Voices from the #PrincipalProject Community

Advice to new principals: Get away from your desk


For school leaders, visibility really matters. I’m always out and about in our building – and it’s my personal goal to spend as little time as possible tied to my desk. Every minute I have, I’m out talking and asking questions to people in the building. Instead of sending five separate emails, I’ll walk to five classrooms, and I’ll have five conversations over the span of 20 minutes. Then later I’ll synthesize what I’ve learned from those conversations and use that to inform my next steps. 

But it’s extremely important to make clear that visibility is not about me. Being on my feet and having those conversations in the hallways, the cafeteria and the parking lot is all about being physically and mentally present with my staff. It’s about listening closely and intently to the concerns, feedback and ideas people have. Here’s what that means for effective leadership:


Honoring staff perspectives 

Whether you’re new to being a school leader or starting fresh in a new building, you have to remember this: Your staff has the historical context that you need in order to be effective. In your conversations, you can learn whether an idea you’re excited about has been tried before, what the successes or stumbling blocks were and what the impact was on your team. You also get an opportunity to understand the thoughts and values guiding your team – and your school community as a whole – that will come to bear on any future plans. 


Avoiding oversights and inefficiencies 

If you’re going to change a procedure that’s established in a building, it’s important to communicate with the custodial staff, the security staff, the bus driver – whoever it is that could be potentially impacted by it – instead of simply going ahead and changing it unilaterally. You could have a brilliant idea for a special event, a scheduling change or a new school-wide policy, but if you don’t run it by the people who are going to be impacted, you’re running a huge risk. Because that brilliant idea might be a big disappointment in practice – and interfere with your team’s capacity to do the very jobs you count on them to do. But when you actively seek their perspective, it allows you to craft plans in collaboration – plans that work.


Finding the win-win solution

Going after the win/win solution is key to building strong, collaborative relationships with your staff. Every member of your team will see things from their own perspective and have their own list of what they need to get accomplished. But when you take a little bit of each one’s perspective, you can put together a plan that’s far more cohesive, exciting and motivating. That means a far higher likelihood of success and longevity for any plan you implement in your building. 

Remember, going it alone is not the point of this job. In your position, it’s all about working hand in hand with your team to do what’s best for your students, your families and your whole building. Regular, attentive and genuine communication is how you’re going to keep everybody moving in that direction.


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About the Author

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Tom Fabian

Tom Fabian is an elementary school principal and former high school assistant principal based in New York.