The Challenges of a First-Year Principal JOURNEYS

By Heather Mattson / December 12, 2013

As part of the Journeys project at Amargosa Valley School, we have been talking to Robert Williams as he begins the enormous undertaking of leading a school through a turnaround process. One of the things that strikes me is how truly overwhelming this job can be. I think that is true of any principal, but add being a first-time principal, a turnaround school, in an extremely remote rural area, and it is no wonder Williams feels like he is running as fast as he can to keep up with the demands placed upon him. In his first month on the job, Williams said, “There is nothing anyone can do to prepare you for being in charge of a school like this. I actually thought I understood what it might be like.”

We noted in our second episode profiling Amargosa that halfway through the 2012-2013 school year the previous principal was reassigned, and Williams was made the head teacher. He then received the principal job in June 2013. In transitioning to the official principal of Amargosa, Williams has experienced a major change in his daily duties. As a head teacher, Williams was able to take a more proactive approach to his day – creating a daily list of tasks and completing many of those tasks. We discussed in our recent blog post that Williams did start to make some changes at Amargosa as head teacher, especially as they related to school culture, but he was not expected or encouraged to make major systemic changes at the school.

Williams has found that the nature of being principal is much more reactive. On any given day he finds himself fielding phone calls, filling out paperwork, and generally putting out fires. Additionally, the School Improvement Grant requires the establishment and implementation of a number of new systems at the school, which is tremendously time-consuming. There are also a whole lot of reports and compliance details associated with the grant. Although he maintains his daily to-do lists, Williams has been able to accomplish far less than he originally envisioned. He quipped recently that he imagined still having “time to talk to my wife sometimes with this job,” but many days that is not a reality. He points out that there never seems to be enough hours in the day and that a major portion of his time is spent on tasks that don’t have a strong connection to classroom instruction. He is working to train other staff members to take over some tasks so that he can get into classrooms and effectively lead teaching and learning efforts.

I was working on a task force with a group of current and former administrators who now train others, and I posed this dilemma to them. Some of their suggestions included dedicating a day a week for classroom observations  – a day that cannot be touched by other tasks. They also suggested training front office staff to be able to put out small fires and recognize which ones really need the principal’s attention. Here’s a quick blog post from Connected Principals called 15 Tips for the New Principal.

Do you have experiences or ideas to share with Rob Williams or other new principals? Please share them in the comments below.

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About the author

Heather Mattson

Heather Mattson is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a staff member of the Center on School Turnaround. In addition to coordinating the Journeys content team, she is a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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