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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

First-Year Hurdles

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Every new principal must prepare to face misperceptions and meet crucial challenges.

When I started my first year as a principal of Gibsonville Elementary School, I felt ready to tackle any challenge. I had a unique connection to the community, having attended high school nearby, and I'd been through a four-year assistant principalship in the same district. Even so, I found myself surprised by the realities of the principalship and the hurdles that confronted me. Facing such hurdles in my first year taught me that it's not challenges that define you—it's how you respond to them.
I'm now in my second year leading Gibsonville, a school that some families have attended for years but which has recently seen an influx of many new students. As I reflect on my first year, I find myself comparing my experience to prevalent misconceptions people hold about the principalship. In hopes of making the first year more manageable for others, for each challenge discussed here, I suggest ways novice principals might respond.

Four Misconceptions

1. Everyone knows the demands of the principal's role.

New principals often have the idea that everyone understands their job. I initially presumed this myself. But in reality, many people are unaware of everything principals do on a daily basis. While I was coordinating schedules with a colleague from a partner organization, he remarked, "How busy could you be? I thought principals just sat around and gave orders to teachers."
I have a great relationship with this person and was not offended. However, the comment made me contemplate how inaccurate the public perception of school leaders often is. If community members think the way my business partner did, it's not surprising that they feel frustrated when a principal is too busy to immediately respond to a request.
Parents may share this misconception. Many parents presume that our primary responsibility is discipline, and they may not understand that a 21st century principal's primary responsibility is instructional leadership. Principals are also responsible for setting a school vision, planning instruction, managing the building, human resources, and evaluating and developing teachers' skills.
How to Respond: New principals can strengthen their working relationships with stakeholders and show stakeholders how they lead through proactive efforts and distributed leadership. Be sure to include instructional information in your parent newsletters and casual conversations at school. Also, if you empower more parents to get involved in activities like school improvement teams, parents will see you in action as an integral part of those activities. Deliberately helping others understand what you do is the only way to reshape skewed perceptions.

Jessica Bohn, principal of Gibsonville Elementary School, facilitates a discussion with teachers.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Bohn

2. You will be able to avoid comparisons to previous leaders.

Knowing how to respond when (not if) you're compared to previous principals is important. In the first year, every decision the captain makes will be compared to how the last captain ran things. We should expect these comparisons. Just as students learn by connecting new material with old experiences, so do adults.
How to Respond: Be open to discourse that compares the way things used to be with what you hope to do, trusting that productive conversation will follow. The tendency of teachers to compare previous and new administration isn't usually a bad thing. If you hear teachers say things like, "Mrs. X never thought this was a problem," a gut reaction might be to think and speak defensively. But engaging in such discussions can provide clarity about your expectations, your vision, and your leadership style. Positive direction can emerge from unexpected opportunities, including conversations about differences between new and previous administrations.

3. It feels great to be in power!

Often people who don't have the authority to make final decisions assume that principals relish the power of their role. However, being a good leader isn't about having power over others, but about instilling power in others. To lead in this way, a principal needs supportive people to turn to and discuss dilemmas with. Such support is often in scarce supply for principals, however, unless they make it happen. Even in the best districts (like mine) that provide executive coaches, professional development, and district-level support, one of the toughest parts of being a new principal is the absence of a colleague on your level and in the same building to bounce ideas off.
How to Respond: Seek out fellow principals as "think partners." Experienced principals know how important supportive peers are, so they chat with fellow leaders often. However, first-year principals might dismiss the need to get another perspective as a sign of weakness; don't fall for this misconception. Find ways to talk with helpful fellow leaders, by e-mail, phone, or professional message boards.
Collaborating with same-level colleagues daily provides support that can't be attained in a workshop. I recall a time when I needed another perspective on a situation in which a parent's viewpoint conflicted with my district's ideologies. Talking through it with another principal in my district—who was a neutral party and who understood both viewpoints and the principal's role—helped me come to a decision everyone could live with.

