Before Turning Over the Keys to the New Principal

by Mary Lou Yeatts

You attend college to prepare to be an effective and dynamic school leader. You carefully develop presentations, write papers and take copious notes during classes to help you to remember all the necessary information that you hope will make you an effective instructional leader.

The big day finally arrives—your interview for your first administrative position. You sit down with all constituents to sell yourself as the next best thing to come into their school district. In a few days the phone rings and it is the superintendent offering you the position and instructing you to report to your new school the first Monday in July.

You want to be an effective administrator by setting the tone for high expectations, articulating policies and procedures clearly and communicating regularly with stakeholders. You want to surround yourself with great people and build leadership teams in the school. But you know that school administrators cannot just make this happen through wishing. It takes time, patience, trust and assistance from others. Assistance is typically the missing component.

You have heard stories about new principals whose orientation consisted of being handed the keys to their school building. They received little guidance, sometimes not as much as a tour of the building. They were pointed in the direction of an office and left alone, aloof and anxious.

Timely Help

Does this scenario sound familiar? It happens all too often to newly appointed building administrators. So what is the effective alternative? Who should be responsible to assist new principals?

Many people should participate in the orientation. The building administrator is expected to work with the school district’s director of pupil personnel, instructional supervisors, finance director, special education administrator, facilities management officials, as well as classified and certified staff members. Not to mention the public and community stakeholders. This is why principals need mentors who offer timely guidance and assistance.

New principals may be intimidated and afraid to admit they do not know all the answers.

Meet and Greet

Superintendents can take measures to assist principals in that first job assignment in three key areas: communication, mentoring and documentation.

• Communication. The superintendent must be the catalyst for communication with the new principal. Invite central-office and other key staff members to explain their responsibilities and discuss how they can assist. As superintendent, prepare a “Welcome Notebook” that contains documents that list names, job responsibilities, telephone extension numbers, e-mail addresses and pertinent information that may be helpful to the principal.

The notebook also should contain district policies and procedures, your expectations for the principal and any relevant information that relates to student achievement.

Schedule a meeting with the principal at the school so the principal can ask questions. Share real or perceived community issues or concerns immediately. By providing accurate and relevant information, you will help the principal dodge potential crises.

• Mentoring. Require your administrative staff to meet with the principal to properly orient him to your district. Choose a highly effective building-level administrator to mentor the principal for the first year. Encourage ongoing discussions of curriculum issues, community and school relations, discipline, special education topics, professional development and other relevant issues.

In addition, you might arrange for a local university professor, preferably in educational administration, to schedule timely meetings and observe the principal during the first year.

Many states have implemented successful principal internship programs that assist the new principal with ideas for professional development, encouraging the principal to try innovative steps and providing a communication link to the district office.

• Documentation. Require the principal to keep a portfolio that accurately substantiates his or her leadership activities for the first year. The portfolio may include administrative practices, leadership opportunities, professional development activities and dispositions as they relate to the six Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

By using the ISLLC standards, the principal can provide data regarding his or her leadership qualities according to each standard. The principal and superintendent need to meet periodically to review the entries in the portfolio to assist in further goal setting.

Mary Lou Yeatts is an associate professor of educational studies, leadership and counseling at Murray State University, 3220 Alexander Hall, Murray, KY 42071. E-mail: