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School Principals at Work—Sage Advice for New Principals

Principals lead schools in preparing students for successful lives.  They are expected to be leaders and guide administrators through vision, instructional leadership, data analysis and planning.  It seems pretty clear and defined, right?  Yet, most often, if you ask veteran principals if they were prepared to become a principal, they will say “I thought I was until I found myself sitting in that chair.”  That answer doesn’t mean they weren’t adequately trained and didn’t have sufficient teaching experiences or internships.  It simply means comprehending the significance and complexity of the principalship isn’t something you can fully appreciate until you have walked in the shoes of the principal.

A photo of a wall in a classroom at STAR Academy - PS 63 in New York City. On the wall are two large bulletin boards, each containing hand drawn portraits of students.

Student self portraits adorn a classroom wall of STAR Academy – PS 63 in New York City.

One of the recent School Ambassador Fellows described being a new principal as being one of the loneliest times of their life filled with logistical challenges, time constraints and complex relationships.   Oftentimes, if a principal is unable to quickly understand and handle the diverse audiences they serve, it can become increasingly difficult to recover in subsequent years.

As National Public Engagement staff of ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach visited schools during National Principals Month, staff asked principals “What advice do you have for new principals?”  There were clear and consistent themes as to what new principals should take charge of as they enter into what some consider the most influential role in American education today:  Respect everyone—teachers, staff and students; understand and accept that everyone’s level of ”commitment to the vision” will not be as high as yours; know and understand your local politics; spend time with and empower your students; build relationships and a learning community that encompasses your school and community connections; remain flexible; and, the principalship is a demanding, exhausting and stressful endeavor, stay healthy and take care of yourself.

When used well, the power of the principal has no equal.  They advocate for issues important to schools, students and families; make sure that the whole child is educated; provide instructional leadership; and leverage relationships to ensure student achievement.  It’s no wonder they’ve been dubbed “unsung heroes.”


Kimberly Watkins-Foote is the advocacy liaison for National Public Engagement at the U.S. Department of Education.

Note: This is the second in a two-part series of posts about ED’s National Public Engagement staff’s principal shadowing during National Principals Month in October. The first is here.

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