When first getting to know a school community, it is important for a new principal to take time to learn about the culture and the history before trying to make changes. Multiple perspectives bring a well-rounded view, so hosting “meet and greet” sessions – either separate or collective – with a random sampling of the student body, parent groups and staff (especially the association building representatives) provides a critical opportunity to connect early with stakeholders who will be needed as supporters and advocates.
In a similar light, proactive conversations with these key stakeholders serve as a means to solve issues before they become problems. One strategy is to form distinct advisory groups for representative samples from your population (parents, students, faculty). Establishing norms for these meetings helps keep the dialogue focused on general topics that affect the community as a whole. Deferring personal concerns for a private forum provides an appropriate avenue where individuals can feel validated as well. Be careful to not allow these meetings to become a one-way “push” of information as this runs the risk of appearing superficial and disingenuous.
A small gesture that goes a long way is publicly acknowledging accomplishments within the school community – no matter how insignificant something may seem. Taking the time to praise teachers, coaches or advisors at a faculty meeting or to thank the custodial staff and the PTA leadership in front of a packed crowd of parents creates a culture where success is celebrated openly and expressing appreciation becomes the norm – not the exception.
The principal also can use social media to post photos and descriptions of students in various states of action. This strengthens the principal’s own visibility as the educational leader of the school and demonstrates that all activities are valued. Make sure that the small teams as well as the big ones share the spotlight. Actions like these inevitably generate a heightened school spirit and a contagious sense of camaraderie rather than a culture of individuality and competition.
Another key to building trusting relationships is recognizing that the business of education revolves around individuals, who bring their own issues and challenges to the workplace every day. There is great comfort found in a leader who genuinely cares about the people who make up the organization. Remembering a personal matter and offering support in any way possible or taking the time to wish a happy birthday or offer congratulations on a family accomplishment are just a couple of examples. Even something as simple as calling someone by his or her name exhibits how each individual is valued in the community – not only for the role the person plays, but also just for who he or she is.
Any principal in a new community should expect tests to come early and often. It is critical for a new principal to temper his or her own expectations about having all the answers, while trying to make a good impression. In reality, no one expects a new principal to have all the answers; however, the individual has to be willing to admit that and then seek to find the answers from those who would know. Perhaps more significantly, it is essential to follow up. This is also a great way to learn about the resources and supports that are available within the school and/or district.
Similarly, a willingness to accept responsibility when decisions don’t work out as planned goes a long way toward earning respect when compared to contradictory styles of avoidance, pointing fingers and laying blame elsewhere. There is not a more powerful statement in a leadership role than to say those three difficult words “I was wrong” and to make a commitment to mend whatever it is that was broken.
Building trust takes time and effort, but as the adage goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Prioritize communication and relationships above all else, and the odds are in your favor.
Dan Simon is principal of Colts Neck High School in Colts Neck, New Jersey.