There is an old saying: “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” It could never be truer than when you are an incoming principal, either in your first assignment or in a new position. A misstep, or two or three, in the first weeks of your new term can doom your principalship to one of putting out brushfires and wasting energy trying to rebuild trust.
Always remember there was a principal before you. Whether that person was loved or hated, he or she had ways of doing things and patterns of behavior the staff adjusted to. The principal had supporters in the community who will be closely watching your every move.
As a new principal, your first task is to get to know the community: its players, likes, dislikes, goals, traditions, customs, and expectations. This takes planning and the plan had better not be “I’ll show up and wing it as I go.” Make a detailed list of everything you need to do and track of your progress. Set goals for yourself and document as you accomplish goals.
- Before you arrive, become a voracious consumer of everything you can learn about the school and district. Get on the mailing list and sign up for the social media feeds and websites. Read the local newspaper, watch the local television, and ask for copies of board minutes. When house hunting, ask your realtor questions. If you’re in the area, attend school functions and go to local hangouts.
- Get and read every document you can about the school. Know the long-term curriculum plans, evaluation documents, negotiated agreements, board policies, accounting and budget documents, testing and achievement data, staff biographies and evaluations, key parent biographies, and building goals and school improvement plans.
- Make it a point to get the “inside scoop” on why your predecessor left. If you did not find out in the interview process, this can sometimes be difficult to tease out of discussions. There a tendency to “circle the wagons” but it’s important you don’t tread on the same tender issues.
- Develop a communication plan to introduce yourself. This can include written letters, social media, or community actions. Whatever you develop, make sure it’s a plan you can sustain in the hustle and bustle of the school year. Nothing destroys credibility more than a promise to keep open communication in place, only to have it dwindle away as the year progresses.
- Make sure all the supplies, textbooks, and materials are in place. This point may seem a no brainer, but the ability to “run the railroad” efficiently is your first test on the first day. There may be plenty of reasons why orders were lost during the transition from one principal to the next, but nobody is going to care for your excuse.
- Schedule meetings with central office personnel. These should be scheduled no later than your second day on the job. Get to know the critical people—HR, transportation, the curriculum director, the budget director, special education, IT, etc.—on a first-name basis.
- Sit down with your building staff. This meeting should take place during your first week. Include the secretaries, custodial service, food service, security, and activity supervisor. These folks are critical to your success and you must develop strong communication plans with them.
- Hold a series of semi-structured meetings with teachers and community leaders. Begin these meetings during your second week. Depending on your building, you can do this in an ad hoc way or by a departmental type, but include everyone. Take notes and look for common themes. This is a qualitative research process and you are looking for answers. Some central topics addressed are:
- What are the strengths of the school?
- What are areas we might work to improve?
- What are your expectations of me?