Five Lifesaving Lessons from My First Year as Principal
With very little time to prepare for my first school year as principal, I quickly realized we had to do some things differently to move Poughkeepsie High School – which has been underperforming -- forward. Facing these challenges head-on, I learned some very important lessons over the course of that first year.
1. You’ll never get far without establishing truly collaborative teams.
We started by working on our literacy program. It was definitely a team effort. We set up interdisciplinary teams to implement rollouts of our new literacy strategies throughout the year, department by department. For example, as we began to look at our data and really hone in on the skills that our students were lacking, we realized that they needed a lot of work on inference. We asked all of our department chairs to go back to their individual departments and find out what inference looked like in their classrooms. We worked on getting everyone involved in developing that one key skill.
2. One of my most important roles as a principal is to mentor teacher leaders.
As we say in our building, the answers are in the room. I turn all my faculty meetings into professional learning opportunities. We see pockets of success throughout the building and we ask those teachers to share what they are doing at a faculty meeting. We ask them to be the leaders that we want to see. I think that teachers often look to us to bring in outsiders to teach them skills that some of their colleagues already have. So we draw upon the faculty and staff that we have in our building and ask them to become the professional developers for their colleagues and to share the successes that they’ve had.
3. Engaging all stakeholders in our vision for the school is essential.
When I first came to the school, we had to look very closely at our vision and mission statement. I think having that conversation and making everyone feel like they were a part of the vision gave people a lot more buy-in which, in turn, helped to change the climate at the school. It turned around the morale of the building and everyone started trying to work together and hold each other accountable for what we said that we wanted our school to look like.
4. As a leader, I must demand accountability from my staff and myself.
When we started implementing the new literacy initiatives in our school, I asked all of the teachers to give me three pieces of student work—ones that they would rate high, medium, and low. I provided feedback for that work using the common rubrics we had created. I have a LOT of visibility in the building—popping into various classrooms during what we call our instructional rounds. I always share notes about what I observe in each classroom and pass along any queries that I have. I think that when you are an instructional leader it is very important to be extremely visible and to regularly monitor instruction, review student work, and have plans in place for quickly addressing any problems I may notice in the classroom.
5. I’ll never make it through the day if I don’t prioritize all of my commitments.
I look at how things need to happen. With organization and planning, I create a schedule for my day with set times for certain activities. That way, I make sure I provide the leadership my school needs without feeling overwhelmed since I also have to make sure that I’m meeting state mandates. I need to have the right people on my team so that I can delegate tasks and responsibilities as necessary. As Jim Collins says in the book Good to Great, you have to make sure you have the right people in the right seat who are doing the right thing.
To hear more from Phee Simpson about her approach to school leadership, click to access the replay of a recent webinar she participated in with Education Week (registration required).