Learning the Ropes: Advice from Great Principals

October 31, 2023

Learning the Ropes: Advice from Great Principals

As we celebrate National Principals Month, we appreciate all principals who work tirelessly to make a difference in their schools. Throughout the month, we are excited to highlight a handful of outstanding, award-winning principals across the country and their stories - from implementing leadership strategies in Louisiana, engaging teachers and students in Arizona, turning things around in Texas, and building winning mindsets in South Carolina.

The power of support and experience may be best said in Isaac Newton’s famous quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” in which he references how his successes were built upon those who came before him. Like any other profession, the same stands for great principals. With the help of mentors, family, friends, and peers, these principals found their way to leading their schools with excellence in mind. Now, it’s their chance to share their advice with new principals in response to one question: 

What advice would you give to a new principal?

Lead with LOVE

Principal Tia Trahan, Lafayette Middle School, Louisiana

“The advice that I would give a new principal is to lead with LOVE. Listen, Observe, Value, and Empower. Listen to the predecessors who sat in the desk before you. Listen to your teachers and students. Observe the environment and actions of individuals. Value the knowledge of experienced teachers and new ideas of novice teachers. Empower teachers to take on leadership roles to build their confidence and capacity, and this will empower students to take ownership and accountability of their learning. Granted, you will make mistakes in year 1 and in year 20. But most of all, I advise new principals to give themselves grace. Leading with LOVE and letting your heart and mind guide you will lead to a successful first year and many more to come.”

Read about how Trahan implements leading with LOVE

The Benefit of Being Present

Principal Luis Reyes, South Central Junior High School, Arizona

“I would ask principals to make sure that they enjoy their work. It's really easy to get consumed by the paperwork and the other tedious things that we have to do. Trying to find that time where you are out there, visible and collaborating and interacting with students and all staff, asking questions, and being available for any type of help and supporting them. In the middle school area, I think a lot of it is about supporting the kids, being around and reinforcing positive behaviors. I think the teachers appreciate that, and the staff appreciates that when you're out there. I think being out there is how you enjoy your job as a principal.”

Read how Reyes takes time to be present

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch

Principal Johnny Walker, Winona Middle School, Texas

“One thing that I would say to a new principal is to never neglect the importance of sustaining a strong school culture, especially when involved with school improvement/turnaround. It is very easy to get caught up in doing this, that, move metrics and forget about building people. I still have to be very intentional about this now. Celebrating small victories is a strategy that I use. It’s not about doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things consistently each day that sustains growth. 

In addition, through our partnership with NIET, we learned the importance of strengths-based coaching. For example, going into the classroom with the mindset that we will find something positive and provide the teacher with feedback that would affirm their ability. It’s human nature to expect negative feedback. Strengths-based coaching has done wonders for building teachers up by narrating the positive that they do rather than only pointing out areas of struggle. It has been said that culture eats strategy for lunch. So it's important to be intentional about building a strong culture that will sustain robust school improvement efforts.”

Read Walker’s success in sustaining school culture

The Power of Going Slow

Principal William Whitehurst, Marshall Elementary School, South Carolina

“Harness your energy, harness your intentions, and make sure that you grab the low-hanging fruit. You spend and exert so much energy trying to climb up the tree to get what you believe is the ripest, prettiest fruit that you miss the ones that are right there. So my advice to a new principal would be that strategic implementation of things creates sustainable growth. You want to build a system where it doesn't matter who's the leader. As a principal, you can't come in wanting to get it all at one time. In order to be sustainable sometimes it has to be slow. The biggest thing that I've had to learn was to take a step back sometimes and really appreciate the growth that you see, no matter how small it might be. If you continue to do that and focus on the small increments along the journey, then you will arrive exactly where you need to be. I'm working every day to apply that. It's not easy when you're a former athlete, it's different when you have to move an entire group of people that have various speeds. So you gotta be able to go slow, and understand there is power in going slow.”

Read how appreciating growth led to Whitehurst’s success

All of the principals who shared their stories and experiences with NIET during National Principals Month had something to share, including these insights that may help new principals stepping into the role. Leading with LOVE, being present, focusing on culture, and going slow are all valuable strategies these principals learned and ones they would recommend for new principals as they pursue excellence and support student success.