3 Priorities for School Principals During Back-to-School Season

As I enter my eleventh year as an elementary principal in a Title I school, I have learned to prioritize three things to successfully begin a new school year. Even when working during the summer, there always seems to be so much to do, yet so little time. For me, my back-to-school list includes the following. 

1. Connecting With Families

Every year, I have attempted to increase my engagement with our families throughout the summer up until the first day of school. This ranges from visiting and reading at our local library to engaging the school community with an ice cream social or checking in on students by texting their adult family members. We have also begun sending letters to all students who will be new to our school from “their principal” where I share with our students information about the school and myself. We also send “good luck” letters, signed by all staff, to our outgoing fifth grade students prior to their first day of middle school. Although these students are no longer part of our school community, they played an important role and will always be South Side alumni!

I have learned that the best relationships are crafted in the most genuine ways, and connecting with families during the summer months goes farther than simply seeing students and their families on our first day of school. These informal interactions allow me to build new and stronger relationships in much smaller and informal settings. This year, I began texting families before the school year begins—mostly for positive reasons—as a way to engage families with their children and their learning. I was surprised how receptive our families were when it came to communicating via text (utilizing my district cellphone) as it offered an additional way to communicate. The appreciation many families shared for this quick update is well worth the investment for any educator!

2. Building Relationships With Staff

The second priority in preparing for back-to-school is connecting with our staff. This can be done via text, emails, or personally handwritten postcards. Two years ago when I did our annual feedback survey—when staff provided me with feedback on my leadership—a common message I heard was staff wanting to get to know me as a person, not just as a principal. This was helpful feedback for me to begin to strengthen the culture within our building.

Another change in my thinking as it related to summer communication is sharing student achievement data. Each summer when staff have gone home is typically when standardized assessments are reported. I used to think that the scores—data, numbers, growth—were the most important data. But I have come to realize that the people behind those numbers who work tirelessly to support our students are just as important (if not more important).

Simply recognizing people as people and not mere objects has allowed me to see our staff through a different and more personal lens. We know achievement data can go up as quickly as it goes down, but the relationships and mutual respect we cultivate with our staff is what will grow a school culture, thus positively impacting more students and strengthening school improvement efforts. I have learned when our student achievement data is great to celebrate it loudly. When our data is lower than expected, we have to work to find successes and then determine how to better respond to ensure educational equity for all.

3. Determining My Personal Plan for Improvement

I also use the weeks leading up to the new school year to develop an action plan for my professional growth. After reading The Instructional Change Agent by Adam Drummond, I have begun to craft short-term, 20-day personal improvement plans. We have all heard the expression “What gets measured gets done,” and included in this outstanding professional resource is a plan for leaders to identify specific areas for growth, steps to accomplish the plan, and a short-term timeframe for implementing this plan. In the book, a quote that resonated with me is, “Your future is determined by what you do today.” Taking the time to plan your own professional growth will ensure the steps are taken to continually grow as an educational leader.  

I know as a school principal I have equal responsibility to improve upon my practice and learn new ways to meet the ever-changing needs of all students. The better I become at analyzing data, assessing, supporting a positive school culture, understanding and planning enrichment activities, and providing ongoing and actionable feedback, the stronger our school teams will become. The more I accelerate my personal learning, the more I am able to support the growth of our school teams. In the book Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, District, and Systems, authors Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn write:

One way of putting it oddly is to say that effective leaders develop teams of leaders and, consequently, if they are successful, become more dispensable to their organization because they have developed a cadre of other leaders who can carry on and go deeper.

The best way for me to do this is to ensure I always have a short-term plan for professional improvement, which in turn positively impacts the entire school community. 

With all of that in mind, welcome back to a new school year filled with learning opportunities and personal and professional growth.

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