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Administration & Leadership

Smart Growth for New School Leaders

There are plenty of bumps in the road for school leaders in their first year, but an assistant principal found four strategies that made the journey a bit smoother.

January 22, 2021
Woman takes notes while working on her laptop
AJ_Watt / iStock

When you’re a new school administrator, there’s no shortage of challenges that can stir feelings of inferiority and lead to unnecessary stress. In my first year as an assistant principal, I faced disciplining students, informing parents of inappropriate behaviors, and dealing with staff—each one, each time, was a fresh challenge.

What got me through the growing pains of becoming a leader in my school community? As I look back on it, four strategies stand out as critical to my professional growth. Each one, I suspect, will endure for the rest of my career.

Connect With a Critical Friend

An African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” When you’re a new administrator, there is so much to learn and experience: uncomfortable conversations with parents, teachers, or staff; emergency situations; and the guidance and mentoring of staff members. Quite frankly, the road toward becoming an effective administrator is typically full of bumps and detours—and that can make for a lonely journey.

But the road needn’t be quite so rough and lonesome. Newly hired administrators need to connect with a “critical friend”—someone who can provide solid advice by looking at situations from a different point of view. Through consistent communication, a critical friend can support you with unbiased feedback and an attentive ear. A critical friend knows your potential and wants to see you grow and succeed. A critical friend provides you with guidance and clarity during moments in which it’s easy to react before thinking.

Were it not for the guidance and support of my leadership partner—my critical friend—my first year would have been a total flop. She has supported me in more ways than I can count. Since the start, we have communicated via text or phone calls on a daily basis. I am not saying she has always agreed with everything I say or think; rather, she has provided me with the thoughtful support I needed to choose my own path and be confident with my decisions. She has been my sounding board and the one who talks me off the ledge in stressful situations.

Be a Reflective Practitioner

You need to know where you are to understand where you are headed. Anyone new to a position of leadership does not learn to lead overnight—it’s a learning curve—and you’re bound to make mistakes.

I’ve found that I need to take the time to reflect on my practice, particularly with difficult situations that require difficult decisions. Practicing personal wait time has enabled me to successfully reflect on situations instead of impulsively shooting from the hip. I remind myself that it is always OK to take a minute, or a day, to reflect. (And don’t forget that sometimes you need to take a personal day to de-stress without feeling guilty about it—that’s what those days are for.)

Keeping a journal to document important events and situations has helped me identify and track my feelings, as well as the processes that lead me to solutions. Through this practice, I keep my “why” at the forefront while ensuring that I meet the needs of the students, teachers, and staff I serve. Growth comes with time, practice, and continued reflection.

Fall Forward Into Failure

When you accept—and yes, even embrace—failure with a growth mindset, the word can carry you toward the understanding that your potential lies in your ability to “fail forward.” Failing forward means learning from your mistakes—and doing so can be particularly difficult for people like me who try to make all things perfect.

Looking back, I can see now that when I was just starting out as a school leader, I would get really upset with myself whenever I’d make mistakes... mistakes that ranged from forgetting to copy specific people on emails to stubbornly thinking that I had to be like the other administrators. I was very hard on myself until I truly got one of life’s fundamental truths: “I am me, and no one can change that.” This recognition allowed me to develop a don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff mentality and embrace the journey.

Listen to Your Heart

As a leader, your responsibility is to support and lead the efforts that will result in student achievement; however, you must also focus on building and reinforcing relationships. With this in mind, the last piece of advice I can give you is to listen to your heart. Learn to rely on your instincts. If something seems odd, try to find out why. Listening to my heart and trusting my instincts has enabled me to understand, support, and connect not only with my students but also with my team.

Becoming an educational leader comes with many challenges, and learning how to navigate the struggle is an essential part of the process. Reflecting on my day’s work as well as the outcomes of my decisions is also core to the process. And while failure itself isn’t empowering, understanding failure is. Finally, rely on your instincts to show you the way.

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