You’re the Principal. Now What?

By Susan Stone Kessler, Ed.D., coauthor of The Principal’s Survival Guide

You’re the Principal. Now What?They gave you the job. You are going to be the principal next year! You always knew this day would come, but now that it’s here, you can’t remember all those things you learned in graduate school. All you know for sure is that you may throw up.

Here is the number one rule of being a principal: Trust yourself. If you don’t have faith in your own leadership, no one else will either. Will you make mistakes? Yes. Will people notice them? Yes. Are you perfect? No. Yet you were hired because you can do this. Another leader saw your leadership abilities. Take a deep breath, drink some carbonated soda to settle your stomach, and give yourself time to think.

The best place to start is at the beginning. Here are your first steps when starting your new role.

Step 1: Spend time listening.
If you are appointed now or over the summer, you have the luxury of school not being in session. Ask what’s going well and what needs improvement. Ask the former principal, staff, parents, kids, and central office employees. Take notes. Don’t make promises. You are gathering information, not running for office. Take your information and identify the themes. Note what there is general agreement about regarding what’s wrong with—and what’s great about—your school. That tells you where some sacred cows may be lurking, and it will identify where the biggest pushback will be for changes.

Step 2: Spend time talking.
These talks should not criticize the school, even if the place is currently under quarantine. In the beginning, talk about how happy you are to be working there. Talk about your beliefs about school, learning, and students. Discuss where you came from and why you applied for this job. Never mention the fact that you got a pay raise. Talk about your love of kids, and if you have kids, talk about them, too. The “parent card” is a good one. It doesn’t matter if you are at an elementary school and your kids are 25 or you are at a high school and just gave birth yesterday. Parenthood brings some universal understandings, and in the beginning, it’s a helpful connection to make.

Step 3: Find a mentor.
You need someone who is or has been a principal who does not supervise you to help you through the rough patches. Someone to tell you, “Let’s not change the school colors on day one.” This person will provide you with support when you feel like all your staff hates you and parents are complaining to the district office. A mentor is invaluable.

Step 4: Only change the big things.
It’s easy to be tempted to fix all that is wrong in a school right away, and every school has things that need improvement. Stick with fixing the things that (1) harm children, (2) are illegal, (3) completely conflict with your belief system. Everything else can wait. As a new principal, you lack credibility, and going slow will help you build that credibility while bringing others onto your team. All you have is the title on day one. It takes time for people to really believe you are their leader.

Step 5: Read and reflect.
You have your choice of books, professional journals, and blogs about principalship, being a new boss, and leadership in general. Sometimes reading will help affirm that you are doing the right thing when everyone is telling you your idea is a bad one.

Step 6: Forgive yourself.
You are a human first. You likely have a family and friends who still need you, and you will need (1) time alone; (2) time with friends away from school; (3) time to exercise, rest, and eat; and (4) time to be someone other than the principal. You have no superhuman characteristics that make you able to learn everything faster or better than anyone else. You take it day by day, decision by decision, and when you make a mistake, you think, “Well, that was a good idea in theory.” Sometimes our ideas don’t work in practice because humans are not theoretical.

Being a principal is an awesome job. Quiet the noise of discontent that will inevitably come up and don’t allow yourself to be swayed by negative self-talk. You are the principal now. They’ve been waiting just for you.

Susan Stone Kessler, Ed.D.Dr. Susan Stone Kessler is an award-winning educator who has spent the past 21 years working in schools with Middle Tennessee teenagers. She has been a teacher, an assistant principal, and a high school principal in two Tennessee school districts.


The Principal's Survival GuideDr. Susan Stone Kessler is a coauthor of The Principal’s Survival Guide.

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3 Responses to You’re the Principal. Now What?

  1. Shoshanah says:

    As a new principal my self, I would also like to make one more suggestion:
    Watch, read, educate yourself on being a leader of fortune 500 companies. I know this sounds strange, but ever since I started to find resources on being a leader of large corporations, I myself have been a better leader.

  2. Mark Tornow says:

    Very well said, Susan. I really appreciate your brevity and focusing on what is most important. You don’t provide a litany of do’s and don’ts (or is that don’t’s?), but provide helpful, supportive advice for that first-time leader.

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