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A photo of a group of elementary students looking out a window, waving and smiling.

Once a fourth-grade teacher, I recently began my work as an elementary assistant principal in another district. Based on my research and what I have experienced so far, I'd like to offer five ways for a rookie administrator to successfully navigate his or her new position.

1. Establishing Relationships

Relationships come before everything. Like anyone else, teachers do not want to listen to someone who doesn't genuinely care about them. Get to know everyone on a personal level. Ask them how their day is going, pry into their personal lives a bit, and make sure to attend staff outings. As the students enter school in the morning, do your best to pop your head into every classroom just to be present and touch base with your teachers and students. As you leave school for the day, stop by a few classrooms and make small talk. When communicating with teachers, it's important that your conversation doesn't just focus on the job itself. If you truly want what is best for your co-workers and students, none of these interactions will actually feel like work. However, investing in these relationships will play huge dividends when you're ready to promote change.

2. Getting Into Classrooms

Just as teachers should never forget what it's like to be a student, administrators should never forget what it's like to be a teacher. Spend a great deal of time in classrooms, being as non-evaluative as you can. Teachers can easily feel threatened when an administrator sits behind a computer (supposedly taking notes that pick apart each and every aspect of a lesson), so travel around with as little equipment as possible. Personally, I like to record the date whenever I spend more than ten minutes in a classroom, which helps in ensuring that my time is distributed evenly among all the teachers. Also, if a teacher asks what you are doing, be transparent. For instance:

  • I'm looking for examples of exemplary instruction so that we can take advantage of our expertise during teacher-led professional development.
  • How can I help in moving us forward if I don’t see first-hand what our strengths and needs are?

3. Understanding Others

Do less talking and more listening, but don't stop there. When conversing with others, make a conscious effort to avoid waiting to talk and trying to prove yourself. I believe that most teachers are more concerned with the new administrator validating their work, as opposed to wanting to be awed by that administrator's expertise. So take the time to sincerely understand where teachers are coming from. For example, if the majority of teachers possess a negative attitude toward something, don't ignore it. Perception is reality, and if most teachers feel a certain way, act (or react) appropriately, instead of telling them "Too bad" or convincing yourself that "they deserve what's happening to them." Also, when appropriate, do what you can to make teachers' ideas a reality. These actions can be empowering as they send the message that thoughts and opinions can make a difference.

4. Flattening the Hierarchy

Approach your job with the notion that everyone has something to contribute, because a valuable idea can come from absolutely anyone. Don't take it personally if anyone challenges you on some level. In other words, make sure to separate ideas and opinions from the individuals who are delivering them. Leverage your new title to empower others to speak up and have a voice. One person's idea is no better than another's simply because he or she has a "higher-up" job title, and certain responsibilities should not belong entirely to specific workers just because they happen to be in a department that has traditionally taken care of such tasks. Ultimately, what matters is working collaboratively to do what's best for the children, not trying to market yourself as the owner of all things great in your school or district. As a fourth-grade teacher, I once had the pleasure of working with a phenomenal assistant superintendent. Whenever we met, a stranger could walk into the room and, based on our interaction, wouldn't know who was the teacher and who was the administrator. That is special!

5. Social Media

In today's connected world, all educators should be actively looking for ideas and resources from outside their district. These findings can then be brought in-house to enhance what is already taking place. Furthermore, this research helps educators become critical consumers and not just passive receivers of what others tell us to do. As a new administrator, make a point of connecting with your teachers on Facebook, as this is most likely where they already are. Then, post to your wall articles and resources that could be of benefit. This approach can be a non-intrusive way to professionally develop your teachers without constantly flooding their inboxes with "must read" editorials (although the occasional article sent via email isn't such a bad thing). To streamline the Facebook process, consider starting a Facebook group that includes members of your staff. If you'd like to share your own thoughts, start a blog and disseminate your posts through Facebook or possibly via email. Other teachers might become inspired and start blogs of their own, or have their students start blogging. Yes, there is always the idea of getting your teachers up and running with Twitter (and Google+, LinkedIn, RSS feeds, digital newspapers, etc.), but that's another post all on its own.

