Say “summer vacation” to a veteran principal and don’t be surprised when s/he responds with, “Never heard of it.” Sure, the academic year technically ends somewhere in the middle of June, but the job of a principal is ongoing and often just as busy during the summer. If you’re a new principal, you have even more ground to cover. To ensure that you don’t forget anything, we’ve put together a checklist of 10 things new principals can do this summer to prepare for opening day. Many of these come courtesy of Evan Robb’s book, The Principal's Leadership Sourcebook: Practices, Tools, and Strategies for Building a Thriving School Community.
10 Ways New Principals Can Prepare for Opening Day
1: Work closely with your predecessor
If you can make it happen, collaborate with the previous principal on a transitional plan. If school is still in session, see if you can schedule some time to visit classrooms or simply eat lunch with students and teachers.
2: Meet with your secretary right off the bat
There are dozens of perfunctory tasks you’ll need to take care of on the day you turn that door handle and enter your new office. The boxes and clutter can wait. One of the most important things you can do is meet with your secretary and get your hands on a copy of last year’s year book.
3: Start learning the names of faculty and staff members
Take the year book home with you and study it. Once you learn the names of your team, you’re ready to start meeting them.
4: Write welcome letters/emails to parents
It’s no secret that parental involvement is crucial to our students’ success. Start off on the right foot by sending out letters/emails to the parents. Invite them to drop by and spend time with you this summer. This will send the message that you are available and looking forward to meeting and working with them.
5: Repeat number four; this time address letters/emails to teachers and staff
6: Organize "Meet the Principal" sessions
Mid-July is a good time to start meeting the parents and getting to know those you have met better. Try organizing several "Meet the Principal" sessions. These should be informal gatherings where parents get to ask you questions and you get to do the same.
7: Manage your school budget.
Getting a handle on your school budget can be complex. Here are a few common finance pitfalls to avoid:
- Don’t think you can meet all requests. There is a limit to how much money is available.
- Clear procedures are essential in order for the principal to review all purchase requests so that all the needs of your school are met.
- Allow teams or departments to decide what they need.
- Be careful about spending. The amount of money in a school's operational budget is set for the year. Effectively managing this money is critical.
8: Prepare for School-Fee Week and Back to School Night in August
Many schools cover the costs of consumable items (workbooks, art and science supplies, for example) through registration fees that are taken care of during “Fee Week.” Use this week as an opportunity to continue meeting parents—and be sure to remind them about Back to School Night or encourage them to join a parent advisory committee or volunteer at the school.
9: Meet every student in your school
Give yourself until mid-September to reach this goal, but make it a priority. There are innumerable ways to interact with students: try greeting students in the mornings as they step off the bus; attend sporting events and sit with a different group of students each time; visit classrooms; sit in on a ceramics class and spin some clay…whatever it takes to interact with students.
10: Prepare to be a public figure
Many new principals are surprised by how the job seems to follow them wherever they go. You may intend to interact with students during a football game; you may intend to be anonymous when you go to the grocery store or get dinner with your family, but you won’t always be successful. No matter where you are—in your office, in the bathroom, vacationing in Fiji—parents and students (both past and present) are going to spot you. Prepare yourself for this kind of visibility.
Photo credit: Daniel*1977 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
For students, there are essentially two opening days every year: The first day of school and the first day of summer. In an earlier era, principals and students may have shared similar schedules, but according to a 2008 study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, more than 70 percent of its members now have an 11 or 12-month contract. Those of you who are currently principals may find yourself envious of your predecessors: A half-century earlier, only 12 percent of principals worked year-round!
We know that a principal’s summer is a bustle of activity that includes anything from planning workshops, scheduling and recruiting to meeting new students and preparing for opening day in the fall. Before you dive into a new, but equally busy summer schedule, we want to offer a few tips to help you wind down the school year.
