Lessons and Reflections: My 1st Year as Principal

A MiddleWeb Blog

The other day I was at a party to celebrate Dan, one of the teachers at my school. At one point, he called me over to introduce me to one of his relatives. He said, “This is Rita. She works with us.”

Not, “this is my boss.”

Not, “this is my principal.”

This is Rita. She works with us.

She. Works. With. Us.

As I finish up my first year as a school principal, that is just what I needed to hear. In a previous Heart of the School post I wrote about my hopes, plans, and promises to serve the school by connecting and collaborating with students, teachers, paras, and caregivers.

When I made the decision to leave the classroom, I was excited but a little nervous too. I wondered if the job would be a good fit for me. I was afraid that without ongoing and significant connection to active teaching and learning I would be dissatisfied.

I knew that if principal leadership was to work for me, I would need to keep teaching, keep playing with kids, keep supporting and serving teachers, and generally continue to be a colleague as well as being a boss. So, when Dan said I worked “with” him rather than describing me as the boss, it felt like a compliment of the best kind.

Of course, I still have a great deal to learn, but I learned a lot this year too! Below are some of my takeaways from my first year as the school principal.

The Office Is Not My Place

The first thing I learned was that time spent in my office would have to be extremely limited if I was to meet my own goals and keep my sanity. To that end, I bought a little purse, dropped my phone, a notepad, and a pencil in it, and off I went. I call that little purse my mobile office and it has served me well.

Visiting a class where one of our older students shares her book with younger kids.

I also tote my iPad and thus I have everything I need to do the daily administrative work that can sometimes cause principals to stay behind their desks. Of course, from time to time, I too find myself chained in the office, but the majority of my days are spent with kids and teachers. I cannot conceive of any other way to be effective.

No Hierarchies Are Real 

I get it. At the school level, the buck stops with me. I am not afraid to have difficult conversations about job responsibilities when someone isn’t pulling her or his weight. I also know that I’m not self-employed, the superintendent (and I’ve got a good one) and school board members (they’re great too) are the bosses of me. That’s okay. I’m good with chain of command.

But this year also confirmed for me that these “hierarchies” are not value-based. No one is more important than anyone else when it comes to serving the needs of our students. The bus driver, teacher, secretary, custodian, superintendent, principal, cook, curriculum director, and paraprofessionals all have equally important roles to play. This year, I watched adults at every “level” serve kids’ needs just when those kids needed it most.

You Can’t Please Everyone All the Time (and That’s Okay!)

Long ago, I learned that there is no room for ego or anger in teaching and learning. My first day on the job as a principal, I went to the coffee shop with my skirt tucked into my underwear!!!!! TOTALLY NOT JOKING!

That part was easy to laugh off. I even posted a picture of it on Facebook with the caption, “Ready to rock my first day!”  I wasn’t totally ready for what came next – a visit from a “very concerned” grandmother of a student who was concerned that I was “decreasing the decorum of the school.”

Further, she found it “concerning” that she knew my religion, as she “never knew what religion the other principals were.”

Here’s the thing, I work in a very small town where almost everyone is White and Christian. I am Jewish and while I don’t practice (no synagogue here…) I am open about my culture (why shouldn’t I be?).

When I pointed out to the concerned lady that I was pretty sure she did know the religions of the principals who preceded me, she said, “Yes, but I didn’t know what kind of Christians they were.”  As I asked her if she knew, “What ‘kind’ of Jewish I am,” I could feel my blood begin to boil.

Deep breath.

Smile.

No ego.

No anger.

I ended the meeting by saying, “I appreciate your interest in the success of the school. However, I am not sure that your concerns are based on any real problems. I need to get back to my students now. Please feel free to call on me again.”

This year, that experience and a couple of other curve balls helped me learn (in a very visceral way) that I can’t please all of the people all of the time. But, if I stick to my values and don’t dwell on negative experiences, I can move forward with a heart of love and hope.

Laughter Is a MUST

Mrs. Shaw celebrates.

Randi Shaw is the most amazing school secretary in the world. Almost every day she or someone else tells me a joke that makes me laugh so hard I struggle to not spit my coffee out! On a recent survey of school climate, several people noted that they loved how we laughed so often together. One wrote, “I love that laughter rings through our hallways!” I love that too. Self-care, and the care of my staff, means laughing is a must. Keeping folks laughing can mean the difference between a good school year and a great one.

Ready for Year Two

My first year has flown by! It was wonderful. Last July when I wrote about becoming a principal in the school where I was a teacher/librarian. I said, “I am a principal. Even though it still doesn’t sound right, it’s true.” I am happy to report that it sounds right now.

I am going to end this post as I began my first as a principal, with an open letter to my staff and to all who are leaders or dream of being leaders. Best wishes!

Dear Teachers,

Thank you to so many for being encouraging and kind about my new role as your principal. I didn’t take the idea lightly and reflected deeply before I applied. I am grateful to be able to serve our learning community and want to share a few thoughts with you.

My belief is that the best way to lead is with a heart of service, honesty, and transparency. Studies consistently show that the best leaders are those who encourage and support growth in teachers.

I want you to know that you will continue to be able to count on me to:

  • roll up my sleeves and work alongside each of you in the classroom.
  • be where the kids are (at recess, in the lunchroom, in the halls, in classes).
  • help all students and educators set, monitor, and meet academic, social, and professional goals.
  • work with parents and the wider community and continue to serve as a liaison to the parent group.
  • support educators’ efforts to think outside of the box to help students grow.

Of course, I will have new responsibilities as well. I feel confident that you all will support me as I learn and grow myself. This year we will:  

  • have regular teacher, para, and PLC facilitator meetings.
  • work to fine-tune our mission, vision, and core values such that they are a clear guide for all we do.
  • embed differentiated professional development into Educator Effectiveness and PLC work.
  • refine our behavior plan and PBIS expectations for students.
  • revisit our schedule and tweak it to meet teacher and student needs.

I am thrilled that I will be able to continue to serve the school but in a new and exciting role. Together, we’ll continue to make each day spent with students better than the one before!

Yours in teaching and learning,

Rita

Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher and a self-proclaimed #edudork with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and writes for We Teach We Learn.

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