Listen, Then Lead: 5 Leadership Tips for First-Year Principals

The school year is already well underway, but the changes—and challenges—are just beginning for new students, teachers, and staff. Learning the routines, responsibilities, and expectations of a new environment can be as nerve-wracking as it is exciting.

No one is more aware of this than principals. Even administrators who have prepared for the role throughout their careers can feel daunted by stepping into a leadership position—after all, new principals are tasked with leading the entire school while they’re learning the ropes themselves. Fortunately, veteran principals are often only too happy to pass along their tried-and-true advice, including the following top tips:

1. Be intentional

Although it’s impossible to predict everything the school year has in store, new administrators can still make an effort to lead with intent. With this in mind, Principal Teri Stokes shared the following advice with the Education World Principal Files: "Develop a real mission statement that is very personal, one that's just for you!” Taking time to create a personal mission statement gives new administrators a guide for prioritizing and responding to issues before they arise.

Education World went on to present the example of Principal Jim Thompson, who summed up his perspective with one simple question: “Is it good for the kids?” Amid the day-to-day flurry of making decisions and approving requests, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone—the central office, parents, fellow administrators, and more. Faced with all these competing (and sometimes contradictory) expectations, new principals can stay focused by asking themselves how each decision will benefit the students.

2. Listen, then lead

It is vital for administrators to truly understand the needs and priorities of classroom teachers and support staff, so principals looking to listen and then lead may want to visit the cafeteria at lunchtime, sit in on classes, and participate in special events. This will allow them to not only connect with students, staff members, and teachers but to truly begin seeing the school from a different perspective.


“Just as teachers should never forget what it's like to be a student, administrators should never forget what it's like to be a teacher,” opined fourth-grade teacher turned assistant principal Ross Cooper, as quoted by Edutopia. By taking time to connect with teachers throughout the day, administrators get an up-close-and-personal look at how their decisions will impact each classroom. 

3. Empower others

Whether they're veteran educators or just beginning their tenure, everyone has something unique and important to contribute. According to Cooper, flattening the hierarchy can be an effective way for administrators to both validate the good work already happening at the school and make room for innovative ideas from all levels.

Speaking with Education World, Principal Bonita Henderson urged her counterparts to appreciate and utilize the “wealth of talent” in the building “for the good of the children and the school.” Asking for help and soliciting input can be a particularly effective approach for principals eager to break through to unmotivated or dissatisfied staff.

4. Connect with a mentor

In an article for Educational Leadership, Gibsonville Elementary School Principal Jessica Bohn underscored the importance of connecting with other principals. Quoted by the publication, Bohn noted that “one of the toughest parts of being a new principal is the absence of a colleague on your level and in the same building to bounce ideas off.” In light of this, she recommended seeking out “think partners” who can collaborate on idea generation and provide a listening ear in tricky situations. 

Speaking with Education World, Principal Martha Santiago echoed Bohn's sentiments. “A true mentor is not just someone assigned by the superintendent,” Santiago contended. “The mentor is there when needed to discuss issues, offer advice, bounce ideas, help with making decisions…” New administrators can cultivate supportive relationships with fellow principals online, at district-wide events, and by reaching out to former colleagues.

5. Maintain a work-life balance

The first year of any new job can be all-consuming, which is why it’s important to prioritize time for family, friends, and hobbies. Ten years after his first school administration role, high-school principal Bill Zimmer still heeds the early advice he was given about maintaining a work-life balance. “I have seen way too many people get burned out,” he said, quoted by Education Week. “I do feel strongly that there needs to be a balance between [our] professional and personal lives, and that we are much more effective in each when it’s in balance.”

Principal Zimmer, who works from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or later, shared how his weekdays are organized to balance and prioritize key tasks. Outside of work hours, he makes time to pursue activities that relax and fulfill him, such as meditation, exercise, reading, traveling, and getting plenty of sleep. 

While any fledgling principal’s first year is bound to have its ups and downs, those who heed the advice of veteran principals are likely to enjoy smoother sailing when they lead with intention, listen to staff, use their role to elevate others, find a mentor, and establish a work-life balance to ensure they are always at their best. Adjusting to a new role takes time, but by following the advice of those who trod the path before them, new administrators can start off on the right foot.

 

 
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