Winding-Down the Academic Year: 5 Tips for Principals
Send Your Senior Ambassadors on a Mission
Recall the day you crossed the border from middle school into high school. Even if you were one of the lucky ones who adjusted quickly, there was still a learning curve. Since many of your seniors end the academic year earlier than the rest of the school, most of them will be available to meet with future students who are finishing up their final days of middle school. Recruit your senior ambassadors and send them to a partnering middle school where they can speak with the same students who will be walking your hallways in the fall.
Don’t become complacent
When we were kids, often the last week of school was spent watching film strips and hanging out. We loved every minute of it, too. Looking back, of course, it’s easy to see that this was not a productive use of time. There may only be a few days left in the school year, but it’s important to maintain high expectations. Every day is an opportunity to learn. Expect teachers and students to use each day wisely.
Put that data to good use
You’ve spent the year collecting data about academic success, student attendance, college admittance, disciplinary actions, and student/faculty awards for excellence. You may not have reached all of your goals, but certainly your school has succeeded in noteworthy ways. Even if test scores aren’t in, take time to highlight other successes. Thank teachers for their effort and let them know that it paid off—you have the data to prove it.
Give yourself time to reflect
We can’t move forward without looking back. Take time for introspection: What did you learn about yourself this year? Where did you succeed? How have you changed? How have you grown? Reflect on these questions and write down your thoughts.
Introduce new faculty
If you’ve already hired new teachers or staff members, chances are they’ll be around the school throughout the summer, but most students won’t be. Instead of waiting until September, use the last week of school as an opportunity to welcome new teachers and introduce them to your school.
Last week, I had a formatting issue in Microsoft Word. I toiled over it for an hour by Googling any phrase or keyword that I thought would lead to a solution. Finally, I threw up my hands and called my “tech guy”: My 12-year-old niece. “Oh, that?” she said. “That’s simple.” She issued instructions (rather pedantically, I felt) and waited for me to do as instructed. Three clicks later I was in business.
We may think we’re tech savvy, but we’ve got nothing on young people like our students. This brings me to a new concept I’ve been hearing about: “Speed Geeking.” Essentially, it’s a professional-development strategy that loosely mimics speed dating, but replaces the dating part with student-led technology sessions.
Students facilitate Speed Geeking by preparing a brief presentation around technology. Each student is given five or ten minutes to share their favorite piece of technology—iMovie, say, or Storybird, Twitter and Flocabulary—and explain to teachers and administrators how it enhances their learning.
I’m interested in this Speed Geeking thing for a few reasons:
First, it’s student-centered. Speed Geeking gives students the opportunity to design instructional practice and values them as contributing members of the school.
Second, it’s a way to breathe new life into our stodgy old faculty meetings and get our hands on new tech-tools that we know students respond to.
If you’d like to learn more about Speed Geeking, check out this article by Kim Cofino. Happy geeking.
Bullying incidents between students are well publicized. Less often though do we hear about the more discreet experience of professionals who suffer at the hands of a colleague. Statistics on the number of bullied teachers are hard to come by, but a 2010 study reveals that one in three teachers claim to have been bullied at school.
Many of us rack our brains trying to figure out why bullies do what they do. Are they threatened by us? Jealous, maybe? Do they victimize us because they were once victims? Trying to figure out “why” is exhausting and more often than not, futile. What you can control is how you react and whether or not you inadvertently feed a bully’s motivations. Below you will find a few strategies to help you disarm bullies.
Make an abrupt exit
Bullies count on their victim’s politeness and exploit it. There are simple ways that you can still be courteous and assertive. You may need to tailor your response to the situation, but try a variation on one of the below responses. In the middle of the confronter’s sentence, calmly and without emotion say,
“Excuse me, but I am expecting a phone call.”
“I’d like to talk more about this, but now is not a good time.”
If the confronter calms down and agrees to speak later, set up a specific time to speak. If he or she continues talking, calmly make your exit and say, “I’ll plan on speaking to you tomorrow at the agreed time.”
Why ask “Why?”
A more assertive approach is to repeatedly ask “Why?” You’ll want to vary the phrasing, but here are a few examples:
“What makes you say that?”
