Nine times in twenty-eight years of teaching I’ve gone through the training of a new principal in my high school. Nine times! And to make matters more frustrating, the replacement always seems to be the philosophical and pedagogical opposite of the one he or she is replacing. The gentle farmer replaced by the fire-breathing nun, the retired Navy commander replaced by a Phi Beta Kappan from a Denver suburb, the teacher-friendly curriculum specialist replaced by education’s answer to a prison warden. You get the idea. Most recently this trend continued with a beloved, student-centered Principal of the Year being replaced by a National Guard Lieutenant Colonel in the Infantry. My English department (really the entire staff) looked to me for guidance on how to bridge this transition of power.
My experience has taught me that principals are hired for a reason seldom related to continuing the work of her or his predecessor. Often they are hired to correct a perceived weakness in the previous principal or to correct a problem that irks several board members (low attendance, weak test scores, a mediocre sports program, or poor performance on fire and tornado drills — really). For whatever reason, the new principal has now redecorated the office, hired a new receptionist, and changed the letterhead. He or she is now in charge. What should teachers do?
First, adopt an attitude to do what you can to help the new principal succeed.
Beginning with a negative mindset will produce nothing but tension and set in motion a struggle teachers cannot win. Help the principal to get to know the students, invite her or him to your class, and practice professionalism in your relationships with students, parents and faculty. Be your best self.
Second, be open to new ideas.
Consider the principal’s decision to require daily lesson plans, weekly faculty meetings after school, all of the faculty teaching ACT vocabulary, or journaling at the beginning of each class. Perhaps considering the new policies will spark a discussion that will lead to an idea that will genuinely help students improve. A principal’s new policy often morphs into one that the principal and faculty can agree on when the principal perceives teachers are positive, thoughtful and professional.
Third, be honest.
Do not sacrifice your educational beliefs about what works in a classroom and how a school should function. The focus should always be on what will benefit students. Your principles should not be surrendered to appease a new administrator’s point of view. But, they can be shared with a considerate tone and empathetic conversation.
Personally, after nine such experiences, I found some personal practices that helped me make the transition. If I was bothered by something the new principal promoted, I would take a walk. I always thought better and more deeply when I took a relaxing walk through the school halls, around the football field, or up the trail through senior hill. Often I would write in my journal. I agree with what Roger Rosenblatt opined, “Writing requires generosity toward every point of view.” But I practiced without fail something my grandmother, a retired English teacher, once told me when I had a disagreement with my best friend: “I believe in the power of kindness. Kindness is not weak but strong, not disagreeable but redemptive.” Who could argue with a lesson like that?
Jeff Baxter, the 2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year, teaches AP Literature at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, KS. A graduate of the University of Kansas with Bachelor’s Degrees in Education and English and a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education, he also has a Juris Doctorate from Washburn University School of Law. In his twenty-nine years of teaching, Jeff has taught non-readers to National Merit Finalists.