Lebon "Trey" D. James III & David E. DeMatthews Provide Advice for New Principals: The 4 Things to Focus on First

Originally published in Education Week on September 20, 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to high rates of teacher and principal turnover, intensive student-support needs, and significant disruptions in school districts and communities. Now more than ever, new principals will need to be proactive in cultivating the professional skills, expertise, and dispositions to lead, given the prevailing uncertainty in public education.

From our own experiences leading schools and preparing future school leaders, we believe new principals should proactively focus on four areas of learning: job, school, community, and district.

1. Learn your job. First-time principals likely have experience as assistant principals, but taking over a campus amid a pandemic comes with a significant learning curve. To shorten the curve, principals cannot wait for or even expect that their district will provide them with a high-quality mentor. Instead, principals should create a list of potential mentors who are knowledgeable about the day-to-day work of principals, understand the different elements of schools, and have a proven track record of success.

Early in the school year, principals should consider selecting a mentor who can provide regular, nonevaluative feedback and guidance. For instance, the mentor may schedule a yearlong planning session to discuss month-to-month action items that a new principal may not consider or the mentor may observe how the principal facilitates various types of meetings and provide targeted coaching on meeting facilitation.

In our experience, having an unbiased and supportive mentor can help a new principal recognize their talents and assets so they can be productive right away. A mentor can also help the principal identify their areas of growth, which can be cultivated over time or supplemented by other campus administrators or teacher leaders.

Mentors can also validate the principal’s experiences with school leadership and offer support in implementing priorities. Mentors can be intentional questioners that provide guidance on how to navigate difficult situations, expand your professional network, and provide you with resources to develop your tool kit.

2. Learn your school. First-time principals will need to quickly learn the history, standard operating procedures, and strengths and areas of growth for their campus. To quickly learn, principals will need to prioritize one-on-one meetings and small-group discussions with all campus stakeholders, including custodians, secretarial staff, attendance clerks, teachers, and counselors.

“Principals are more likely to thrive when they are knowledgeable about their central-office staff and have strong networks of support.”

Moreover, principals will need to gain insights about curriculum, assessment, instruction, and interventions from lead and veteran teachers as well as special education and bilingual education teachers. These insights will allow principals to respond to problems, identify and utilize talent where it is needed, and build capacity for individual teachers who are struggling.

For example, many teachers possess a wealth of institutional and instructional knowledge. Auditing staff expertise through one-on-one meetings and focus groups can allow the principal to gain insight into common challenges and potential teacher-leader experts that can help build schoolwide capacity.

3. Learn your district. First-time principals may or may not be new to the district. Regardless, principals are more likely to thrive when they are knowledgeable about their central-office staff and have strong networks of support.

Research focused on novice principals often reveals that they spend too much time on mundane and unimportant tasks. They are also likely to worry extensively about various aspects of their campus community. New principals who proactively learn their district can improve their time management and lower their stress levels by reaching out to appropriate district contacts when they are in need.

For example, new principals can collaborate with district-level instructional specialists. These specialists can offer support coordinating professional development opportunities based on student data, instructional need, or teacher interest. The additional support from district personnel allows principals to focus on other priorities.

4. Learn your community. First-time principals are likely to find that their campus lacks adequate resources and capacity to meet the diverse needs of all students, especially amid a pandemic and persistent racial and economic inequities. They would be wise to immediately work with school staff and parents to identify assets within the community that can provide support, resources, and essential insights into the lived experiences of students and families.

For example, the campus parent/teacher organizations are instrumental in promoting community involvement, fundraising to enhance student experiences, and facilitating parent/community partnerships with schools. Many local businesses partner with school PTOs to fundraise for student supplies, learning experiences, and beautification projects for schools.

Every new school year is an opportunity for all principals, veteran and new, to focus on their job, the campus and community they serve, and their district. Principals should proactively seek out and invest in mentorship to promote their development, develop greater awareness of stakeholder needs, leverage partnerships with district leadership, and work with their campus families and communities to develop a collective network of individuals working collaboratively to enhance student outcomes.

Lebon “Trey” D. James III is a doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin and a public school elementary principal in San Antonio. David E. DeMatthews is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously, he was a high school history and government teacher, a middle school administrator, and a district administrator.