“I hear what you’re saying, but can you help me understand more?”
“When did you start feeling this way?”
“Can you be more specific about ________?”
“Can you define what you mean by ____________?”
Turn a one-sided confrontation into a conversation that you can continue to control with Socratic questions.
Use reflective listening techniques
Most psychologists use reflective listening techniques for a couple of reasons. First, because they let the client know that the psychologist is paying attention; second, they provoke clients into further developing their thoughts. All you have to do is paraphrase what the bully said and repeat it back to him or her.
“So what I’m hearing you say is that…”
“So you believe that I should be doing…”
“I want to make sure that I understand: You’re saying that…”
“So you feel that…”
Things not to do
Don’t act defensive: Acting defensive suggests that you did something wrong.
Don’t be timid: Timidity suggests that you are insecure and can be easily manipulated.
Don’t be fooled: Accepting what a bully says at face value will make you appear naïve.
Most schools use a monthly newsletter to keep parents and the wider school community in touch with what’s going on. Those of you behind the newsletters know how much time, energy and money it takes to generate the content, proof it, format it, print it and mail it. Despite our efforts, we’ve finally come to terms with two things: first, print has fallen out of favor; second, most newsletters end up in the recycling bin along with the Chinese restaurant menus and random circulars parents receive in the mail. So how can schools more effectively communicate with parents? The answer is simple and it won’t cost you a thing: Start a school blog.
Retire the school newsletter. Start a school blog
Many prefer to read news online
According to research published last year by Pew Research, a substantial percentage of leading newspaper readers get their news digitally. Currently, 55 percent of New York Times readers say they prefer to access news on a computer or mobile device, as do 48 percent of regular USA Today and 44 percent of Wall Street Journal readers. While this isn’t proof that nearly 50 percent of your readers prefer to access school news online, there’s a good chance that they do.
Blogs are current
By the time parents receive their monthly newsletter, much of the information is already outdated. Who wants to read about the “big game” or a service learning project three weeks after it happened? Blogs allow you to update readers as newsworthy events are taking place—not after. Another thing to keep in mind is that event information (dates, times, etc.) changes. Once a newsletter has been printed and shipped, there’s no going back. Blogs give you the flexibility to make changes whenever you want.
Blogs will save you money
Most blogging platforms are free. No more printing and shipping costs; no more envelope licking; no more label printing. If you are concerned about alienating parents who are less tech-savvy or prefer to read print, send home a survey and find out who your readers are and how they prefer to access school news.
Blogs provide a rich, multi-media experience
Unlike print, which is linear and static, blogs allow you to easily integrate video, audio, photos and text. Now you can show, not simply tell, parents what’s going on in school. You’ll be surprised at how capturing students “in the moment” and posting pictures and videos of them throughout the day will impact parent engagement.
There are dozens (probably more) of blogging platforms to choose from and most of them are free. Blogger, for example, is Google’s free blogging service. It only takes minutes to set up and you can customize the theme and color of your site. If you already have a Gmail account, there’s good news: You’ve got a Blogger account too. Simply sign into Gmail and select “Blogger” from the “more” menu. Other blogging platforms you might check out include WordPress.com, Blog.com, or even TypePad Micro.
Having the responsibility of shaping a school, managing teachers, students and curriculum—and having to shouldering the blame when things go wrong—has led more than a few principals to project a persona. Principal or not, we all do this to some extent, of course. Under the pressure to succeed, under the pressure to “brand” ourselves with amenable qualities, we often fashion a version of ourselves that minimizes our blemishes and highlights only our best traits. Eventually though, false personas corrode and break down. That’s why we want to talk a bit about authenticity.
“What are some of your weaknesses?” This ubiquitous question shows up in nearly every interview. And while most of us have learned strategies to skirt the question, we believe principals should honestly reflect on their weaknesses. You may not necessarily want to share all of them in an interview, but having the ability to reflect critically on your shortcomings is an integral part of becoming an effective principal because it helps you assess where and when to seek help from others.
