ADVICE TO NEW LEADERS
Here is a typical message I get from new school leaders at the beginning of each school year:
“I wanted to touch base with you as I had a few questions and value your insight. I had a very successful year. Being a leader is certainly a challenge, but I learned a lot and have a good teaching staff with which to work. Do you have any advice for year two or three?
(1) How, in your experiences, do years two and three differ from year one?
(2) I’ve been receiving a lot of different advice about future steps in my career. In my district, I’m interested in ultimately moving into a principal position. I’d also be interested in K-12 coordinator position in other districts. Should I just wait and see how things play out here? There will likely be openings sooner rather than later, and then express my interest in being a building principal in the event an opening occurs, or should I look outside the district if the right opening comes along?
(3) I’ve been advised me that you should always wait until gaining tenure before looking for a new position. Do you agree? I don’t want to be perceived as being ungrateful for being given the opportunity to work here.
I am happy in my position for now, but given the administrative structure here, I don’t know how long I might want to stay in my current role. Thanks for your insight!”
It’s great to hear from you. I’m not surprised you had a successful year. Year one is a “getting to know you year”—first impressions—can we trust one another—are you the real deal. Year two is “let’s get down to business and start doing some substantive stuff. The challenge, as you know, is that a lot of folks would rather “make nice” than “make improvements”. It’s tricky because you can’t alienate your constituents, even a minority of them, who could undermine you. My experience tells me that most teachers want to be comfortable with the status quo. They don’t like changes being made without their involvement.
How much you can push teachers and in what direction also depends on the support of your principal and district leaders. Even if your leaders say they are aggressive and want change, you still need to be careful and use a velvet glove.
I understand the “rule” to get your tenure first. However, if you are confidential in how you search for a new job, you will probably be okay. That means, confide in no one—not even your closest allies—people gossip. Most districts will maintain confidentiality until the very end of the process when they need to check your references.
The most accessible career path forward is usually within your own district; especially a larger district where there is a greater likelihood for movement. Personally speaking, in most schools an assistant principal is an important but a thankless job—student discipline, scheduling, cafeteria and bus supervision. The most redeeming aspect is that it’s the most viable path to the principalship. In my opinion, a k-12 subject area coordinator job does little for your career unless it’s in an innovative place that does great work with a well-earned reputation.
One last thought about asserting your leadership. Do not lead by advocating for a specific “pet program”, even if you think it’s a good thing. Lead by having your constituents look at a problem, especially if there is data that clearly demonstrates a problem. Then the group has the shared responsibility to define the real problem and search for possible solutions. Leading by advocating for a specific program, technology, or method is like starting with a pre-determined solution and then matching it to a perceived problem; it’s a solution in search of a problem. That approach is usually doomed for failure. You will be perceived as trying to enhance your career by making changes for the sake of change.
Let me offer an analogy to further clarify what I mean by not leading by pushing for your favorite approach. Let’s say you are concerned that your family members have unhealthy diets. Assume that you do most of the cooking in your family; that includes doing the shopping and preparing the menu. Assume you love vegetarian Indian food, particularly the taste of curry. You believe vegetarian Indian food is healthy and delicious. However, your family members prefer other kinds of meals. Nevertheless, you persist in trying to convince them to eat your Indian food. As they say in the movies, “Houston, you’ve got a problem.
Hope this helps. Please call me if you need to discuss this further. Keep in touch.”