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Is My School Ready? Strategies For Principals That Lead

by Jen Schwanke, Principal for Dublin City Schools

For a principal, the a new school year brings anticipation, excitement—and—let’s admit it—an underlying feeling of trepidation.

I always look forward to this time of year, but with it comes the telltale butterflies in the stomach each time August rolls around.  Whether you’re a veteran leader or just doing this for a first time, that feeling can leave you a bit unsettled.   Reminding yourself of a few school-leadership basics will get you through that time of apprehension and ensure a successful start to your year.   Here are some ideas to help guide you.

In the weeks leading up to the first day…

Make sure your building looks ready.  Overseeing a custodial and maintenance staff should become one of your highest priorities in the weeks leading up to the first day of school.  The floors should gleam; the walls should be cleaned or freshly painted; carpets should be scrubbed; classrooms and restrooms should smell fresh and new.  A sharp-looking school environment goes a long way in building excitement and pride, and the way the building looks and feels as parents and students walk in for the first time will set the tone for the entire year.

Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more.  In the weeks leading to the first day, consider who might be waiting to hear from you.  Students, parents, and school staff are the obvious groups to consider, because they will need to know specific information to get started; however, don’t forget community members, your Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO), coaches, club advisors, and any outside groups or agencies that might be affected by the start of school.   I always figure that if I think I’m communicating enough, I’m about halfway there.

Have a broad reach.  It’s also wise to utilize any mode of communication you can.  Traditional written welcoming letters, via mail or email, can be supplemented by information dispersed by social media, your school website, applicable news outlets, and so on.  By utilizing any and all possible communication methods, you’ll be more likely to reach all of the stakeholders who need to hear from you.

Empower and delegate.  Empowering your support staff—secretaries, bus drivers, building aides, and any others who are there to help—will make it all more manageable for you.  Delegate any tasks that you can so that you are free to be more available to the students and staff on the first day.

In the first few days….

Be available.  I find it helpful to keep my calendar as clear as possible in the first few days of school.  I do this because I want to spend every moment with students—in classrooms, at recess or study time, in the library and community areas—as a way to get to know them and establish my leadership.  Another reason to keep your calendar clear is to be completely available to handle any unexpected issues that may come up.

Be positive.  Relentless optimism will go a long way this time of year; again, you are leading the way in setting the tone for the rest of the year.  Go about your work with a visibly positive mindset; actively project your belief that every problem has a ready solution and that there is nothing that can’t be fixed or adjusted. Celebrate the fact that your students and staff are all together again.  Your smile and positive attitude will be infectious.

Show appreciation.  Now is the time to notice the little things and make sure you express your gratitude to students, their parents, and staff who have carefully prepared for the year.  Compliment staff on well-organized classroom environments.  Thank the custodial staff for the way the building looks.  Tell students you’re glad they are there.  Express appreciation to parents for how they prepared their students over the summer.  Developing a culture of appreciation will be the foundation for others as you go forward.

Rest.  In spite of the need to be available and be positive, now is the time to remind yourself that the school year is, in fact, a marathon—not a sprint.  While it’s a good idea to keep your work calendar open in the first few days, it might be a good idea to keep your after-work calendar pretty clear during that time, too—after all, each night, you’ll want nothing more than to go home, have dinner with your loved ones, and crawl into bed.  That’s okay.  You will adjust to the pace of the school year in due time—try not to exhaust yourself before you even get started.

And then…

Enjoy the ride.  Before you know it, the first weeks of school will be a distant memory.  Routines will be established, students and teachers will settle into their work, and there will be a feeling of comfort and predictability in your days.  The work you put into the first weeks of school will have paid itself off in spades—and you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the powerful learning and teaching environment you’ve built—all throughout the year.

Jen Schwanke is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders (ASCD). Schwanke began her career as a language arts educator and is currently a principal for the Dublin City School District in Dublin, Ohio. A graduate instructor in educational leadership, she has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications and blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke and Instagram @jenschwanke

Is My School Ready? Strategies For Principals That Lead; image attribution flickr tulanepublicrelations