What 7 principals wish they knew their first day on the job

Several K-12 school leaders shared their thoughts at the NASSP's Ignite '16 conference

The first day of any job can be stressful. This is especially true when you find yourself responsible for an entire building of students and educators.

What also rings true is that there are any number of things most people wish they had known their first day on the job. At the National Association for Secondary School Principals' 2016 Ignite conference last week in Orlando, we asked seven principals to share what they wish they had known, and this is what they had to say.

Jimmy Casas, principal at Bettendorf High School in Bettendorf, IA:

"An assigned experienced mentor to work with me as I transitioned into the principalship. 

Second, and I would categorize this as something I wasn't expecting more than I wish I would have known, but the emotional toll this job takes is enormous because you have so much information about people and you know their private lives and their personal struggles and secrets, and then you have to keep that all to yourself. I wasn't prepared for that when I walked into the job."

Glenn Robbins, principal at Northfield Community Middle School in Northfield, NJ:

"I was very fortunate to have a great mentor when I was an assistant principal. However, I did (wish) someone had pushed me to read Todd Whitaker's books earlier, attend certain conferences, read up on blog posts, and gain an understanding of design thinking earlier in my career."

Susan Kessler, executive principal at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville, TN:

"Principals operate in a fishbowl. Everybody sees everything you do. That's really hard to deal with in the beginning, and I think people try to hide from that. The quicker you can get used to that fact and be OK with that attention and be OK with the fact that means you're going to succeed in front of a big crowd, and you're going to fail in front of a big crowd. And it's really OK because you're not going to do all the right things, but if you do things for the right reasons, then things tend to work out.

That's what I wish I had known and gotten used to in the beginning, because it's intimidating. It's not just principals — leadership in general is like that. When you trip, everybody sees you fall. But more often than not, you don't trip."

Jared Wastler, assistant principal at Liberty High School in Eldersburg, MD:

"It's OK to admit you're wrong. I strongly believe that new leaders feel that admitting mistakes makes you look weak. The reality is that making mistakes makes us human and people want to work with people not perfectionists."

Derek McCoy, principal at West Rowan Middle School in Salisbury, NC:

"Build deeper and better relationships. Jimmy Casas, who wrote a book with Jeff Zoul and Todd Whitaker, has a saying that the three most important things a person can do is build relationships, build relationships, and build relationships. I always knew it was important to make teachers feel good and give them kudos when you can, and I did the typical leaving a positive note kind of thing, but that was a surface understanding. The deeper understanding is you need to build relationships.

Let's go to two extremes. If you're a teacher with poor practices or a teacher with great practices, I still need to move and improve both of those teachers. It doesn't matter if I bring cold, hard facts or data — they're going to be more willing to embrace the change if they know that, at the end of the day, I've got their back. That happens from building those relationships."

Garrick Askew, principal at Litha Springs High School in Douglasville, GA:

"You learn and grow every day, and that never stops. I'm certainly an experienced principal now — it's been 10 years that I've been doing it. I think the biggest thing in schools is relationships: relationships with teachers, relationships with parents, relationships with kids, and relationships with community stakeholders. Those are the things that really help you to make the thing go, to move the school forward. You've gotta have proper relationships in all of those areas if you're going to be successful."

Duncan McCulloch, principal at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana, CA:

"I would have loved to know how to present my first staff meeting. If there was a lesson of what to say, how to say it and what the most important topic is when addressing a new staff would be. Staring at 85-plus teachers can be a little intimidating, almost like walking into your first class as a teacher. Having a script on 'how to address your new staff as new principal' would have been genius."

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Filed Under: K12
Top image credit: Kate Schimel