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Advice from this section has been taken from a question posted by Justin Elms of Illinois on the NASSP Assistant Principal E-Mail Discussion List. Elms announced to the group, “I have accepted a principalship for next school year at a school out of my current district. Any good advice for new principals?”

Here are some of the members’ responses:

1. Never feel pressured to make an immediate decision. Sometimes, I will let a student sit until I've thought my actions through. I've also asked for an hour or a half day when I need to get back to a parent regarding a decision. Very few decisions need to be made on the spot. —Nancy Weber, SD

2. Try to connect with a current assistant principal from within the new district if there are multiple APs. If not, try to find someone in the area who you can connect with that has familiarity with the issues and challenges within the area. —Brian Sequin, WI

3. Be very visible, listen well, and minimize comments that begin or include “back in my previous district (usually named) we did that this way...etc.” You can propose the alternate method/arrangement, but drop or minimize the reference to other locales. A good piece of advice that someone gave me and that I should have followed more closely: since only the things you say and the things you don't say can get you into trouble, be sure to plan what you say. —Paul Massman, IA

4. I would encourage you to take the time over the summer to get to know staff classified and certificated. Invite them in for a conversation and let them know the four questions you wish to ask:

  • What works really well in our school? (Yes, our—it is a togetherness thing)
  • What might need the principal’s attention?
  • What should be left alone—cultural taboos or such? (The overstuffed chair in the staff room belongs to Mr. X—leave it!)
  • What do you need from your principal or what do you need to know about me?

When you’ve taken notes about all of this, present all the data to the staff. You will be amazed at what you will learn and what they will learn about themselves. Not to steal a phrase, but you want to be transparent with this data. Trust is ephemeral, but trustworthy is a way of being. MBWA is a good thing! What? You've never heard of Management by Walking Around? Bring two pair of shoes—you've got lots to learn about the physical plan and about the teaching and kids. —John Miller, WA

5. Year One: Establish a good relationship with students, staff, and parents. Participate in everything! Watch and listen. Don't make any sudden changes because it will be perceived as harsh or judgmental of the existing culture and environment. Take a lot of notes so that you know the things that you would like to change to fit your leadership style while still acknowledging the established informal leadership in the building. Take the first year to be visible and establish good professional relationships so that the staff knows your character and the way you feel about the students. Establish a site professional development team so that they can have a voice in planning activities in the direction that you establish together.

Year Two: Implement changes gradually and consistently. Ask for feedback and make adjustments when needed (good principals understand that top-down leadership no longer works). Establish a collaborative, collegial culture. —Beverly Hutton, NJ

6. I must disagree with (the above advice). It is okay to make decisions the first year—especially if they are for the benefit of students and learning. You will of course want to build consensus around your choices. Dangerous or illegal activities require immediate action. If you wait, you may never act. There is clear data that most changes occur within the first three years of a principal’s tenure. —John Miller, WA

7. Make sure that you can trust your secretary because everyone will ask her about you, your work habits, and your perception of them, the school, and the students. —Beverly Hutton, NJ

8. I know someone else said it, but be very visible, not just during the day (and continue) all of the good habits that I would imagine you already developed.

—Chris Carrubba, NJ

Keep reading: The Beginning Principal's Tool: An Entry Plan