4. One program can solve any problem.

It's a misconception that there is a single-program solution for every problem. Most actions that successfully address a complex problem will synergize the combined efforts of multiple people, programs, and activities.
How to Respond: When you seek to solve a complex problem in your first year, use a comprehensive, layered strategy backed by a strong vision. Such an approach helped us reduce discipline infractions by 32 percent in one year, including tackling tough problems with bus behavior. We built on the hallmarks of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which our school uses, and the basic tenets of the Whole Child Initiative to engage stakeholders. We partnered with local police to bring the DARE program to Gibsonville's 5th graders. In the process, we developed a police mentoring program that provided support to our students.
I held parent meetings, student meetings, and teacher meetings centered on both positive behavior and the consequences of poor decisions. We developed individualized folders containing information on each student's bus behavior and handed them out at parent meetings. Some students were assigned a teacher buddy to help them make good decisions. This comprehensive strategy encompassed several programs, personalized to meet our students' needs.

Jessica Bohn works with a child in the classroom.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Bohn

Four Challenges

Challenges are daily fare in the principal's office. Four challenges that defined my first year stand out as likely to make the difference between surviving and thriving.

1. More negative than positive input lands in your office.

A principal's daily decisions often center on resolving problems or conflicts—among students, parents, teachers, or any combination of these. Although principals do receive positive feedback, there's an imbalance between the incoming negative and positive input, skewed toward the negative. Especially if you're the sole administrator, this imbalance can be difficult to adjust to at first. New principals are eager to make everyone happy and make a good impression. Adjusting to the need to frequently respond to frustrated parents or teachers takes a mental toll.
How to Respond: How you handle conflicts defines your professional brand. To survive, adopt a problem-solving approach. For example, if a parent calls to complain about a teacher who treats his or her child unfairly, it's important to first focus on the facts. Gather information about why the parent and child feel this way and obtain the teacher's version of what's taking place. Once you identify the source of the conflict, turn your attention toward developing specific steps to either alleviate the problem or reverse the negative perception. Focus on moving forward rather than looking back.

2. You must decide what to say—and when.

Principals make hundreds of decisions every day about what to do and what not to do. One of these decisions is whether to speak up about a particular issue or strategically wait before speaking. It's important to reflect and process information before speaking publicly.
Teachers in my district are required to create personalized plans for any student who has learning gaps. They must submit these plans, which target areas of academic need and set up intervention strategies, online and on time. As a first-year leader eager to prove myself, I wanted to make sure my teachers met the deadlines. I insisted that each teacher create a personalized education plan for each student who needed one in the first month of school. On a tight timeline, I ensured that all teachers were trained and entered their plans before the district-mandated deadline.
During a meeting with fellow principals, I noticed a form that listed a later due date than the one I'd been working toward. Without taking time to think, I drew the group's attention to the fact that I'd been given wrong information. When I was later told the date was a typo, I immediately felt embarrassed. My filter had failed me. I should've given myself time to contemplate this possibility before complaining. However, the small mishap gave me a refreshed perspective on the value of "wait time."
How to Respond: Take time to reflect on the potential effect of anything you're poised to say publicly. With the continual state of information overload, it's easy to become obsessed with the need to be efficient and overlook the need be thoughtful. With most communications, I now make a regular practice of drafting my words and looking over them again before I make any statement in public.

3. Actions can be misperceived.

Novices may hit trouble when they act in good faith but fail to anticipate how others might misperceive their actions. For instance, in my quest to support data-driven instruction, I once celebrated bright spots in our formative assessment data at a faculty meeting. The problem was, the data and names of classroom teachers were linked. My intentions were ethical—to celebrate areas of growth, promote shared responsibility for the instruction of all students, and initiate collaborative conversations. But the message several teachers received was negative: Some teachers whose students did not have good data felt demoralized in front of their colleagues. I had to reflect on whether my approach had been effective. I realized that a more effective approach would've been to share this data only in grade-level professional learning communities.
How to Respond: Practice anticipatory leadership: Try to anticipate how people in your varied constituencies might perceive your well-meaning words or actions. Minimize the chance of good intentions leading to undesirable consequences. Stakes can be high. In that meeting, I failed to anticipate that some would perceive my action as judgmental—and in situations like this, perception is reality. Fortunately, my dedicated staff moved past this misstep and remained cohesive. We still analyze data, but when results are broken down by classroom, we analyze them in grade-level communities.

