By Mary Johnston, EdD

Welcome to the BEST job you will ever have. The role of the principal is mission critical in our world of education. As I reflect on what new principals need to focus on in their first year, I think about the many principals I have hired and supported so far in my career. The key word that continues to come to mind is FOCUS. Everything you do must be rooted in focus that is based on clarity and strategic thinking. As a principal, you manage many areas that begin with safety and security, yet a large part of that management is your role in setting up your campus for learner success with a focus on instruction.

Over the last 30 years, I have seen many leaders get off course in the weeds when they do not utilize all the ingredients to ensure success. There are three ingredients that contribute to success in the first year and beyond. The first ingredient is building a culture of respectful relationships. The second ingredient is setting up structures and routines. The final ingredient is utilizing the PLC (professional learning community) process on your campus. Your future success is tied to incorporating these ingredients consistently into the amazing work you will do for learners as their new principal.

Ingredient #1: Building a Culture of Respectful Relationships

“It’s your choice how you want to live each day.  Allow others to see the best version of you today and, in turn, you may just inspire them to bring their best today as well.” – Jimmy Casas

Know that when you lead with passion and live with purpose, everyone notices. During my elementary principal years, which I affectionately call my rock star years, I was fortunate to support some of the very best educators in the state. As a principal, you can be a rock star to your entire learning community. They look to you to build a culture of respectful relationships, which makes schools better for both the educators and the learners. Once you realize this, everything becomes clear. Your actions and words matter, and they ALL look up to you. Part of the process of becoming a rock star is your behavior and character. Everyone is watching you. Every action matters: every hug, every kind word, and every smile combine to create the profound reputation and responsibility that encompasses being the PRINCIPAL. With the power of the position comes great responsibility in which relationships are key.

To build this culture of respectful relationships, you must create an environment of respect by modeling expectations. As the principal, you model your expectations for how you treat each other. You celebrate the teachers who are doing the right work and that positive celebration creates a chain reaction.

When building your culture of respectful relationships, your word really is your bond. If you say you are going to do something, you must do it. For example, I have seen principals at the beginning of the year tell their educators that they will be in their classrooms weekly. While this is a common expectation, it is imperative to actually BE in classrooms. No matter what it is, when you don’t do what you say you are going to do, you lose credibility immediately and not only is it difficult to regain, but you will also see that ingredients #2 and #3 are more difficult to establish without it.

Ingredient #2: Setting Up Structures and Routines

“The fundamental purpose of school is learning, not teaching.” – Rick DuFour

There is nothing haphazard about the principalship. You must set up structures and routines that encompass both building management and instructional leadership. When I think of the art of principaling, I liken it to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Building management is safety, food, and water, which translates into systems for safety and security. The air conditioning needs to work and teachers need their materials.

Within both building management and instructional leadership, systems of communication must be set up and followed to ensure maximum effectiveness and to reiterate a focus on learning. Clarity in these structures and routines is respectful to the educators in your building. For example, systems of communication involve internal and external customers. Think about how you are communicating with your parents. Do you send your newsletter out at the same time each week? Do they know what to expect? It’s not too late to get in a routine and communicate with them.

When you think about your internal customers, think of your educators and learners. Educators thrive in a climate of clarity and consistency. Send them their weekly information at the same time and do not wait until the last minute. Always make sure that in your communication with your educators, you have a focus on instruction.

Be present in the classrooms and provide feedback to educators. Feedback helps educators become better and work to be their best, and learners ultimately win.Always make sure to be positive and non-judgmental in your feedback. Comment on observable behavior, which is what you see. When you describe what you see, there is no judgment in that. You can wonder and notice without hurting the relationship you built with Ingredient #1. Just remember that everything you do should be centered on the purpose of school: learning.

Ingredient #3: Utilize and Believe in the PLC Process

“The fact that teachers collaborate will do nothing to improve a school.  The purpose of collaboration can only be accomplished if the professionals engaged in collaboration are focused on the right things (DuFour, 2016, p. 91).”

As a principal, your focus is on learning. In PLCs, educators demonstrate their commitment to helping all students learn by working collaboratively to address the following critical questions:

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they have learned?
  3. What will we do if they don’t learn? What systematic process is in place to provide additional time and support for students who are experiencing difficulty?
  4. What will we do if they already know it?

“Instructional leadership is not about improving teachers; it is about creating the conditions where teachers can improve themselves (Steele & Whitaker, 2019, p.3).”

You set the tone for the priorities on your campus when you communicate that you believe in a collaborative culture and professional learning communities. The structures you put in place in your school must involve time and support to work together with your educators with the focus around learning. Once you decide on your structures for collaboration, such as when you will meet each week, stick to it. The most effective leaders maintain consistency throughout the year and follow through on what they say they will do. Maintaining all year takes effort. The PLC Process is a journey and is continuous. Your first year you are working to empower your staff with best practices, developing that muscle memory. You will have to review this regularly year after year. This is a process that requires shared leadership and ownership. You don’t have to go at it alone! Just like teachers visit each other’s classrooms, you can go visit other campuses and their PLCs.

I wish you the best as you take the ingredients of building a culture of respect, setting up structures and routines and utilizing the PLC (professional learning community) process on your campus. Remember you are not alone, work with your team and stay the course. I believe to be a successful, happy principal, your FOCUS on the right work will make all the difference! Again, welcome to the BEST job ever!

Dr. Mary Johnston is the Chief Academic Officer of Elementary Schools in Rockwall ISD. She also serves as an adjunct professor in university principal preparation programs.

Casas, J. (2017). Culturize: Every student, every day, whatever it takes. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Dufour, R., Dufour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Solution Tree Press.

Johnston, M., Mejia, L., White, P., & Pugh, M. (2022). The Right Thing Right Now: How to Approach the 1st Year Principalship. TEPSA Summer Conference Presentation.

Steele, D., & Whitaker, T. (2019). Essential truths for principals. Routledge.

TEPSA Leader, Fall 2023, Vol 36, No 4

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The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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