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What should new school leaders do first?

5 min read


Most school districts do not hire a principal a few days before the school year begins. Principals are typically hired months before they can officially start in the district. After getting over the initial shock and excitement of being the person in charge, new school principals have to figure out what their next steps should be. Everyone is waiting to see what a leader will do first.

The longer it takes a new principal to make their first move, the more at risk they are that someone will be critical of them for not doing anything at all. It sounds unfair, especially if the new leader is still teaching or leading another building in a neighboring district, but it happens. With the right first move, a new leader can create some important relationships before they even finish their teaching duties.

What’s next?

  • First and foremost, send thank you cards for the interview and then for the job. It sounds silly but be thankful for the job. Be humble and think about servant leadership (Robert Greenleaf)
  • Secondly, make sure you create a bond with the person you are taking over for, unless of course they are being fired. Have an entrance plan and include your predecessor. They can make or break your reputation when you’re not around.
  • If the person is leaving under negative circumstances, tread carefully and don’t get caught up in talking negatively about them to the staff. Be Switzerland! No need to make enemies before you even officially begin.
  • The next step is to be as visible as possible, even if the district where you will be the principal is different from where you are presently teaching. All schools, no matter the level, have night events that take place.
  • If you want to score big points, make sure you attend at least one of the PTA meetings. This is a great venue to meet new parents and get a better understanding of the new school.

Personal experience

Seven years ago, I was hired in early April to be a principal in a neighboring school district. I was teaching second grade in a city school and had to find a balance between both positions. Fortunately for me, I was taking over for someone who was moving into the assistant superintendent role in the same district. She could not have been more supportive!

The administrative team wanted me to be successful, so my predecessor and I created an entrance plan together. Although she was staying in the district, in many ways, she was still saying goodbye to staff. I didn’t want to step on her toes and she didn’t want to prevent me from opportunities to meet new people.

One night, the PTA put on a meet and greet with me and many parents attended with their children. Actually, the line of parents and children lasted for more than three hours. It was a great venue to meet people, and my late secretary Sue stood next to me offering to help as she introduced families. It was kind of like the scene from “The Devil Wears Prada” where Anne Hathaway stood behind Meryl Streep providing her with the names of people … only Sue stood by my side.

I also visited the school during the day and my predecessor put together a schedule for me so I could spend quality time in each grade level. I ate with second-graders, had recess with third-graders, and had the opportunity to meet the whole staff. By the time I officially started the new position, I knew everyone.

In the end

Getting a school leadership position is exciting, but it’s only the beginning. It’s important that new school leaders make the effort to meet staff, students and parents before their position officially begins.

Sharon, the assistant superintendent, and Sue, our late secretary were instrumental in the success of the transition. The following are a few of the key things that Sue did for me:

  • Yearbook — Sue gave me a yearbook so I could memorize the teachers, staff and students. When I met with staff already knowing their names, they were surprised. It helped all of us create a better rapport very early in the transition.
  • Staff list — Not only did Sue give me the yearbook, but she also gave me a list of staff and the names of their spouses. As much as the staff were happy that I knew the names of their family members, I felt as though I knew them already because I memorized their names.
  • Personal days — Use your personal days to visit the school. Always check with your predecessor first, but make the effort to go to the school a couple of times while it is in session.

Servant leader

Transitioning into the role of a new school leader takes time and effort, but it will help them have a bigger impact when they officially begin the position.

Peter DeWitt is an elementary principal in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published by Corwin. He can be found at Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.