After 4 years of being an elementary principal, I am leaving for a new challenge. As I leave, I find myself in a sentimental mood. When I become sentimental, I tend to want to write (or type, as it turns out). In order for me to develop some closure with my staff and my school community, I thought I would try to distill what I have learned about being an elementary school principal. The things I say below are by no means said from an expert’s point of view. Most of what I have learned has come from making mistakes or missed opportunities to make better choices. I hope that at least one current or aspiring principal gets some value out of this.
Whether we are talking about staff, students, or parents, the way people feel about the principal often directly affects the way they feel about the school. Having a negative relationship with the principal often leads to a colored view of other staff, school programs, and can leave parents not wanting to step up when they are asked to help support a school event. Taking the time to foster a positive relationship with an unhappy parent can pay off down the road by keeping them connected to school in a positive way. Greeting people by name, asking them their opinions about the school or a recent program, and acting as a gracious host to all visitors sets the tone for the school.
Spend time talking with students.
Don’t forget that your primary customers/clients are your students. They can often provide you the most meaningful feedback about the teaching and learning taking place. Ask them, “What did you learn about today?” They will tell you some amazing things. They can also tell you when the boys bathroom is overflowing.
Listen to your teachers.
Teachers need to be listened to, because listening to someone shows them that you care about them. Oftentimes, teachers will just need to vent because they are in a room with 7 year olds all day. That in itself is a daily task that should allow for the occasional complaint. All joking aside, teachers’ voices are often lost in the day-to-day running of the school. If you dont stop and listen to the small things, you’ll find yourself under a barrage of big things. Teachers are the life force of a school, and their happiness and level of fulfillment is directly related to the success of the school. So, when they have something to say, hear them out.
Give parents advice.
The Principal may or may not be a parent; or a good one at that. Nonetheless, you have to remember to have the “parent to parent” talks. When you talk with a parent about their child’s behavior, attitude, or any other negative aspect, remember that you are talking about their heart and soul. When a parent hears that their child used foul language, hit another student, or talked back to an adult, they are hurting on the inside. They will tell you that they will follow up at home and take away the X-Box for two weeks. But on the inside, they are sad, disappointed, and blaming themselves. Take a moment to reassure the parent and help them figure out what to say to their child.
Ask for help.
I started out thinking that asking for help indicated that I wasn’t ready to be a Principal. That was silly of me. I ask for help all the time. I call other principals and ask their opinion on discipline issues. I call other principals and ask for budgeting ideas. I call other principals and ask how they might word a tough conversation with a teacher or parent. And, I call district staff when I have a question in the area they oversee. Yes, principal means “the one in charge.” However, being in charge doesn’t mean you are an island.
Have a glass of wine.
Somedays, you will get home at 8:30 and will be dead tired. Your kids will already be asleep, and your spouse will be busy cleaning up from the night’s mess. (I have 4 kids under the age of 5, so maybe your home is a bit less chaotic than mine). You will still be running the conversation from that angry parent through your head for the 35th time. You will remember that you never made it to Mrs. Jones’ room to fix her projector, and you will also remember the 3 parents you never got to call back. Sit down, pour a glass of wine, and let the 100s of families to whom you are responsible leave your head and take a breath. Then take a sip. Say to the angry parents in your head that they are not welcome in your home and let them leave your thoughts. Take another sip.