Learn to laugh at your blunders
Principals are under an incredible amount of scrutiny and that can make it hard to laugh. But taking yourself too seriously, denying or beating yourself up when you make a blunder is going to take a toll on you and your relationships. Self-deprecating humor is often the funniest. Laugh and laugh often.
Be interested, not interesting
We’ve all spent time with someone who didn’t understand how the give and take of a conversation works. We’ve all gotten off the phone a half hour later and realized, “Wow. She didn’t ask me a single thing about myself.” We all have our moments, but try not to be that person on the other end of the telephone. Authentic principals ask questions and are focused on being interested, not interesting.
Don’t surround yourself with yea-sayers
Praise and concession sure feels nice, but it amounts to little if it is coming from those who offer it out of fear or flattery. Connect with other educational leaders who aren’t personally invested in your school. It’s helpful to have mentors who are encouraging but who also aren’t afraid to give you a perspective that’s different from your own.
Accept that you cannot do this alone
You may think that you have to do it all—and certainly you have an overwhelming amount of responsibilities—but trying to do it all on your own is impossible; and it could have the effect of making you look like a control freak or worse—take a toll on your health. Let your “army” of intelligent and perfectly capable teachers help you shoulder the burden. They may gain a better perspective of the scope of the issues you face too.
Schools benefit from authentic leaders—men and women who engage others and who are working toward authenticity. Being authentic has the added benefit of letting people know that while you’re tough and very capable, you are human too, and appreciate help and support from others.
Taking over a school a couple weeks before the start of a new academic year does happen. More often than not, though, new educational leaders are hired months before they actually start their new position. You may still be teaching or, if you’re in a leadership role, tying up loose ends in another district. Regardless of your position, it is important to use this time wisely so that you can start building relationships—and your reputation—immediately. Here are a few ways to get started.
Getting Started Before You Start: 5 Tips for Educational Leaders
Say thank you
Once you’ve formally accepted the job as an educational leader, drop a note in the mail to show your enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity. It’s a simple, but important, first gesture.
Work closely with your predecessor—if you can
Obviously we have no way of knowing the previous educational leader’s reasons for leaving. Perhaps she is retiring, changing districts, or worst case scenario, she’s been “asked to leave.” Whatever the reason, do everything you can to collaborate on a transitional plan with her. This might include scheduling times for you to visit classrooms or simply eat lunch with students and teachers once in a while. If you have obligations during the day, start attending sporting events in the evening, or service-learning activities on the weekends. You might also try scheduling an evening meet-and-greet with parents, teachers, students and faculty.
Get your hands on a school yearbook and a staff directory
Learn the names of the teachers, staff and students before you start. The easiest way to learn their names is by getting your hands on a copy of last year’s yearbook and staff directory. Make flipping through these a daily ritual and you’ll have the entire school memorized well before you start.
Leave your old school out of it
This one will be especially pertinent when you assume full responsibility for the school, but we felt it was still worth mentioning. You may have been successful at your previous position and while this experience will certainly help shape your approach, you must find tactful ways to share your experience. And whatever you do, don’t say, “At my old school, we used to…”
Something else to avoid: showing surprise (or exasperation) when you learn how things are done at your new school. Why? These sorts of reactions give the impression that the way they do things may be somehow inferior.
Connect with other administrators in your district right away
You may have decades of experience in education, but what is your experience with this school and this district? Working with your predecessor is a fine start, but we also suggest connecting with other educational leaders in your district.
Photo credit: MassassiUK
Despite the fact that many new principals have spent years—and sometimes decades—in education, they are often broadsided by the new (and unavoidable challenges) that come with the territory. Although we certainly can’t prepare you for all of them, we’d like to offer a few tips to help you avoid a few first-year blunders.
The first year: Making new principals into effective principals
Effective principals know that not everyone knows what they do all day
The expectations placed on leadership have never been more demanding. Sure, principals know who creates the school’s vision, develops curriculum, evaluates teachers, manages the building and collects data. But outsiders are, generally speaking, completely unaware of what principals do throughout the day.