4. You may be overloaded with data, but not know how to act.

Reviewing data to see where problems exist in your school won't be enough; you'll have to come up with a way to improve weak spots. A successful principal has to engage in strategic planning and allow teachers to take some risks. At the beginning of my first year leading Gibsonville, data showed that 78 percent of the kids in 5th grade were below grade level in math. I couldn't have fixed this problem if I hadn't delegated some responsibility and supported teachers' proposals to adjust instruction.
How to Respond: Get to know teachers' strengths and utilize them broadly. Allow good teachers to make instructional decisions and take calculated risks.
Several teachers came to me in the middle of my first year with a plan to provide small-group instruction to improve the5th graders' math skills. Making a few schedule modifications, I gave them flexibility to implement their ideas.
Meanwhile, some teachers also agreed to provide small-group, targeted interventions to students in a grade level different from their own during their planning time. I used assessment data to identify any students who needed additional assistance. Teachers then disaggregated data to determine what skills to teach during small-group interventions.
Both risks paid off. By the end of the year, approximately 92 percent of the 5th graders passed the state math test. Our school achieved "high growth" status in math overall.

How Districts Can Support New Principals

Although first-year principals often feel too busy to take on sustained professional development, it's crucial that they have opportunities to develop as education leaders. School district leaders can help make sure new principals get these opportunities, through these actions.
  1. Consider the principalship through the lens of fresh experience. Hold discussions with second-year principals probing what they've noticed about the role and its realities. Because of the rapid pace of change, new principals might now face different challenges than the ones novices faced just a few years ago. Getting input from second-year leaders will provide a framework for districts' leadership development activities.
  2. Provide "anticipatory PD." Craft sessions for assistant principals that involve role-playing problems and scenarios a new principal is likely to face. Assistant principals might be given a budget and an outline of conflicting viewpoints about its use; they would then have to map out a resolution that a principal could realistically create.
  3. Help principals who have a grade-level mismatch. Differentiate leadership training so it provides participants with specialized knowledge of each grade level. A complicating factor for many first-year principals is the mismatch between their prior experience and their current school setting.When I started at Gibsonville, I had school-based experiences in grades 6–16 and district-level experience in K–12. I felt confident about my ability to be an instructional leader at any level. Having never worked in a school-based position in the elementary grades, however, I had to learn the landscape and language—and adapt my leadership style accordingly. It was a revelation that my ability to explain topographic influence on local climate didn't make me an expert in early literacy—and that my teachers could teach me something.
  4. Develop networks of support. A network should include external mentors and internal go-to personnel. Through collaboration between several school systems and foundations, my district provides executive cross-regional coaches for our new principals and a network of internal support. Districts might assign each first-year leader a mentor and a separate "buddy principal," partner with local colleges that offer educational leadership programs, and provide "who-to-ask" lists for common questions.
New principals whose districts don't provide such supports can build their own networks by approaching same-level colleagues in their district or joining online communities like ASCD's EDge and networks like Twitter.

Embracing the Challenge

Today's school principal is like the CEO of a corporation, with a duty to lead the whole school in terms of vision, instructional planning, staff development, fiscal planning, and more. Synergizing the interests of all stakeholders while simultaneously being results-oriented isn't an easy task, but it's a one that I feel privileged to tackle. I love a complex challenge!

Jessica Bohn is passionate about leadership, professional learning, education and science. She has served more than 17 years in education as a professional learning consultant, director, school executive/principal, science curriculum specialist, university administrator, and science teacher.

Currently, Bohn is principal/school executive at Gibsonville Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina and adjust professor/master of social-emotional learning at National University La Jolla, California. She provides consulting services to districts, schools, and other education organizations. Her areas of expertise include adult learning and development, leadership, social-emotional learning, rigorous questioning/instruction, instructional alignment, science/STEM education, continuous improvement cycles and engaging pedagogical practices. Her work with ASCD has included several roles: Faculty member; consultant; author; presenter; emerging leader (2012); chair of the ASCD Nominations Committee; and service on other ASCD committees, such as the Principal Leadership Development Committee. She has been a panelist on the Whole Child Podcast and has authored articles in numerous publications.



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