected

Systems ThinkingWhen I was in graduate school, I remember reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline.  At the time, I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Well this is a nice little read, but I am never going to need any of this stuff when I am a principal.”  Well that was a silly thought.  The longer and longer I do this job, the more connections I see and the more I can appreciate a Systems Thinking perspective.

In the very first chapter of his book Senge states the book is designed for “destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces.”  As I went back and re-read that chapter in preparation for this post, I now wish I had paid closer attention to it when starting as a principal.  I think of all the energy I have expended thinking about challenges and areas for growth as single problems that have no effect on one another.  Take for example my approach in the past towards staff morale, school culture, social emotional learning and academic achievement, seeing these as unrelated issues that needed to be addressed individually (more on this below).  I was naive not to see how this individual cog is a piece in the complex system that is a school.

Whether intended or not, decisions that we make seemingly in isolation have an affect on many other aspects of the school system.  Systems thinking encourages leaders to think about these interconnections before taking action.  To look for places of high leverage and applying pressure to these levers that will deliberately affect the greater system in positive ways while simultaneously looking to remove obstacles that will slow progress within the system.  The most surprising revelation for me has been how this plays out over time. I have noticed on three different occasions so far this year ways that some decisions I made three years ago are starting to affect other large aspects of our school.  In these particular cases they have been positive, but that is not because I had foresight in my choices.  Perhaps I am just lucky, or perhaps it was Divine Providence; regardless it is a reminder that nearly every decision affects more than it’s isolated context and because change is slow it may take some time before that is realized.

# 4 – Its More Than Just Academics

So raise your hand if you got into leadership because you believed that if you could just somehow spread the “magic” that was going on in your classroom as a teacher, then you would have the recipe for a high performing school.  Since I can’t see if you hand is raised, I am going to assume some version of this truth is evident for a majority of us.  We wanted to influence a larger number of kids by leaving the classroom and improving instruction across a building.  For me that meant rigorous unit design, common instructional practices, common formative assessments, regular assessment analysis and more time on learning.  I believed, fed by a lot of what I was reading in graduate school, that I could ignore all the other “unimportant stuff” as a principal, focus on these areas and the school would soar…

Then, six months into my first job as a principal, the decision was made to close my school, reorganize the district and move me to another school; so began a lot of thinking on my part on things like staff culture, building trust, building relationships, visioning, family engagement, political strategy and a complete overhaul of operational procedures.  My eyes were quickly opened to the many roles that a school principal plays during his/her tenure: visionary, advocate, punching bag, therapist, voice of reason, friend, enemy, task master, planner, stalwart, referee, instructional leader, fixer, energizer, coach, lawyer, and many more that I have yet to experience.

Once our new school of over 650 PreK-2 students opened, it became glaringly obvious that we had missed something important in our planning and preparation.  We had failed to adequately prepare for the social and emotional needs of our students; failed to have a way to support them in being ready to learn each day.  I began to learn about the struggles that so many children face each and every day outside the walls of our schools.  I saw the ways that systems that were supposed to be there to protect children get tied up in their own bureaucracy and create roadblocks and inefficiencies that affect children.  I started to understand that the idea of “this is not the school’s responsibility” was not only a naive viewpoint, it was borderline neglectful to our students.  Can we ignore this element of the school experience and just focus on academics?  Sure.  However, we do so at our own peril and this decision of non-action is likely to affect staff morale, school culture, academic achievement and more.

Now don’t misinterpret what I am saying, academics, teaching and learning still represent the main purpose of schools and educational leadership.  However, I view academic success as the product of a wide variety of inputs.  Like the gears in the image above, we can get the achievement gear spinning correctly if all the other gears are malfunctioning.

What Does the Future Hold?

BillTedThat is a great question…. I would love it if someone could tell me.  Like I said in the beginning, I wish I had a time traveling phone booth like Bill and Ted (sorry if that reference went right over your head), because I would love to chat with future me to see how much of what I believe now will be changed by experiences I have yet to have.  Regardless, the principalship has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life (second only to fatherhood), and as Einstein once said, “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”  I look forward to the next four years of intellectual growth and where that takes me.

Marc SmithMarc is the principal of the Forestdale School, a PreK-2 school of about 650 kids located in Sandwich, MA.  He is also a member of the Elementary Committee of MSAA.  Marc has been an educator for nearly 20 years and is in his fifth year as a principal.




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