Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher in San Gabriel (CA). I read her “open letter” to an incoming principal. After writing about Joe Clark, Harry, and Edna in the previous post, I thought that a teacher’s perspective on what she expects of a new principal might underscore the multiple demands–the DNA of the job– that principals in the U.S. face. Some questions to consider: which of the roles that principals must play does Wolpert-Gawron urge the newcomer to perform? Are these expectations similar for principals in other nations?
You are the latest in a list of accomplished and energetic principals we have had over the course of this decade. As you know, we’ve had 5 principals in 9 years. The nomadic ebb and flow of our administration has taken its toll as green principals are let go for not knowing what to do and veteran leaders are lured to the higher rungs of the district office before follow through of their vision had been implemented.
I want this to be your forever school. I want this to be the place that you settle into. Not because I know you so well or know what you bring to the table, but because we have all seen what the culture of temporary leadership looks like and the damage that it can do to our educational goals. We are ready to make a commitment to helping you help us.
So here is a list of five things to keep in mind as you brush off your nameplate and put your own family’s portrait on your desk:
#1. Remember that its dedicated teachers have held this school together. We’re still bruised and battered from the recent pink slip season, having lost many of our bright stars in our ranks. Nevertheless, the miraculous troops that have been left behind are those who have been the brick and mortar of this site for years keeping it afloat. Regardless of who our principal was, the drama of a fluctuating leadership, or the unease outside our walls, our teachers have always worked to do the best job they could with the resources they have. We formed our own leaders amongst us in lieu of administration’s lack of leadership, and we need to be treated as problem solvers, not problem cases.
#2. Keep in mind that with every new principal, there’s been a silver bullet offered: PLCs, grade level meetings, instructional cabinet meetings, and setting up norms. Be prepared for an eye roll or two when you ask if we’ve ever gone through setting up norms as a means to set up more efficient communication. With every new principal, we’ve set up norms. We’ve taken PD days and faculty meetings to “break the ice.” We’ve done everything short of an outward-bound trust fall from a tree stump. We don’t need gimmicks or to go over rules. We can show you the constitutions that have been created year after year. What we need is someone to see us through the establishment of rules into the enforcement of them.
#3. Recognize that our staff is made up of individuals. Get to know us all professionally and personally. You are walking into a family; and with a family comes the good and the bad. Don’t listen to others who have known us before; form your own opinions of us. Walk through our classrooms. Sit with us at lunch. Be present in body — we want to see you on campus, your new home. Be present in mind — don’t look over our shoulder as we are talking to you about a problem yet to solved by those who have come before you. Know that we each bring something different to the table: be it traditional or progressive. We all add to the mixture of diversity as a staff, and that variety is good in a school even if a staff member doesn’t represent the hires you plan to take on. We all add some spice to the gumbo.
#4. Remember: Love these students as we do. We need someone with the dedication that we have for the kids. Get to know them and their accomplishments and potential. Show up to the Robotics tournament. I know it’s two hours away, but the teacher goes, and she is volunteering her time to do it. Help with supervision. You know when there are hundreds of kids on campus. Be accessible to them during their most leisurely time of day. Talk to them in the classrooms and ask they to tell you what they are doing in class. Show up enough and you become a staple to both the classroom management and the rigor in the school. We need a leader that will stay with us and help to see us through from good to great.
#5. Please take your time. I know things need to be changed; I know you want to make your stamp on the school right away. But much like a gross-out comedy that grosses you out too early in the film before any trust has been built up about character, don’t shake things up too soon if you don’t want to freak out those who are cheering for your success. Get to know what works, and celebrate those things first. Then ask us to visualize where you want us to go together. More people will be willing to board your boat if you’ve acknowledged that we’ve actually sailed ourselves.
Remember, we the staff are on your side. We want you to succeed. Start your school year knowing that you are entering a wonderful place where students are admired, where staff is hard working, and dedication is a part of our daily culture. You are lucky to have us, as we are lucky to have you. Let us remember our pasts yet look forward together. Perhaps then this can be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Language Arts Department Chair and Speech & Debate Coach