HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
May 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 8

Principal Connection / How to Start on a High Note

author avatar
Plan now to make your teachers' return in August ultra-positive.

LeadershipSchool Culture
Beginnings are important. At a dinner, sporting event, or other gathering, how things start frames perceptions and behaviors. An unfriendly greeting can affect the remainder of the evening; a team that begins by scoring creates a surge of momentum. That's true, too, for teachers' perceptions when they return to school after their summer hiatus. Those days of professional development before students arrive can set a positive tone for the school year—and May isn't too soon to start planning how to make this happen next year.
Administrators need to begin by ensuring that everything is in place to support their teachers. If not, little things can become big things—and that's never good. Once, when I was teaching, my class's textbooks didn't arrive until October. I still felt the effects of that delay at the school year's end. Good intentions aren't enough if classrooms aren't ready to go on day one; an apology from a publisher or the maintenance department doesn't help teachers prepare or students learn.
Beyond that basic advice, here are some things I did as a principal to give those pre-school-starting weeks a supportive and energizing feel.

Provide Ample Time to Prepare Classrooms

One constant across all schools is that teachers want a lot of time to get their classrooms ready. They need to review student records, work with colleagues, and decorate classrooms. So whatever amount of time we set aside for teachers to be at school before kids arrive, I always left half that time unscheduled for teachers to use as they pleased. But I still knew that, regardless of how much time they had, it wouldn't feel like enough.
Sometimes, teachers can go overboard in preparing their classrooms. More than once I learned that a teacher spent an entire weekend "getting my room ready." To reduce the amount of hours teachers need to feel ready, you may want to encourage them to think differently about what "preparing the classroom" means. There is merit in students viewing a classroom as our learning space, not simply as Mr. Migneco's or Miss Green's classroom. If we want students to have ownership of their learning, we need to give them some ownership of where they learn. Why not leave some of the bulletin boards or hall spaces empty so students can be involved in their design and creation? Eliciting student input can be a great way to establish classroom procedures and expectations in a very inclusive way.

Give Teachers Input—and Inspiration

Just as students benefit from participating in decorating their classrooms, teachers should have input into what happens on those days before students arrive. You may want to send a survey that asks teachers what was effective last August and what they feel they need this year. Or host a voluntary meeting for teachers to share their thoughts about this time, then incorporate their ideas as you plan.
My routine was that each August, I met with each team of teachers, going over student profiles, talking about the focus for the year, and asking how I might be helpful. I also scheduled time for teachers of adjacent grades or classes to meet so that this year's teachers could learn what happened last year. It's important that this information doesn't bias the next year's teachers or preclude something they want to try—students change and perceptions differ. But it's a mistake not to try to learn from experience and create continuity.
The time preparing for the arrival of students should be learning time. I focused any full-group meetings on what teachers could do to improve. One effective technique was to ask each teacher to identify and describe the teacher who had most made a difference for them when they were in school. Invariably, the descriptors were consistent: Difference-making teachers were remembered as caring, holding high expectations, and taking the time to get to know students. They had a sense of humor and met with students before or after school or during lunch. "She believed in me" or "He knew that I could succeed" were frequently heard comments.
I then asked teachers to think about what they could do this year so that, in the future, their students would make these same comments about them, and to share their strategies in small groups. (In retrospect, I wish I'd reminded teachers of these traits throughout the school year, by posting them in the lounge or mentioning them in my staff bulletins.)

Talk Down Perfectionism, Talk Up Caring

I also talked about the importance of distinguishing between excellence and perfection. We all want to be perfect in every area we pursue, but that's simply not going to happen, and that unrealistic aspiration creates stress. Rather, we need to identify those areas in which it's just fine to settle for excellence—or maybe even for doing OK.
I reminded everyone that we must take care of ourselves and our colleagues. The term compassion fatigue ("the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time," according to Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary) is relevant to educators. Sometimes teachers give students so much emotional support that they have little left for themselves. We must listen to our bodies—and our friends—so we can maintain our strength, and we must look out for the wellbeing of our teammates.
Finally, compassion fatigue can apply to principals, too. We need to make sure that we remain strong while we look out for everyone else's welfare. I suggest that you identify a trusted colleague with whom you can share successes and frustrations—and maybe pursue a fun hobby that doesn't have anything to do with school. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint. Having a supportive colleague and a meaningful distraction will be helpful to you.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Leadership
Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader
Naomi Thiers
in 22 hours

undefined
The Principal as a Blesser, Not a Stressor
Salome Thomas-EL
in 22 hours

undefined
Leading from Your Core Values
Elena Aguilar
in 22 hours

undefined
Leading with Empathy
Brittany Hogan
in 22 hours

undefined
Making Emotions Matter for Leaders
Juan-Diego Estrada
in 22 hours
Related Articles
Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader
Naomi Thiers
in 22 hours

The Principal as a Blesser, Not a Stressor
Salome Thomas-EL
in 22 hours

Leading from Your Core Values
Elena Aguilar
in 22 hours

Leading with Empathy
Brittany Hogan
in 22 hours

Making Emotions Matter for Leaders
Juan-Diego Estrada
in 22 hours
From our issue
Product cover image 118070b.jpg
Bolstering the Teacher Pipeline
Go To Publication