Look, Listen & Learn: Reflections from my first year as a new Principal

For 19 years, I worked in the same school district. I started as a teacher, then various Instructional and Climate Support positions, and then transitioned to the role of Assistant Principal. Then last year, I started a new role as Principal in a new building and a new district. It was important to me to be intentional about listening and learning from my new community before I worked to lead them. I knew I had to become a leader in my community, so I made, “Look, Listen and Learn” my personal theme for the year. Now, “Look, Listen and Learn” has become my top advice for school leaders starting their first year as Principal. Here’s what that might look like in practice:

1. Ask questions. Take good notes.

“What’s one thing about our school that would make you mad if I changed it?”

“What’s one thing about our school that you want to keep forever?”

Asking questions that allow for open and honest discussion with my staff was important to me as I settled into my new role and leadership positions. These two questions are the most important questions I asked my staff during our very first introductions. I found time on each of their calendars to have a 20-minute opening conversation, and I let them know that we were going to share presentations with each other to better learn about one another. I had a PowerPoint to share with them about me and anything they would need to know, and I encouraged them to make one about themselves to share with me. It was a great warmup to these core questions. Besides getting their insights, preferences and background about our building, these questions set the tone for our communication moving forward. It told my team that openness, honesty and directness were important to me, and that they could expect openness, honesty and directness from me.

But this exercise, and my team’s responses, also reinforced my theme. I was not showing up new to the school and district to radically change it in my first year, but I was there to listen and hear what is important to my staff. I had not been brought in as a fixer for some kind of emergency; no one had asked me for that. Instead, I kept asking questions and filled up a notebook that I carried with me every year. It’s full of student notes, parent notes, conference notes – all kinds of notes – and I go back to the notebook to visit the insights and lessons from the day. The point is this: If you don’t ask, you won’t have the information that you need to make the best decisions for your building.

2. Don’t just say who you are – show it.

Even though I was just getting to know my team, I had already spent a lot of time getting to know myself, what I value most, and what I bring to this role. That meant I also had to show my new team who I was and the ways I could be counted on in our day to day interactions. I’m always saying this: “If you don’t tell me what the issue, question or concern is, then I can’t fix it.” If you don’t tell me, I don’t know. And I need to know in order to get it done. But over the course of the year, I still had to show my staff that I meant it – and that I would follow through on their behalf.

For example, one day, I asked our custodian if he needed anything. At first, he responded with, “Oh nothing, we’re good.” But I kept listening and realized that he was waiting on a specific repair to get done – but our repair person had not arrived yet. So he was actually unable to do what he’d set out to do that day. I paused our conversation, followed up with our repair company over email and later that same afternoon, someone was able to come in and fix the machine he’d been waiting on. Whether it’s sending an email like that, wiping down tables in the cafeteria or staying outside with the students so that an educator can have 20 minutes back in their day, I had to demonstrate to my staff that I was available for it.

3. Restart (then restart again).

I’m a human, so I make mistakes. So, when someone said to me, “You’re a Principal, you shouldn’t make mistakes,” that didn’t sit right with me.  As I mentioned, my theme for year one was to look, listen, and learn – and mistakes are part of the learning process. It’s no different for our students; it’s no different for any other role in our work lives or our home lives; and it’s no different for any human being. We make mistakes. But we can also create the opportunity to restart and get clear on how to move forward as a team.

One example of that process of starting over was creating our core values together as a staff. We wanted more of a foundation for how we were going to problem solve, make decisions and bring ourselves back to the same page. So we sat together, and I asked everyone to think of three of their core values and write each of them down on a separate sticky note. Then we put them all into a chart and found the four core values that stood out. And those were honesty, respect, communication and consistency – and that was that. We created a list that we all believed in and that we could all say we wanted, and so that was what we were going to do. Those values are now a part of our school flyers, our family, student and staff handbooks – everywhere. And that’s the foundation that we can always return to and that I always refer to when there’s an opportunity to restart.

“You listened, and you actually heard what I had to say.”

“You listened, and you responded.”

“You listened, and you acted to help.”

That’s some of the feedback I heard more and more as my first year went on, which was phenomenal for me because that’s exactly what I set out to do. Now, heading into my second year, I’m excited to Evaluate and Expand – which is my new theme. I have the benefit of what I’ve learned from the feedback that I received and the data that we’ve collected at school. Now we’re set up to review that data and build on our successes, and I can continue to show my team who I am.

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