New Principals Heed My Advice (or not)

Image Many teachers will be hired into their first jobs as principals this summer. I’m not qualified to give advice to any of you. But here are some things I wish someone told me when I became a school administrator.

Five words you must learn to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” I can only guarantee you one thing…you are going to mess up. When you do, don’t hide from your mistake or blame others. Admit it. Apologize to those you hurt. Do everything you can to make things better. And try not to make the same mistake again.

Never underestimate the power of the Popsicle. If you want a quick, fun way to gain support from kids and parents, buy a bunch of Popsicles, drive out to band camp, and give the kids a treat on a sweltering hot day. See my blog Don’t Ignore the Power of the Popsicle

Don’t have a band? Then on the last day of school before winter break hand out cookies to kids as they enter the building.  Or appear in the school talent show. Or dress up on Halloween. In other words, do the unexpected. Everybody expects the principal to go to football games and choir concerts. When you do the unexpected, kids and parents see that you are human and you care, and they are more willing to forgive you when you mess up.

Err on side of kid. You are going to have to make really tough decisions. And in almost every decision you have to make, you will be lobbied a bunch of different ways by a bunch of different people. So when the time comes to make the decision, you can’t go wrong by doing what’s right for the kid. At the very least, you’ll sleep better. See my blog Of Pencils, Sporks and Compliance.

Equal and fair aren’t the same thing. You may want to follow the rule book to the letter. After all, when you were a teacher you respected administrators who did not waiver from the code of conduct. But the fact is, if all we ever did was follow the rule book, we wouldn’t need administrators; we could just hire a bunch of clerks who could administer discipline. You are a principal because you have shown the ability to make tough decisions, which often means seeing shades of gray. You may be accused of “not being consistent.” That’s a euphemism used by critics of your decisions, people who have the luxury of not having to make the tough decisions and those who don’t have all of the information. The only thing you have to worry about with consistency is this: consistently make the best decision for each unique situation.

Be tactful in giving hurtful news, but you don’t help anyone by being dishonestly kind. You are going to have to start evaluating teachers. You are going to witness activities in classrooms that are–at best–mediocre and–at worst–are harmful to kids. It will be very easy simply to give a great evaluation to the teacher to keep them happy. But the right thing to do is confront the problem tactfully, and do your best to help the teacher improve in the areas they need. They may be hurt. They may be offended. They may cry. But the second most important job you have (after student safety) is evaluating well.

You will never be accused of communicating too much. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep people in the loop about as much as you can, which includes students, staff, parents, the community, and the superintendent. And while email may be the most efficient, it is also one of the worst forms of communication (other than relaying simple announcements). Never engage in debate via email. Pick up the phone or make a personal visit to whomever you need to speak with. If somebody sends you an email with a question, and it takes more than a sentence or two to answer, make a phone call instead.

When someone asks you to be pied in the face or kiss a pig or sit on a roof, say yes. You did not become a principal to be bored and sit behind your desk. Have fun. It’s the best job in the world. When you are given an opportunity to make a great story, say yes. See my blog Dress Like a Hot Dog? Pie in the Face? Kiss a Pig? That’s School Administration.

Never punish a crowd for the sins of one. Never punish a child for the sins of a parent. Discipline can be messy. It takes hard work, investigations, and tough decision making. Don’t take the easy way out by punishing a group of kids for the actions of one, and don’t punish a student for the sins of the parent (for example, it’s not a second grader’s fault if he is tardy to school every day, so don’t give him detentions for it). Treat your students with dignity and respect, and it will be returned to you. Sometimes that means somebody breaks a rule and gets away with it. So be it. That’s better than being unfair or unjust. When you are unfair to a student, it doesn’t teach them to follow rules, it teaches them to hate school.

Camp is for the campers, and school is for the students. Too often we forget that schools are for kids. Don’t forget that. See my blog Camp Is for the Campers.

Be merciful. Kids make mistakes. Remember how I said you will make mistakes? So will kids. Don’t tell kids not to cry over spilled milk and then yell at them when they spill it. Don’t hold grudges. Instead, use kids’ mistakes as an opportunity to teach them how they could have acted. Remember that the word “discipline” comes from the word “disciple,” meaning “follower.” Disciplines is not something we DO to kids; it’s something we want kids to HAVE. Teach by example, administer consequences dispassionately, and always allow a kid a second chance. See my blog For Your Students, Make Every Day Opening Day.

Get on Twitter. Twitter gives you the chance to share information, brag about your school, and learn from geniuses all over the world for free. Get on it, participate, and model this behavior for your staff. See my blogs Where Twitter Has Taken Me (Literally) and Old Friends Who Just Met.

New principals, good luck! You are about to embark on the greatest job in the world! I wish you the best!