by Kenneth Russo, Assistant Principal, Westwood Regional Middle School
The situation I came into as a first-year administrator was extremely challenging for a variety of reasons. It may even have sent some running for the hills. However, I persevered, and can proudly say that I am still standing.
However, despite my grit and determination, there were were many bumps in the road. As I enter my second year, I believe, after having been in the frying pan, so to speak, that I can offer sound advice for new principals and assistant principals embarking on their first year. Here are some bits of wisdom from the unwise on how to make effective change:
Take time to learn the history of why things work the way they do: As wacky as things can seem sometimes, procedures and structures are in place because someone at some point believed it to be the best way. More importantly, staff members most likely “bought in” to the way things were being done, and may take offense to a sudden change. I remember we moved a ripped, cheap-looking, pleather couch from the lobby in August. It was out of place, and did not provide appropriate seating for visitors. However, this couch was a “sacred cow.” It had been donated by the PTO and the staff and student loved sitting on it. Little did we know that such a minor, obvious improvement would start us off on the wrong foot, and put some staff on the defensive. Despite being completely out of place, we would have been wise to first learn why and how the couch came to be in the lobby before discussing its removal.
Be patient with change: Outside of immediate concern for student safety or well-being, changes should be made with patience. As you begin your first year, make a list of all the things you wish to improve, upgrade, or restructure. This list could include anything from the mulch in the flower beds to the overarching curricular direction of the language arts program. Prioritize what really matters in terms of student success.
Go through the proper channels when making change: In many cases, you will be able to make change happen more quickly by sidestepping some colleagues, and/or leaving them out of the conversation–especially those who can be difficult to work with. But, it isn’t worth it. If the changes you are intending to make are ones you feel passionate about, you will want full support. The act of leaving colleagues out of the process can damage your professional reputation. It can also put your superiors in a tough spot. As a new administrator, be sure to find out who should be involved whenever change is being made. If you are making security change, did you speak to the district security director? If you are removing the second set of double doors from the breezeway, did you first consult the head of buildings and grounds? A little extra work in the beginning will earn you clout to make decisions more quickly down the line.
Don’t forget to be a person: You may feel pressure to rectify any and all procedural or policy issues as early into your tenure as possible. This is natural, as we all want things to run as close to perfect as possible. However, if you forget to be human, procedural, logistical or policy improvements will ring hollow. Balance strategic improvement with relationship building. Remember–this is a people job. Have conversations with staff about the latest Netflix show. Talk to kids about sports or video games. Talk about your own kids. Smile, joke and be available for conversation. Business is business. When it is time to be an administrator, be one, but do not overlook the importance of being a nice, enjoyable person to work with.
Remember that it is about kids!: There will be times when it may seem like you really have very little to do with students. You may get stuck behind your desk, inundated with observations, weekly bulletins and other top-down directives. Don’t become a slave to organizational tasks and paperwork. It will always be waiting for you, and there are very few emergencies in the pile. Instead, get in the hallways, cafeteria and outside for recess. Visit classrooms. Teach a guest lesson. Read aloud. Chat with students often. High-five students and talk sports with them. Smile at them. Let them know you are happy to be with them, and that they should be happy to be there. When all is said and done, these moments will be the ones that matter.
Ken currently works as an Assistant Principal at the middle school level in Westwood, New Jersey. He formerly worked for 8 years as a middle school language arts teacher for grades 7 and 8 in high-acheving school districts, and served as the chairperson for his grade level for two years. He has expertise in Reading and Writing Workshop, Balanced Literacy, and GAFE. Ken coached wrestling, track and ran chess club. You can connect with Ken on Twitter @MrRussoNation
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