If your colleagues genuinely believe that your day consists of issuing orders or combing the halls for truants, it makes sense that they would be frustrated when you do not respond to their needs immediately. The best way to let them know what you do is by having them help you do it—which brings us to our next point.
Effective principals create a community of shared responsibility
You may think that you have to do it all—and certainly you have an overwhelming amount of responsibilities—but don’t try to be a rugged-individualist. We’re saying this for a few reasons: First, it’s impossible. Second, because it will make you look like a control freak. Third, because you have any army of intelligent and perfectly capable teachers who can help you shoulder the burden.
If you assign a specific, task-savvy adult to handle every anticipated melodrama—crumbling drywall, for example, or a flock of birds who has made a nest in the rafters of the gym—you can spend your time on “big-picture” issues. Quick fixes may make you look good, but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice when you stay mired in perfunctory disruptions.
Effective principals make themselves visible
Like we said earlier, not everyone understands what principals do—and they’re never going to if you hole up in an office all day. One way to make yourself visible is by taking your office with you. If you need access to email, bring along a laptop and set up shop in the library. Is there a study hall going on somewhere in the school? Grab a seat in the back of the room and get some work done there. Try rotating your “satellite office” every day. Doing this not only gets you out of the office, it also gives you the opportunity to speak with faculty and students.
Effective principals accept the fact that they’ll be compared to predecessors
Knowing ahead of time that everything you do will be measured against your predecessor will save you a lot of grief and restless nights. Comparisons are going happen. You are going to hear things like, “Principal X didn’t seem to have a problem with this,” or “Principal X would never have done this.” Ditch your gut reaction to react defensively and use these moments to ask questions and engage in an open discussion.
Even if you’ve only spent a few short minutes around young folks, you know that they are enamored by technology—and so are an increasing number of teachers. Administrators, too, are beginning to see the benefits of coupling social networking and education. Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, and text messages sent in multiple languages give schools the ability to update parents about their schools and students with the click of a few buttons. This is exciting for all of us, but how do we ensure that all parents, particularly those who are economically challenged, have access to the technology necessary to communicate with them? We’d like to offer a couple of solutions.
Social Networking and Education: reaching parents, even those with economic challenges
Apply to Recycles.org
Recycles.org is a non-profit that specializes in technology for education. Donation offerings are updated every day and the quality and range of items may surprise you. In the two minutes we spent browsing the list, we noticed a couple of refurbished Mac Books! The only thing they ask is that participating organizations who benefit from the service periodically contribute towards Recycles.org’s expenses (a minimum donation of $20 is expected). To apply for membership, click here.
Use online fundraising sites
If Recycles.org doesn’t work out for you, give the global community a shot. Car washes, fundraisers, silent auctions and bake-offs are great, but they provide a limited amount of exposure. When you use online fundraising websites like DonorsChoose, AdoptAClassroom, GoFundMe and Chipin, you’re able to register your school and write about the things students, parents and classrooms need. Donors from around the world can search by location, school, teacher, etc., to find a cause that resonates with them.
Providing Parents with Internet Access
Now that parents have their own home computer, how do we get those who can’t afford it online? One option is to look into a Comcast program called Internet Essentials. After Comcast acquired NBC Universal earlier in 2011, an FCC-mandated requirement was that the cable giant offer cheap Internet access to low-income households. Families who qualify will be able to sign up for 1.5-Mbps Internet access for a mere $9.95 a month. Customers may also be eligible for a computer that costs only $150 and free Internet training. To qualify, users must:
- Be located where Comcast offers Internet service
- Have at least one child receiving free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program
- Not have subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
- Not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment
For those who do not qualify for Comcast or live in an area where Comcast service is not available, here is a list of other low-cost (some are even free) Internet service providers:
When we think of effective leadership, the kind that yields results, many of us immediately conjure up the image of a sort of alchemist—or as the authors of Resonant Leadership put it, a “lone star,” that goes around sprinkling “magical pixie dust” and producing miracles. Real leadership, however, has little to do with alchemy. And if you buy Richard Boyatzis’s and Annie McKee’s argument about leadership—or what they would call resonant leadership—it also has less to do with managing others than it does with learning how to manage oneself.
