Administration & Leadership

3 Strategies for Successfully Starting Your Career as a School Leader

An assistant principal near the end of her second year in the job shares her advice for those moving into leadership roles.

April 30, 2024
ferrantraite / iStock

As school leaders, we often begin our leadership journeys concerned with our own capabilities and performance, asking ourselves these questions: How do I develop my skill set? How can I become an effective leader? How do I produce great results? 

Before I became a school leader, I taught English for a decade. As assistant principal, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with my first year of teaching: a combination of excitement, adrenaline, apprehension, joy, and overwhelm. I’m now coming to the close of my second year, and having had time to reflect on challenges and areas of growth, I have three takeaways or tips that I particularly wish to share with new and emerging school leaders.

1. Ask critical questions of all stakeholders

There’s a common belief that as a leader, you have to have all of the answers. In my first few months of leadership, I felt a sense of dread if I didn’t have the answer to someone’s question. However, I’ve learned that effective leadership isn’t about having all of the answers; it’s about knowing which questions to ask. Effective leaders listen deeply and ask questions that shape people’s thinking, moving the organization from where it is to where it needs to go. 

Consider, for instance, a team of teachers that comes to you with a concern. They’re upset with the current approach to students who fail classes or miss homework assignments. “We’ve tried everything,” they say. “We’ve called home; we’ve talked to the kids. What do we do?”

As a leader, you may not have the solution right then and there, and that’s OK. Instead, pause, reflect, and pose critical questions: What systems are in place with your grade team? Has this issue surfaced with your department team? What might a peer-to-peer support system look like in your classroom? What alternative options for assessments and assignments has the team discussed? Where might the guidance team be able to support? What other options for parent involvement and outreach can we pursue?

Shifts like these create a culture of value. As a leader, position yourself to be perceptive and receptive. Leaning into the vulnerability of “I’m not sure of the exact solution, but let’s brainstorm together” creates ownership among staff and fosters collaboration. 

2. Find people’s currency

Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky held different theories on motivation. Piaget held that motivation is intrinsic, Vygotsky extrinsic. Students are not the only ones who need motivation; staff do, too. It behooves you as a leader to really know your staff members on an individual level: What are their strengths, passions, areas for growth, and motivations? Some may be motivated by working overtime for extra pay; others may be motivated by recognition. Some may want esteem; others may value one-on-one coaching and mentorship. Whatever their sources of motivation, capitalize on that. 

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, references American philosopher John Dewey’s assertion that the deepest human urge is “the desire to feel important.” Find out what makes your staff feel important, then make it happen. Motivation shifts an organization from stagnancy to infinite growth. 

3. Follow up, follow up, follow up

I was once told, “Setting up a system is great. Following up on that system determines its success.” 

It’s not enough to put systems in place. Determining the logistics—the how, what, where, when, and why—is crucial in school leadership. If we don’t routinely and strategically assess the system we put in place, the system itself is null and void. Whether you are monitoring the development of a cohort of teachers, working on a schedule for strategic intervention instruction, or determining the effectiveness of new guidance measures, it’s imperative that you create time in your calendar to follow up. How is the system doing? What does it need? How do you know? What story does the data tell you?

When you’re creating a system, first compile an action plan. Determine your necessary personnel, timeline, resources, benchmarks for success—then, assess routinely.  

Make sure to hold a meeting with key players often to ensure that you give different people on your team accountability, and create a paper trail from which you can follow up.

And speaking of a paper trail, anytime you meet with a team of people (or an individual), make sure you keep notes. This creates a log of the things you discussed and informs upcoming benchmarks. Getting into the habit of writing things down and documenting your system ensures that you can set checkpoints and assess their quality. 

Embracing Growth

Being a new leader is a challenging venture. There are a plethora of skills we learn and fine-tune throughout our leadership journeys. I’ve found that whenever I encounter a problem or particular juncture in my career, I fall back to one or all of the practices and principles above.  

What questions did I, or did I not, ask? Am I attuned to the motivation of those who work in partnership with me? Have I followed up?  

Try to zoom into developing some of these skills in the coming months. You may find that they create the foundation that paves the way to not only your success, but the success of those around you.

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