Sunday, May 12, 2013

Going In (To A New School)

One of the realities for most school-based administrators is mobility between schools.  While not always the case in smaller districts, Principals and Vice-Principals tend to move after a period of time. Sometimes it's two or three years, sometimes a little longer at five years, and some longer, maybe even ten or eleven years.  However, it seems inevitable that there is a point in time at which administrators either make the call and apply for other positions, or get the call and are asked to move on to a new situation.

This has happened to me in the last few weeks:  after seven years, I will be leaving my current school to become the Principal of another high school here in our district.  There are many feelings that come with moving schools: excitement, angst, and yes, even some grieving due to the investment that each of us puts in to our schools in trying to make a difference for students.  But after the initial cavalcade of emotions, I find myself vacillating between feelings of anticipation of my new situation and reflection on what has happened at my school over the last seven years.

When coming into a school as the new Principal, we are often bombarded with thoughts and phrases that shape the way we approach a new setting:
  • How fast is too fast, and how slow is too slow?  We don't want to be pushy, but conversely, we don't want to seem wishy-washy and perhaps miss out on an opportunity when people might be ready for change.  
  • "Just go in and listen!", you say...listen to what?  To who?  
  • "Go in and get a feel for the culture."  What does this mean?  Will it just jump out at me?  
  • "Honor what people are doing and have done."  OK, I agree, but what is "honor-able"?  How do you determine what needs your support and further augmentation?  What if there is something that needs to be confronted, do we just let it go until enough time goes by that we are able to 'put our stamp on things'?  And how long is that period of time, exactly?
  • "Find out who your key players are!"  What defines a key player?  The overt person that has a great deal of 'influence'?  The person who is a tremendous teacher that quietly goes about their business?  In Kurt Lewin parlance, do we "maintain the equilibrium of the school", or do we disrupt it?
Who is to know? And even for those who believe they do have the skeleton key that correctly "opens any door" of a new school with all of its complexities, trying to describe that knowledge can come across as patriarchical to those that are entering the new context.

Outside of some of these indicators of culture, of "how we do things around here", we also have to consider the educational agenda. Where is the new school at in terms of:
  • creating connections and shared experiences for students, staff and parents?
  • assessment?
  • collaboration for peer observation, reflection and improving instructional practice?
  • academic interventions for students that need more time and support?
  • instructional leadership, current initiatives and future directions?
  • engaging student and adult learning?
just to name a few.

And of course, what cannot be lost in all of this is the human element. When a new Principal comes, it's natural for the people in the school community to be a bit nervous. What's the new person going to be like? Are they going to come with guns blazing and try to change the world in a week? And moreover, as much as I hope people think I am reasonably calm in the face of change and I am competent in (or at the very least, willing to learn) most things I do as a Principal, I can tell you I will be nervous too. I am excited to meet a new group of educators, students, parents and alumni, and I am eager to serve them in my new position. But make no mistake the butterflies will be there.

How great it would be to have a road map to help administrators new and experienced in their transition to a new school. A set of guidelines that described multiple entry points for both the administrator and the school with pieces such as how to better understand a school's culture, how to develop or increase the capacity of collaborative learning teams that examine and change pedagogical practices, how to design and implement interventions that keep students connected, and how to create a student body and faculty that is truly engaged and invested in their own learning.  Perhaps all of these ideas against a backdrop of the skills that we want our school community to have in an ever-changing world around us.


For those of you who have moved to new schools as administrators, what are some of the things that you feel are important to consider when you are "Going In"?


  1. I am feeling the same way Cale. I will be starting at my seventh school in September and they have all been very different. I am only speaking to my latest job but it was amazing how the needs of the school jumped out at me in no time at all. I, like you, will certainly have butterflies but I know you will do a fantastic job just like you did at SKSS!

  2. Best of luck Cale! I feel your tension and mixed emotions. I'm not sure there is blueprint for the transition you are about to undertake. You have very thoughtfully identified all forces and emotions at play. From my experience, I had to heighten my senses to pick up as much information from as many sources as possible, rely on my instincts, be vulnerable and be myself (I'll be looking to do the same next year as I make a transition to our central office). I look forward to following you on your journey- you are going to be great!

  3. Come on in, the water is great! As with any culture, it's complicated and requires finesse and smarts to be able to steer it. You've had plenty of experience doing just that, so allow the butterflies to be the type of feeling that you get before a big race, instead of a feeling of dread. Look forward to working with you.

  4. Thanks for the thoughts Justin...just to clarify, there is no dread, quite the opposite--the race butterflies analogy is bang on! Working with the faculty is going to be exciting, and I am looking forward to learning along side of the staff, students and parents at Sahali.

    And I heard something about foosball...hmmm, I may need to do a lot of learning on that front... :)

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