Principally speaking: My letter to a first-year principal

By Beverly Joyce

What is the first and most important thing one should do as they embark on their first year as a school principal?

Dear First-Year Principal,

Congratulations! You are now the principal of a school and it’s time to step into your new leadership role. You have worked diligently and acquired an abundance of knowledge and skills that make you highly qualified for the position of campus principal. No doubt, you are more than ready to take up the reigns of leading a school after all your preparatory efforts. But if truth be known, you are probably a bit overwhelmed and even nervous at this point. Yes, I know this, because I have been there and done that. Above all, I know you want to be an exceedingly strong and competent principal who leads a highly successful campus. That said, have you considered what is the most important thing you can do for yourself and for your campus community as you take on the role of principal for the first time?

Hint: It is something I hope you will be asking your teachers to do during the school year as they work with colleagues, students, parents, and even you.

Until I “lived” as a principal, I always thought that writing about my “philosophy of education” or “philosophy of learning” to meet the requirements of an education course or to apply for a job was such a waste of time. Honestly, as educators, don’t we all hold some of the same beliefs about educating students? For example, words and phrases such as “safe and secure learning environment,” “personalized or challenging learning experiences,” or “relevant, rigorous, high-standards student learning” are commonly used among educators, and form the foundation of many school districts’ written beliefs. Yet when I became a campus administrator, one of my first “aha!” leadership moments occurred when I realized how vital my own educator beliefs, values, expectations, and philosophies were to leading my campus. I needed to be able to communicate these clearly and in a confident, positive manner in order to gain the respect and trust of my teachers, my students, and parents. Basically, I needed to know what I represented as THE campus leader in order to communicate my “message.”

As a new principal, I did not take time at the beginning of my principalship to really reflect on my educator philosophies and beliefs, my values and expectations, how I would communicate all this, or how this would impact my campus climate and the whole school community. I believe my first year as a principal would have started out more purposefully and more successfully if I had devoted time for reflection on who I was as an educator and a school principal, and what my “message” would be. Although there will be teachers, students, and parents who will question your leadership efforts, they are less likely to challenge your beliefs and expectations if you know who you are as their principal, and they clearly know what you deem important.

As a first-year principal, preparing for a new school year can be an exhilarating time. I know you may be overloaded with determining class schedules, hiring new teachers, assigning students to classrooms, sending out parent communications, planning staff development, and much more! Therefore, before you take the stage to welcome your teachers and staff to the new school year, I urge you to take time out for reflection on the following questions. From the very beginning of your principalship, you must firmly know who you are and what you represent as a principal. This is the foundation of your leadership and your campus' success.

  1. What are your beliefs as an educator?
  2. How do your beliefs align with the district’s mission?
  3. What are your campus expectations?
  4. What do you deem as most important on your campus?
  5. As a principal, what are your non-negotiables?
  6. How you are going to communicate and model what you value on your campus?
  7. How will your answers to all of the above questions affect your campus climate and school community?

To your reflection on new beginnings,

Beverly Joyce,

retired principal