Reviewing the five points that I've listed, these actions could easily apply to all administrators and not just those who are new to the position. As the years go by and we become more and more comfortable in what we do, it's important to not lose sight of what got us there in the first place.

What tips do you have for first-year administrators?

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Hannah MacLaren's picture
Hannah MacLaren
School coach at the Los Angeles Coalition of Essential Schools

Ross, I would suggest a couple things. Add to the building relationships with teachers, parents, students, similarly, with your support staff: custodial, office, cafeteria, etc. These are key folks, too.

As head of a school, you will be pulled in many directions. It helps if you maintain a public schedule/calendar: the times/days in the classrooms, when you can meet with a parent (as in making an appointment), when you can take or return calls.

Currently the need to file reports is becoming more demanding: hire the very best secretary possible, who, among other things can fill out the forms/reports, etc. and have them ready for you to review and file.

Mary Langer Thompson's picture

Good ideas. I would add that before taking a position in another district do your homework on the health of the culture. Talk to other administrators and find out who is the most suspicious or welcoming of outsiders. Each district is different in tone and culture and in how they handle change. What has been encouraged or allowed? What successful change has happened? Read the union contract.

Domenica Locklear's picture

Hi Ross,
I really like your five tips for new administrators. As a graduate student pursuing an administration certificate I can see how these 5 tips can help me in not only as an administrator but also as teacher. Being transparent is key when going into the classrooms. This will make teachers feel at ease so they do not feel that they are being judged every time you go into their rooms.
I also agree with Hannah that as the leader you need to build relationships with your support staff such as custodians and administrative assistants. Parents are also a vital part of a healthy school community. Parents should be viewed as partners not as the opposition. All stakeholders should be included and respected in strong school community.

Patrick Faverty's picture

Good advice, Ross. Our egos get us the job, but we must never use them again! Our job as leaders is to support the work - in classrooms! While a princpal has responsibility for the school, that should not be seen as a mandate for power. As a former principal, superintendent, and full-time university faculty (leadership) I can suggest to all new principals - be in every classroom every day. Maybe only a walk through, maybe longer, but be there! By the end of 3-4 weeks you have lots to talk about with your teachers, parents, and students!

hubblitweets's picture
Helping school and parents communicate

Thanks Ross, I really like your point about getting away from email and utilizing social media. Do you have any recommendations about removing liabilities of networks like Facebook?

Robyn's picture

All the suggestions and the comments are good. I would also add maintaining a commitment to professional growth and reflection. Administrators must help teachers and students grow but be invested in their own growth as well. This means self-assessing their decisions and actions and also seeking feedback from stakeholders. When administrators stop learning, so does everyone else!

Sherri's picture

Thank you, Ross, for these suggestions. I am a school counselor with a school leadership masters and currently working on Ed specialist degree. I agree that relationships are key and there are so many ways to build them. I especially appreciated your comment about never forgetting what it's like to be a teacher. I consciously work on that daily. With a little tweaking, these tips could apply to teachers, too! Thank you.

MrCampbellRocks's picture

Thank You Ross, I am a new admin and have been searching the internet for tips/ suggestions/ and resources to make the transition better and more productive. I am curious as to how you handled relationships that didn't seem to be ideal or flow like normal relationships. How did you handle those awkward or negative relationships?

Ross Cooper's picture
Ross Cooper
Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12, Salisbury Township School District

Thanks, Sherri. I am glad you found the article to be helpful. Good luck with your degree!

Ross Cooper's picture
Ross Cooper
Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12, Salisbury Township School District

Mr. Campbell, although I can't claim to be an expert in this area, I have found that defaulting to honest, face-to-face conversations and seeking to understand where others are coming from will go a long way. Although these ideas may sound obvious, they're not often done, and they can be rather uncomfortable to carry out. For help in this area, I can recommend the book Crucial Conversations...Thanks for reading!

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