Why School Principals Should Learn Every Student’s Name

Whenever I started a new principal position, I gave just one guarantee to students, staff, and families: I would know every child on a first name basis before Thanksgiving. In leading four different schools, I never missed my mark on this promise, learning upwards of 400 student names in a 12-week span.

It’s funny, but in all principal job descriptions I’ve read, the interviews I’ve participated in, or the performance evaluations I’ve been subjected to, knowing every child by name never came up. Why might I place this duty atop the many, many guidelines each principal has to abide by? 

The answer is simple: meaningful learning is based on strong relationships, and knowing a child by her first name when I passed her in the hall was a necessary first step.

How I Learn—and Remember—Students’ Names

Think about your personal or professional life. How well do the people around you know you? I’m talking about your dreams, your struggles, your possibilities, your perspectives? Heck, even your birthday or your favorite snack? Proximity and history do not ensure strong personal connections, but finding out the whos and whys about your family or your workmates certainly will create the ties that bind.

Entering buildings with roughly 225 to 400 students, I started with first names.  It wasn’t easy—especially as I got a bit older—but it was straightforward on how to do it. I simply had to be everywhere the students were. This meant the cafeteria, classrooms, hallways, dismissal, and yes, recess. Discovering and remembering student names forced me to get out from behind my desk to be present in my students’ daily school lives. It wasn’t a box I checked; it was a goal I worked hard to meet.

I’d start by politely asking students their names, but to help improve my chances of remembering them, I also asked all sorts of questions. Do you have any brothers or sisters? Did you just lose a tooth? What’s your favorite color? Are those new shoes? Really just about anything to strengthen my connection to each student, which in turn helped me remember each name. See, if I know something about you, it’s unlikely that I’ll forget who are, which means you matter to me. As a leader of children, everything else was secondary to me. 

Creating Strong Bonds With Staff

It really wasn’t much different for the staffs I led. I still had to be where they were, but I also made every effort to know all of them before school started. It began with a survey I’d send out before I even set foot in my new office. I provided space for staff to tell me their years of experience and birthdate, and discuss their love of teaching and school traditions. This helped set the stage for their importance in my life. Then, throughout the length of the summer, I set up office hours to meet each teacher and go over his or her survey. Some conversations were guarded, but most were open, honest, and insightful.

While this gave staff members the opportunity to meet the new guy, it provided teachers with uninterrupted time to discuss their hopes for the upcoming school year, as well as their own professional and personal growth. Beyond making that critical bond with the adults before the first day of school, common school wide themes became evident through these meetings.

More than helping me get to know them, my staffs provided me with an entrance plan. The importance of both cannot be understated—just think, before I provided any direction, the staff had presented me with a golden road for all of us to follow. At that point, my job was to provide coherence by sharing what I had gathered, where I believe we could go, and how we could get there.

It’s amazing to witness the culture that leaders can create when they ask a few simple questions, provide many opportunities to listen, and show they truly want to know those under their care. Beyond the endless possibilities when a constellation of adults comes together through a common mission, it’s more fun working with and leading people you know.

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Learn more about creating a positive school culture from blog contributor Anthony Calannino, ICLE Senior Fellow, and hear from other thought leaders and speakers at the Leadership Academy 2018 conference in Atlanta from Nov. 2–4, 2018.