George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

How to Navigate a New School as a New Administrator

Taking on a role in a new school can be daunting—particularly if you’re new to leadership as well. Get off to a good start by making time to listen.

August 18, 2023
Courtney Hale / iStock

Administrators usually begin the year with tons of excitement; however, when starting a new role within a new school community, it’s natural to feel a sense of nervousness and loneliness. You are navigating structures and systems set in place prior to your arrival. Nevertheless, leaders should not look at this challenge with fear, but instead with positivity.

John C. Maxwell, coauthor of How to Influence People: Make a Difference in Your World, provides guidance on one of the important aspects of being a leader, connecting with people. The first couple of months at a new school community, you are mainly observing and making note of systems and structures in place. However, that should not be the only thing you are doing. The primary focus for your first few weeks and months at the school should be building connections with staff members and students.

As a new administrator, you shouldn’t expect staff to reach out to you first. A leader should always be the initiator when working on relationships and building trust within the community. Through your outreach, you may come to find similarities and differences in beliefs among stakeholders. Within that, try to find common ground as well as recognize and respect the differences in belief systems and personalities.

Always remember the platinum rule, created by author Tony Alessandra, PhD: Treat people not how you want to be treated but instead how they want to be treated. With this in mind, you must be vulnerable and share your experiences with your team. Use your testimony to make connections and communicate from your heart. Anytime there is adversity, try to use your story to build trust.

Entering a new school community as a newly appointed assistant principal, I had to adjust my mindset to only look for the positives. What things were going well for our students? What contributed to this? What were the strengths and interests of each teacher on staff? What impact would they like to make? What did they need from me? What were they willing to share?

I realized I had a lot to learn, and the school year had already started, since I entered the school in October. I had to get into classrooms and just make observations and designate time to meet each team member to understand their goals, interests, and needs. I took notes on everything and reviewed them weekly, which allowed me to reflect on my practices to see if I was meeting the needs of the team.

6 Ways to Connect With Staff as a New Administrator

1. Make observations and be seen. Enter classrooms, and observe best practices. Make note of patterns that benefit the children. Keep these initial observations focused on the positives. Find ways to acknowledge them through personal emails, sticky notes, or small talk. Be seen outside of your office during transitions such as lunchtime and dismissals. So much can be learned from the community during these special moments of community building.

2. Take the time to listen. Meet with those you supervise. Listen to their concerns, strengths, interests, and needs. Always aim to leave the conversation with possible solutions. Keep a mindset that problems are opportunities for growth between you and the teacher. Figure out what makes people tick, what makes them cry, and how you can help them navigate toward their goals. Ask the educator how they like to receive feedback, and proceed accordingly.

3. Always remember that to lead is to work. As you facilitate team meetings and professional learning, ask clarifying questions. Present solutions and ideas. Allow staff to ask questions. Make sure the dialogue allows for all members to speak. Read the room. Know when to step back to allow for introverts or team members struggling to trust you to have a voice in the conversation without your presence. Make note of this and try to find a way to gain trust.

4. Be empathetic and model. As a new leader, expect pushback. It simply comes with the territory but doesn’t have to be negative. It shows that the educator is protective of their school community. Listen to understand, not just to respond and react.

How you respond to negative comments or questions can determine your course for the initiative or relationship at hand. Repeat your understanding of what they are stating, ask for clarification and understanding, and then work together to try to develop a solution. You may not know the answers right away, but it’s best practice to reflect on conversations and take the time to think and research before holding another conversation to develop solutions.

5. Elicit feedback and make course corrections. After spending a significant amount of your time listening, you will eventually start to implement small changes. During this process, always make room for feedback. Try to elicit it in different ways: one-on-one conversations, anonymous surveys, department meetings, and whole group conversations.

As you gain feedback, always ask for details and explanations on how to improve, with the best learning outcomes for students in mind. As you make decisions for the next course of action, be sure to share this with the team. Provide them with the “why” behind the course of action taken and the flexibility to make course corrections.

6. Create open spaces and platforms. An open-door policy is not enough. Create multiple spaces for team members to share aspects of themselves, their pedagogical practices, and their concerns. Using multiple platforms such as email, text chains, and Google Classroom allows you to meet the needs of the multiple personalities and behavior styles that exist on a staff.

Making connections with your team will drive the work moving forward for the school community. With a change in leadership, some staff members may retreat into the past and daydream about the future. Do not take offense. Face this head-on and transform this energy into something useful. If you invite people to join your journey, in time your journey and theirs will coincide to build a community that pushes growth for everyone.

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