Some Lessons I Learned as a First Year Admin
By DeAnna Miller
Last year I was given the opportunity to put my Educational Leadership degree to use.
I was offered an assistant principal position at a charter school in Louisiana. After five years as an Instructional Coach (and all the coursework of my Master’s in Educational Leadership), I felt I was more than ready for this move.
I figured I had five years of school-based leadership, had helped teachers improve their craft, and had watched students grow as I worked with teachers analyzing data and student work.
The unfortunate truth? I wasn’t even close to being ready for what I experienced my first year in administration.
Right from the start, I realized that this first year as an AP was going to be far different from anything I’d experienced as just part of a leadership team. I was not only responsible for growing teachers, analyzing data, and improving student performance, but I was also now responsible for student discipline, interacting with angry middle school parents and teachers, and playing mediator between staff members as well as among staff and parents.
These interactions (and struggles) helped teach me the value of building relationships, leading from the front, and effective time management.
I once wrote a personal blog on the value of building relationships with teachers in my then-role as an Instructional Partner (Jim Knight’s term for ‘coach’). Of course, this ideal carries over to administration. Nothing can replace taking the time to build relationships with staff, students, and parents.
The key is to recognize when to transition from the “relationship building” stage to the “getting down to business” stage. Looking back at my first administrative year, I realize that I spent entirely too long in the friendlier “building relationships” stage — so much so that when it was time for me to be a little tougher and get down to business, it took some of my teachers by surprise.
I was so worried about coming in (from another state!) and changing things too fast, that I missed opportunities to make effective change quickly. That said, I know that if I hadn’t taken some time out to build lasting relationships, none of the change that I did eventually implement would have been very sticky. It was the balance that was missing.
Leading from the Front
This is a military term that I’ve definitely come to value this year. In the Army we were taught that we should never ask our troops to do anything we are not willing to do ourselves. This is definitely true in school leadership.
If I am asking teachers to be on duty, then I should also be willing to do duty. If I am asking teachers to have hard conversations with parents and students, then I need to be having those hard conversations first. Simon Sinek best sums this ideal up in his book, Leaders Eat Last, when he writes, “Leadership sets the tone and the conditions. If you get the conditions right, the organization thrives.”
By leading from the front, administrators help build relationships and trust. You let your staff know that you are a team and that you are all in it together. A culture of trust among the administration and staff directly leads to a culture of trust among teachers, students, and parents.
I struggled with time more than anything else this past year. Everything seems to be important when you are an administrator – teacher discipline concerns, building safety, parents’ concerns, building instructional practices…the list has no bottom!
It can become overwhelming very quickly. There were many times this year when I felt like I was drowning in all that I had to do. Fortunately, I had a great support team of experienced leaders who helped me evaluate and triage the demands on my time.
My online and paper calendar became my best friends, and I learned to really say “no” for the first time professionally. I learned to prioritize items into three major categories: Student and School Safety, Discipline, and Instruction. Since these were our three major areas of focus at my school, if something didn’t fall into these categories, I put it on the back-burner.
I even learned to prioritize within each category. By learning these things and managing more effectively, I found I was able over time to focus on those tasks that directly impacted student learning and was able to enjoy my year a little more.
Gaining Perspective on ‘Instructional Leadership’
When I first decided to go into administration, I really imagined myself as an instructional leader. Someone who was there first and foremost to help teachers cognitively engage students and by doing so, reduce unwanted behaviors and encourage academic growth. I saw my future administrative self as a person who would be able to help guide a whole school toward helping students and teachers feel and be more successful.
Reality was far different from the fantasy in those first weeks and months. But I never lost sight of my true professional desire. Once I was able to reflect on my “rookie” practices and restructure my priorities, I quickly began to enjoy the major reason I wanted to go into administration – to help more students realize their potential.
Why I Plan to Stick with Administration
Here is the good part. As an administrator, I am able to interact with students in ways that I haven’t been able to since being a classroom teacher. I’m also able to get to know a lot more students than just the few who visited my classroom every day (something I hadn’t really been able to do as an Instructional Coach).
I’m able to share kids’ excitement about learning new things, their disappointment in not getting the grades they wanted, and even their fears of what the future holds. I’m able to joke, laugh, cry, and dream with them.
This past year, I learned how to move among the 600+ students I worked with every day, reaching more young people than I ever could have in the classroom. I came to see that my dream of being a positive impact on my school wasn’t just a dream.
As the school year came to a close, and I looked back at all the growth I accomplished, I was grateful for this first year as an administrator. Sure it had its ups and downs, but I know that I have grown both professionally and personally.
I am ready for the next chapter and welcome the challenges I will face in the new school year, when I’ll be returning to Alabama and my former school district as an A.P. in a K-5 school.
Every day is a day of learning, and as long as I am learning and growing, I am truly happy. For as Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”
DeAnna Miller (@DMiller0502) has been a teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal during her 10+ year career in education. She worked as a middle school English teacher and Instructional Partner before shifting into administration. This fall, she will be the Assistant Principal at Holly Hill Elementary in Enterprise, Alabama where she has also previously taught and coached. Miller also writes for the Alabama Best Practices Center Blog.