Ask Dr. Karen - June 25
Dear Dr Karen,
I’m taking on a new role as a school principal in a
600 student elementary school in a predominantly low
income part of my city. Although I’ve had
experience as a vice principal I haven’t yet done a
principal role. I am also a bit of an introvert so
the leadership thing will be challenging.
The school and the leadership situations are not
easy. There have been two principals in the last
year. I don’t know much else yet about the issues
except that the old principal shifted the classes
and teachers around on paper before she left. The
teachers are not happy about her choices.
I’m old enough but small and slight of build. How
can I look like a leader? Also, I like to read
things and think them over carefully. Do I have to
answer questions on the spot?
Thanks for your support, Patricia
Keep in touch as you transition into your new role.
You’re taking on one of the more challenging
leadership roles. Teachers and professors are
difficult to lead. They are more like cats who all
want to go their own way and feel that is their
right. There is also the tenure issue which makes
it hard to change the roles and responsibilities
without a lot of planning and paperwork and
maneuvering. It may be easier to move
administrators than teachers.
Your job is to establish your authority and vision
early in your tenure. Since your first meeting is
with a small group of summer school teachers and
administrators you can use them as your
consultants. Here’s a way to think about your first
1. Decide in advance what you want them to be saying
about you after the meeting
2. Get very clear that you are in charge and can not
be their “friend”. There must always be a
supervisory distance between you and the staff.
Remember, two other principals have no been
successful in the last year. You are the new staff
sergeant getting them into shape.
3. You can be warm and open with what you say and
how you say it but not have an open door policy.
4. At the first meeting you need to be your most
professional in a dark suit. This is your “power”
look. Your tone of voice is “command tone.”
Practice projecting your voice as if you were a
teacher in a large classroom with unruly students or
as a staff sergeant.
5. At your first meeting set your expectations for
how things will work with you. [Adjust these to meet
your needs.] This is the time to share a few of your
initial hopes for this organization, including the
a. Since you mention you’re visual and like to read
things and think about them, let the group know that
you need something in email or in writing when
anyone wants to talk with you. You may be a deep
thinker who likes to have a chance to do that to do
the best for your staff. So they need to give you a
day or two before talking. You don’t make
“corridor” decisions, or decisions on the fly,
unless it’s a REAL emergency.
b. Your job will be to talk with all of the teachers
in the staff of the school in person, by email, by
phone or in small groups. They need to get to know
c. You will be setting up THE BIG RULES for how the
school will run and asking that the small team in
the room give you feedback on what should be
included. (This is usually about 3-4 items like:
1) Every kid has more potential than they’re using.
Look for ways to personally motivate each one of
2) Staff members apply themselves to planning and
innovation in their curricula every week;
3) All staff speak positively about the school and
4) They need to know about their kids and how they
are doing every week. Their job is not just teaching
but also general social work to ensure their kids
are in school and to support them in their home
5) The teachers and administrators are the role
models for the kids. They need to show their
commitment and caring so that kids can do the same.
6) Kids and teachers treat everyone with respect
everywhere. This means in the school yard and
Be sure to read Truth 17 in my book "The Truth About
Being a Leader":
“What’s the Big Idea?”: Bring Your Guiding Rules
Into Everyday Organizational Life
d. There had been some changes in the class
assignments before you got there. You expect to
discuss these with the teachers, one on one, by
email and in small groups and get input on the
thinking of your staff before putting the changes
e. Ask for volunteers among your staff to work with
you on setting up the school’s Big Rules and in
articulating your vision. You will talk with as
many members of staff as possible but need a
committed group to help you know what’s best for the
school and get input so that the staff feels they
have been heard. This is a time consuming and
overwhelming job but worth doing.
f. You will always be “on” in this job. You are the
leader of the school even when you go home. Now you
will be doing back to back meetings while you are
also mentoring, coaching problem solving and dealing
with emergencies. Make sure that you give yourself
some short breaks during the day to read your email
g. You will need a really good vice principal. If
you don’t have the right one in place get one and
move the one you have to another position or out the
h. If you need to get funds to bring in a good
teacher or administrator go out and raise the
money. That will go a long way to showing the
school staff your commitment.
Thanks for writing,