Working With Principals"My principal has a vision of us succeeding and she provides us with the tools to do so."--Jimmy M. Sullins (Ocean Springs, Mississippi)
New teachers who develop a powerful bond with their principals derive benefits that last them well past their first year on the job. A supportive principal can play a key role in helping first-year teachers find a mentor teacher, take part in professional development, and make full use of planning time.
In addition to giving teachers formal opportunities to learn and collaborate, principals boost morale simply by taking time to work alongside new teachers.
"Success starts at the top. I had a dynamic principal who is supportive of me in my classroom and takes time to visit my classroom," says Lori Ann Williams (Clarksville, Tennessee).
"My principal came in and taught a 2-hour lesson, giving me the chance to plan," says Stacie Weidenbach (Rapid City, South Dakota).
"Principals should be accessible, not just someone in the building," says Alice Smith (Grand Forks, North Dakota). "They should be more of a sounding board for teachers."
Additionally, first-year teachers say that evaluations go more smoothly when principals visit classrooms beforehand. That way, teachers are more at ease and can concentrate on their work with less nervousness.
First-year teachers say that seminars and workshops give teachers the chance to be learners and, in doing so, set an example for their students.
"Relationships with fellow staff, my involvement in school and district committees, inservices and conferences were extremely helpful to me," writes Christie McEwan (Warren, Michigan). "These things have given me rich resources to turn to for support, encouragement, and ideas as I have encountered challenges this year. They have helped me to grow as an educator and to feel satisfaction when I see my students glow as they meet their own challenges."
Claudia Crase (Helena, Montana) spoke highly of Montana's STEP program, which provides professional development opportunities for first-year teachers, gives them leave to go to conferences, and assigns a mentor.
One of the best professional development experiences is watching others teach, first-year teachers say. Again, principals were seen as the key to making this happen. Observing other teachers helps you learn "what I want to do, and never want to do," according to Luann Brazill (Santa Fe, New Mexico).
In addition to fostering professional development, principals should play a pivotal role in encouraging teacher collaboration by scheduling meetings for new teachers. Most principals also appreciate new teachers taking the initiative to meet with them. Even if principals are overloaded with work, most want to and will make the time to give support and guidance to new teachers.
Well-administered mentor programs that foster regular meetings between new teachers and their senior colleagues are lifesavers for first-year teachers. Mara Esposito (Seattle, Washington) gratefully recalls that she was "saturated with support" in her first year of teaching. She had a mentor whose entire job was to support 29 mentees in the district. Also, teaching in a team situation meant, "I wasn't teaching in a box by myself; I had connections with other teachers." Finally, she and her team teacher had the same planning time, which was helpful.
But mentors with too many assignments often fall behind. Mismatched mentor relationships also tend to fizzle out. A number of first-year teachers suggest that principals should wait to assign a mentor until after the school year begins. That way, the principal can help a teacher select a compatible new teacher or let the mentee choose the best-suited mentor. If the mentor-mentee relationship isn't working to the benefit of the beginning teacher, he or she should visit with the principal about concerns.
Teachers want a place to send children who are making it difficult to learn so that they can focus on teaching. And teachers want the disciplinary process to have some teeth.
"Students need to know that the principal is in support of the new teacher," explains Jared Hughes (Ripley, West Virginia).
"You've lost credibility when you send a kid to the office, and he comes back without having been disciplined," says Bente Casile (Smithfield, North Carolina).
New teachers also lose credibility when they send students to the office too often for things they should deal with themselves. Major discipline problems can often be avoided by seeking help early on when the problems are easier to solve.
Teachers also want principal support when it comes to dealing with parents, not just students.
"There was a situation where parents were upset over a book selection. My team was very supportive in this situation," recalls Melanie Rinaldi (Storrs, Connecticut). "My principal and vice principal came to my parent-teacher conference for me."
Other Helpful Supports
Teachers also need support to obtain needed supplies. Many struggle to get the materials they needed by soliciting parents or spending their own money. Finally, teachers want their principal to help them secure another key resource: time.
"New teachers are expected to teach a full schedule of classes, which doesn't leave time to prepare better labs or have someone show you how to incorporate an Internet site into a lesson. If new teachers didn't have a full schedule of classes, we wouldn't see so many teachers leaving the profession in the first years because they wouldn't feel so stressed out," says Mercedes Huffman (Washington, DC).
Firsthand: A Principal Supports Teacher Decisionmaking
When first-year teacher Melanie Rinaldi (Storrs, Connecticut) stumbled onto one of her first major challenges of the year, her principal stood ready to help. But "help" rather than "take over" was key to the experience. At issue? Rinaldi had to evaluate whether a controversial geometry book was the right choice for her eighth-grade class. Parents felt the book lacked rigor and disliked the new methods it advocated.
"I realized I needed to determine my stance on this issue," Rinaldi recalls. "My principal indicated her willingness to do whatever it takes to ensure that students are successful in this course. She would buy a new book if necessary, but ultimately, I needed to make this decision. I felt like she was making a large mistake here. Who was I to make such a huge decision? She had full confidence in me. She pointed out that I was the mathematician--I was the professional."
The principal's confidence in Rinaldi was put to the test when she had to present her decision about the book at parents' night, a prospect she wasn't looking forward to. "The parents had already met on their own to discuss this issue. I feared they would overpower me--it would be like facing a firing squad!"
The school's administrative staff was at her side the night of the parents' meeting, she recalls: "My principal not only provided great insights and emotional support, but her authority on my side made the solution 'OUR' solution." The book proved to be a successful learning tool. Students using the book achieved high test scores. Parents, meanwhile, felt satisfied that Rinaldi had arrived carefully and thoughtfully at her ultimate decision.
Look for Principals to...
- Spend time with teachers, visiting their classrooms and looking at their lesson plans;
- Be available for individual conferences;
- Set up a mentor program and arrange meetings for first-year teachers;
- Make professional development opportunities available;
- Enable teachers to work closely with one another, through meetings and team teaching assignments;
- Allow for planning time;
- Educate parents about what they can do to support their children's education;
- Avoid assigning all the most challenging children to the new teacher;
- Hold an orientation to the school;
- Provide adequate supplies, and clarify what items teachers will have to buy;
- Advocate for teachers to parents and students;
- Create a disciplined environment; and
- Help teachers with difficult situations with parents.
Tips for Building a Relationship with Principals
- Ask for professional development opportunities;
- Seek assistance in setting up a mentor relationship if a program is not already in place;
- Request that a principal visit your classroom and give you constructive feedback prior to the formal evaluation period; and
- Request time to meet with your principal.