Monday, October 21, 2013

It's a Blessing Of Challenges to Become a Principal...

Despite seven years in various assistant principal roles, I don't think I was ever fully prepared to become a middle school principal. The differences between the two jobs are numerous. I've sometimes compared the roles of the principal vs. the assistant principal as the restaurant owner (who buys the supplies and food, designs the layout, handles the finances) to the restaurant manager (reservations, delivery of the meals, overseeing the staff). Essentially, it's the big picture vs. day-to-day operations. Two completely different jobs with very few job-alike opportunities.

So the shift into the principal role just over 15 months ago at an amazing middle school in West San Jose on the border of Los Gatos was one of many challenges. In retrospect, I'd recommend three key growth avenues for all assistant principals who one day want to become a site principal.

1) Attend every local and not-so-local conference you can. 

Luckily, at my current middle school during my assistant principal years, I had the pleasure to work with an amazing, dynamic principal who was heavily-involved in local (and now national) educational events. On those random Fridays after the longest week imaginable, my principal would coerce me into attending the local ACSA event. Here, I would listen to amazing speakers, socialize with other local administrators, and soak in every bit of information made available. My former principal also encouraged me to attend the annual ACSA conferences and allowed me to co-present with him at the Philadelphia ASCD conference in 2011. These are opportunities that would not have availed myself to if not for his influence and support. As a second year principal, I've now furthered my former principal's inclusion methods by inviting eight other staff members (7 teachers and my new assistant principal) to the upcoming ACSA conference, held locally this year in San Jose. 

2) How your staff sees you as an Assistant Principal isn't how they'll view you as the Principal - Be ready for the change

Again, I'm quite fortunate to have one of the most dedicated and talented group of teachers I've ever had the pleasure of working alongside at my current school. I walk into classrooms and am dazzled by the class lessons. We have teachers on the cutting edge of technology; teachers who are presenters on the new trends in curriculum. If my staff were eligible for the middle school draft in the Bay Area, I actually believe we'd have more "first round picks" than any other school -- they are that amazing, both during their lessons and even outside the classroom as they spend countless hours to prepare for the next day, week, and semester. My relationships with these amazing teachers has changed significantly during my switch of offices fifteen months ago. 

No longer am I seen as the compassionate disciplinarian, able to bend a black and white rule into the gray as necessary for a student in crisis. Gone are the days where my jovial smile was sufficient to ease a staff member's worries. Simply put, I'm no longer relied upon by our staff for day to day operational events, whether it is relieving them as the classroom teacher for a few moments while they meet with a student outside or being available at the drop of a dime to listen to their current parent-student-teacher predicament. As much as I enjoyed those days, my role as a principal is much, much different. Expect to be able to recite your "five year plan" on your first day. Be expected to balance an overloading of meetings, both locally at your site and with the district office as well. You will need to re-balance every part of your daily routine. The challenging part is how these changes will affect your relationships with your staff members who relied on you for "assistant principal type" responsibilities. You will have to form new and sometimes not-as-jovial relationships with your staff members... and it's a strong shift from your stature as the assistant principal.

3) Relationship aren't the only thing but it's the most important thing.

Relationships are the key to your tenure as an assistant principal and even more important during your tenure as the principal. One thing that I've treasured during my time as the assistant principal are the 20 minutes prior to and after the school day. These are my "parking lot hours" where I'll help staff members with the sometimes challenging flow of traffic in our parking lot. Over the past 3+ years, I've set a regular routine of moving cars along while escorting our students to and from their vehicle. Quick smiles to our amazing parent community as they drop or pick up their students, a pat on the back as student arrive and a reminder to enjoy their evening as they depart, and casual conversations with the assisting staff members are all part of my morning and afternoon practices. This parking lot experiences are not only my favorite parts of my day but it's also the time where I'm building relationships with parents, students, and staff members. 

As an assistant principal, a strong relationship with a student parlays into a successful parent phone call and runs parallel in supporting your colleagues in the classroom. As the principal, you are further removed from these daily discipline incidents and rely on your new assistant principal to successful handle and support these relationships. Every brunch and lunch is spent with the students to make these connections.and provide support for any sudden, urgent student issues. Today, I spent half of the lunch period walking laps with a special needs 8th grader who had informed me earlier in the day that he was having a rough day. While I don't believe that a simple 20 minutes of a walk-and-talk salvaged this student's day, I'm hopeful that our chat about his favorite scary movies (I believe he is deciding between one of the 27 Godzilla movies and a Friday the 13th part 5 as his favorite scary movie) helped him survive the day without any behavioral breakdowns. Again, it's about the relationships and it's ten times more important as the principal to manage these moments despite ten times fewer opportunities to do so.

All in all, it has been an amazing 15 months as a middle school principal. Our school was recognized last year for Schools to Watch as well as Distinguished School awards. This year, we've added Project Lead the Way and digital journalism classes to our already amazing line-up of elective opportunities. The professional growth our staff has and continued to show is further transforming our school into a model middle school that supports students during these challenging early teenage years. It's a blessing to be the principal... but it was a challenging transition nonetheless.


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