Dear Principal

Dear Principal,

First let me say, I don’t envy you.  I know your job is a tough one- heavy on responsibility and light on accolades.  But after almost twenty years of working with all sorts of administrators as a classroom teacher, I have some thoughts to share with you as we open a new school year.

Treat us as the professionals we are.  Give your teachers and staff the autonomy to use our professional judgment.  Teacher voice is a superpower.  Cultivate and encourage it.  It is the true mark of a leader to build the skills and confidence of others.  As Katherine Bassett taught me, “The definition of leadership is not how many followers you have but how many leaders you build.”

Give agency to teachers to allow students time to slow down, time to wonder, and time to be curious.  Give time to your staff to grow, take risks, and learn together.  That is how a true learning community is built.

Communicate clearly and specifically.  Stay away from blanket statements, especially in an email.  Otherwise, the staff members who are guilty of the infraction feign ignorance while the not-guilty parties feel guilty and therefore feel defensive.  This passive-aggressive form of communication solves nothing and leads to alienation.  Move toward the pockets of resistance and address it individually, just as a teacher does to an individual student, not the whole class.

Understand that teaching has changed since you’ve been in the classroom, whether that was last year or ten years ago.  Consider teaching again!  My stepdad, Jack Elliott, was a principal for 11 years in a large, urban high school.  Every year, Jack co-taught a section of freshman biology.  He knew that keeping a foot in teaching maintained credibility with both his students and his staff.

Be where the kids are.  Supervise them in the cafeteria or recess or wander the halls and greet them as they come in.  You gain credibility if you build a relationship with them before there is an issue.  Build relationships with them the same way you did as a teacher.

Be the Lead Learner.  I had an excellent mentor as I was undergoing my educational leadership training, Dr. Joanne Rooney.  Dr. Rooney truly “walked her talk” as a principal.  When she would be gone from her office, she left a clear message for her students and staff.  The sign on her door said, “Out Learning.”  In this way, Dr. Rooney demonstrated for her staff and students what it looked like to be a lifelong learner and showed her dedication to learning and growing.

Build your staff as a family.  Roland Barth said, “The nature of the relationships among the adults who inhabit a school has more to do with its quality and character and the accomplishments of its pupils than any other factor.”  Teaching is hard and it truly takes a village to do it well.  Anticipate the needs of your staff as teachers know what their students’ need.  Exceptional principals realize that teachers whose own needs are met by administration have an easier time meeting the needs of students.  “Great principals focus on students – by focusing on teachers” (Todd Whitaker, 2003, p. 35).

Remember that you set the weather for the school, just as a teacher sets the weather for their classroom.  Your energy and attitude are contagious.  As Dr. Rooney also taught me, schools are long shadows of their principals.

Be a buffer.  Act as a buffer for your teachers against the constant and often discouraging demands by the district and the state.  My first principal sat me down and very seriously told me that it was her job to allow me to do my job.  She told me she knew I would mess up (I did) and told me we would get through it together (we did).  Thanks, Barb.

Be a human first.  Despite the frenetic pace the principal’s job requires, effective leaders make time to nurture the emotional side of anyone who needs help navigating personal and professional difficulties (Whitaker, 2003).  I will never forget my principal crying with me on a day I suffered a miscarriage.  But this includes our students, too.  Being a literary nerd, I always think of Principal Jenkins buying Calvin a pair of needed sneakers in the A Wrinkle in Time series and the consequences that could have occurred if he hadn’t established that relationship with Calvin and the Murrays (Meg couldn’t have kythed!  Charles Wallace may have perished! Just read the series!).

Teachers know the words of Plato still ring true today: “A good beginning is more than half of the whole.”  You’ve been given a diamond; don’t crush it into coal, polish it to a shine.

Good luck and happy new year!



Beth Maloney

I am in my twentieth year of teaching and enjoy every minute of my time in the classroom. I have taught kindergarten, third grade, and currently teach fifth-grade science and social studies in Surprise, Arizona. I am an enthusiastic public school advocate. I am a National Board Certified Teacher and a Candidate Support Provider for the Arizona K12 Center, where I coach and mentor other teachers undergoing the rigorous National Board certification. I am the past president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teacher Network and president and founder of the Arizona Chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I am honored to be Arizona’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and appreciate having the opportunity to represent the teachers of Arizona. I love talking with and learning from other teachers around the world. I strongly believe that teacher voice in the public education dialogue is the best way to make change for the better for all students.

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