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Professional Opinion

How to be an effective, first-year elementary school principal

‘Be yourself’ and other tips for connecting with staff, students and parents
Paul S. Haughey is principal of Millville Elementary School in the Blackstone-Millville Regional School District in Massachusetts.
Paul S. Haughey is principal of Millville Elementary School in the Blackstone-Millville Regional School District in Massachusetts.

The elementary school principal position in any district is an important role that all employees and students of the school rely on.

Elementary schools differ in many ways—even within the same district—but new principals can follow leadership practices in keeping the focus on teaching and learning every school day.

Have an open-door policy

Make sure the principal’s office door is often open and the window blinds are up to let in natural light. And most importantly, say, “Hello! How are you?” You cannot control how people feel but you can frame their paradigm by smiling and keeping a positive approach to all that you do, from your first interaction to the last.

Be proactive

Listen before responding. Take notes when meeting with teachers for further reference and documentation, and clearly communicate expectations.

Send weekly memos via email to celebrate the week that was, and forecast the week ahead so everyone can plan appropriately. The key is to provide advance notice of upcoming changes in the schedule.

Be visible

Remember, you are always modeling behavior for others, so you should be seen often. Drop in on as many classrooms as you can each day and at varying times. Be present in the cafeteria during lunch and recess to set a tone.

Support faculty and staff

Remind them that they are “the experts” within their field. They are the third-grade teacher, physical therapist or special education liaison, for a reason. And when needed, make sure to be present at parent-teacher meetings.

Establish policy early

To be effective in your discipline as a new principal, there are couple of key practices that have to happen during the opening days of the school year:

  • Plan beginning-of-the-year assemblies for setting the tone regarding rules and consequences.
  • Keep assemblies small and brief, possibly by grade level.
  • Establish a discipline code/handbook for parents (and students) to sign.
  • Refer to the school handbook when disciplining students and follow through.
  • When it comes to intercom announcements, keep them brief. Make a daily morning announcement with the Pledge of Allegiance, and save or repeat important announcements in the afternoon prior to dismissal.

Work with the PTO

Your partnership between the PTO and principal can make or break the first year as a building leader. Here are a few practices that help principals work with their respective parent-teacher organization:

  • Schedule meetings at night so faculty and staff can attend when necessary.
  • Set boundaries in regard to PTO access to the building.
  • Work together to establish a calendar of year-long activities that support the teaching and learning taking place.

Be a problem solver

To create solutions that make sense for all involved, take the time to learn the history and traditions of the school and then work with faculty, staff and parents to develop collaborative plans that fit the situations at hand.

If the solutions come from others, the “buy-in” at the outset tends to be more effective, especially if you are implementing one of their ideas. When it comes to feasibility make sure to gain consensus.

Be available

Host a “coffee with the principal” event on the first Friday of each month to give parents and families a chance to learn more about the school. Invite faculty and staff to attend to answer questions.

As principal, you’re expected to spend many hours of your day at school or at school-related functions. As a result, it’s always best to be yourself. Be upfront about your commitment to kids, and to teaching and learning.

And give yourself permission to admit that you don’t know everything, but are willing to learn—with help from others. 

Paul S. Haughey is principal of Millville Elementary School in the Blackstone-Millville Regional School District in Massachusetts.