Boyatzis and McKee describe resonant leaders as those who:
- Have emotional intelligence and are in tune with those around them
- Share several self-competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management
- Manage others’ emotions and know how to build strong, trusting relationships
- Act with mental clarity—not impulse
- Know that emotions are contagious
- Know that leading by fear is myopic: it works in the short run, but always backfires down the road
- Inspire others around them to adopt a unified vision and move towards it
Now that we’ve defined it, how in the world do aspiring leaders learn to become resonant leaders?
Manage power stress
Being a leader can be a lonely business. Decisions are not only high stakes, but rarely clear cut, communication is complicated and relationships…even more complicated. Managing this stress, or what Boyatzis and McKee call power stress, day in and day out is a challenge. Sadly, many of us become its fatal victims.
To avoid dissonance, leaders must make a conscious effort to look inward, which means that they should set aside time every day to write, reflect and attend to the body. Remember, resonance is “holistic.”
Remember what the body knows
You may be familiar with the classic Dr. Albert Mehabrian study that suggests humans can intuitively read—with nearly 100 percent accuracy—each other’s underlying emotions and motives simply by observing body language.
We’re not always conscious of the emotions we convey, but you can guarantee that the receivers are. Our colleagues and teachers watch us; they know when we are frustrated, discouraged, and defensive; they feel it—and it can quickly become contagious. Similarly, when we’re excited, motivated and energetic, our colleagues can’t help but feel it and want to be around it.
Resonance is a way of life, not just an abstract goal
Walk around your school. What do you see? What do you feel? Now ask yourself whether or not what you saw and felt reflects the values and mission of the school. Are people demonstrating obvious, tangible care and concern for one another? Boyatzis and McKee put it aptly: “Resonance is a way of life, not just an abstract goal.” If you buy this, you should see evidence of a shared vision in hundreds of ways, both small and large, all beautifully scattered around your school.
Take time to reflect and write every day
Making time to turn inward seems challenging, but try carving out a space (start with a half hour at the least) in your schedule every day so that you can reflect. To get you started, we thought we’d share a short exercise we came across in another book by Boyatzis and McKee.
Part I: Begin by thinking of the people who have helped you most in your life and career, the people about whom you’d say, “Without this person, I could not have accomplished or achieved as much as I have. Without this person, I would not be the person I am today.”
- Now write their names. Next to each name, describe moments you remember with them that had a lasting impact on you. What did they say or do? How did you feel at the time? What did you learn from them and from these experiences?
- Avoid the temptation to just think about it; the exercise will be much more effective if you write down your answers.
Part II: Now think of the people who tried to help, manage, or coach you to better performance over the last two years. Recall your performance reviews; what kind of feedback did you receive—and how was the feedback conveyed?
- Write their names and what each person said or did with you. What did you learn from them?
Part III: Answer the following questions:
- What feelings did Part 1 of the exercise evoke in you?
- What feelings did Part 2 evoke?
- Once you’ve finished, compare and contrast the people and situations in each part
- What do these memories make you want to do today?
If you completed the exercise, we have a strong suspicion that it was more pleasant to complete Part I than it was to complete Part II. Why? Because you are remembering the people who inspired you, who believed in you and showed compassion when others didn’t.
On the other hand, in Part II, you were asked to write about the people who (most likely) focused on your weaknesses, who may have put you on the defense.
It’s our hope that these two exercises helped create an understanding of how others have helped you learn and grow. We thought this might provide insights into how you developed important changes, and how you might help others do the same.
Image: The Alchemist by Signiert Öl auf Holz
(This work is in the public domain in the European Union and non-EU countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years or less).