In a Thursday afternoon session at the 2018 National Principals Conference in Chicago, Tanya Dockery, principal of Timber Ridge Elementary School in Killeen, Texas, discussed the challenges of being a first-year principal.
She said she started the year with passion and enthusiasm — noting, “I’m an elementary person, so I’m full of enthusiasm” — but then reality set in. After being prepared for data digs and innovative learning and feeling that everything was going to happen all in that first year, she often found herself sweeping the cafeteria after student assemblies.
“This is what they didn’t tell you in grad school,” she joked.
“I knew data. I knew it,” she said in reference to the sense that she would take her school from good to great quickly. She also thought she knew about having school culture, and about leadership.
But beyond her earlier revelation about helping sweep the cafeteria, she also noted that a major reality check came when a hurricane hit Texas the day before school started, damaging the roof over the main hallway. Students couldn’t go through it as a result of the need for repairs.
There were also changes brought on by the Every Student Succeeds Act, requiring her to build a campus plan she didn’t necessarily agree with. And she noted that being a principal means also sometimes living with components of the existing campus plan from a predecessor, realizing that not all teachers are happy to greet a new principal, and that not all parents are happy about the decisions of the prior principal and are cautious.
But she had a great mentor principal from a school across town, and a district-level executive director assigned to oversee her school. "I had a lot of support, but you have to know where to find it,” she said.
Attendees discuss challenges and solutions
With that, Dockery turned things over to those in attendance, asking them to form groups at their tables and pull blocks from assorted Jenga games, each labeled with various first-year principal challenges to discuss. At my table sat Chris Renner, principal at Delaware Trail Elementary School in Indiana, and Travis Fanning, Carla Brosnahan and Sheri McCaig — assistant superintendents from the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas.
Below are the issues they discussed.
Master schedule changes
At the elementary level, these challenges aren't necessarily that deep. But parents might not want their children moved — they like the teacher they have. In some cases, it's best to start by switching around the last students who registered that year. That scenario is an easier explanation for parents when enrollment necessitates that new classes be added. Beyond that, the class assignment changes can be randomized so nobody feels like they specifically moved a student. But administrators must also be wary that they run the risk of creating a class with a lot of new students with a new teacher, with no one being familiar with the school or area.
Missing curriculum and resources
Principals should do an audit of resources at the beginning of the year to find out if school resources, like an entire set of class reading books, are missing. Sometimes, people leaving a school might take a “parting gift,” so there has to be a check-in or accountability system to discourage and address that, as well.
Bathrooms break down
The first step here, of course, is to call maintenance and put some cones out to block entry. But principals must also identify where the next closest bathroom is. “And cancel the burritos for lunch,“ Renner joked.
Lawnmower crashes into parents’ car
This scenario will also require a call to maintenance, but in this instance to discuss the incident. Police must also be called to get a statement. Principals may also want to review any parking lot cameras to make sure the car was actually damaged on campus.
An alternative version of this scenario, where a lawnmower throws a rock into a school window and breaks it, was also discussed.
Death of student/staff member:
Regardless of the manner of death or where it occurred (on- or off-campus), having grief counselors available is perhaps the first and foremost concern. With a staff member, administrators have the added challenge of figuring out how to cover for everyone so they can attend the funeral. People particularly close should be encouraged to take a personal day on their own. Reaching out to the central office is also key, because principals don’t have to walk that path alone, and other campuses can often offer help and support.
Honorary events for the families can also be tricky. Naming a building in honor of a deceased student or staff member might not be the best move with the amount of renovation or entirely new school construction that can occur, and planting a tree can backfire if it's later removed for new construction. Or if the tree itself just doesn't survive after being planted.
Teacher not coming to work
This one, Fanning stressed, is all about "documentation, documentation, documentation." If it’s something that’s out of character, you need to have a conversation about what’s going on and let them know that assistance is available for whatever they’re experiencing. But administrators must also bring it back to the point that the teacher is needed by their peers and the students. It it’s a consistent pattern, the documentation becomes key. Renner says he sends a follow-up email after the initial discussion, and that the faculty/staff member must know where the line is.
Teacher not supervising students
Similar to the issue of a teacher not coming to work, this one is all about having a conversation to stress that supervision is necessary for safety, for example, because teachers are liable for those students when they’re at school. “What would the police do if a parent left a 5-year-old to fend for themselves?” Renner asked.