In June 2015, I finished my 15th and final year as a school principal. I had spent 31 wonderful years in public education. I still loved the people I worked with. I still loved working with students. But, I was ready for a change.
One full school year later, I remain convinced that I did the right thing. However, I do have one nagging regret: I wished I could have made it last longer!
In the interest of giving someone else a chance at extending their career just a little bit longer, AND enjoying it just a little bit more, here are some ways to ensure an enduring, productive and rewarding career as a school principal:
1. Spend more time with the students!
I used to think that I spent a lot of time in the classroom, and I did. However, most of that time was devoted to performing teacher observations. While essential to improving student outcomes, observations are not the same as spending quality time with students!
What I’m talking about is spending extended time in the classroom, listening to your students and getting to know them. This means taking the time to learn about their personal interests, aspirations and challenges.
Plan ahead and schedule this time. Play an active role in student lives. Let them see you and interact with you. After all, they’re the reason we’re in this profession!
2. Take some time for yourself
When I retired, I had over 300 sick days and about 3 weeks of unused vacation time. I did this because I believed, and continue to believe, that a principal should maintain a visible presence in their school.
However, life requires balance. If you worked towards building a positive school culture, and you are surrounded by people you can trust, the school can and will survive without you for a day or two (or longer if you want to take that long-awaited trip to Tahiti). You were given vacation and sick time for a reason. Take advantage of it.
Whether you travel to distant countries, spend quality time with family or read a novel you’ve been meaning to pick up for ages you’ll return well-rested and ready for anything!
3. Empower school staff
Surround yourself with good people. Develop and share a vision with the staff and the community. This vision could be significantly improving student test scores, staff communication or all the above. Whatever it is, make sure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same end goal.
Trust in your employees. They were hired for a reason. Play to their strengths and give your staff members the freedom to work independently. So many people have good hearts and good heads! If you trust them, and they trust you, great things can happen!
4. Embrace change
No two days will ever be the same. Change is happening all around us. Whether it’s rapid advancements in technology, evolving communities or societal changes, every principal must be prepared to adapt to or even embrace any change.
When responding to change, always focus on how your actions will affect the students.
5. Reach out to peers
As principals, we live in a fishbowl with unique problems and concerns. When we attend conferences, join professional organizations or participate in online forums, we meet like-minded individuals who can shed light on our unique struggles. In those interactions, we connect to a larger community in significant ways. We can learn from one another, and we can support one another in ways that only people who live in fishbowls can!
6. Stay true to what you believe
If you’re a principal, you most likely have a belief system or vision that guides your decision-making. You also probably joined the profession to make a difference in your community, especially when it comes to student lives! And, while any good leader should be open to new ideas and change, we need to be true to our core values.
There will be some ideas and mandates that are ill-suited for our school environment. A good principal has to protect students, teachers and parents from ideas and practices that are not in the school’s or local community’s best interest.
It's clear now that the world of education requires its own unique expertise. Administrators and other educational leaders are and should be considered the experts. Schools have different goals and reasons for existing that don't easily translate from the political or corporate world. We need to become advocates for what is good and right for our students.
7. Be reflective
Take some time every week to step back and think about what you did, where you are, and where you want to go. Your reflection may take the form of a written journal or personal blog. This is your opportunity to disconnect from technology and clear your head.
Regardless of the form your reflections take, make this time a priority. Reflection guides us forward, clears our head and feeds our soul!
I wish you a long, successful and fulfilling career. I know mine was!