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Avoiding Pitfalls of First-year Administrators

By Jeannette Bruno on September 13, 2016 hst Print

So, you have been handed the keys to your new office and are ready to begin the new role as a high school administrator. But are you ready? The move from the front of the classroom to the front office is exciting but not without caution. There is a big learning curve for first-year administrators. Proceed through these curves with caution, and the pitfalls can be avoided.

Managing Time

Regardless of the administrative position, managing time is a priority. Your new role has a unique set of responsibilities that will change how you once operated. As an administrator, you may be spending nights and weekends at school, and it is important to manage your time wisely.

In his second year as the principal of Howell (New Jersey) High School, Jeremy Braverman suggested that a new administrator needs to “make sure you spend time wisely. Being an instructional leader trumps all things, but finding time to be one was more difficult than I expected. I was able to formalize a game plan to ensure that I could stick to my priorities.” Additionally, “making sure I use all the members of my team was also something I learned. Remember – you are only as good as your team.”

In his first year as an assistant principal, Bill Loughran, now principal at Holmdel (New Jersey) High School, suggested using time wisely when making a judgment, not rushing into a decision – especially if it involves students.

“In deciding the outcome of a student fight, it seemed pretty cut and dried, and I made arrangements to send both students out for three days,” Loughran said. “Part of my ‘haste’ stemmed from advice I got from the first principal I worked for who maintained, ‘we didn’t have all day and we needed to make quicker decisions.’” “However, it turned out that the fight was more or less one-sided – so much so that I felt I needed to change my decision.” 

Time is a valuable resource, and it is important not to waste it making hasty decisions. Hold off on any final ruling until you have had the time to review the incident thoroughly. This practice also deepens the community’s trust in you that you are fair and equitable in your decision-making process.

Establish Relationships

Jennifer Vecchiarelli, newly appointed principal of Keansburg (New Jersey) High School, emphasized the importance of establishing good, authentic and meaningful relationships.

“It sounds very simple; however, there has to be a lot of time and energy that goes into formulating strong relationships with staff, students, parents and the administrative team,” Vecchiarelli said. “If relationships are not formed with all of the aforementioned groups, there is no way any new administrator can achieve success.”

Given the nature of the education field, which necessitates continuous contact with others, it is important to learn the appropriate relationship with the different stakeholders in your new role. For example, Thomas Farrell, superintendent of the Shore Regional School District in West Long Branch, New Jersey, believes the most glaring pitfall for a first-year administrator is to avoid relationships with School Board members.

“Don’t get too congenial with Board of Education (BOE) members,” Farrell said. “Keep the relationship professional and clearly delineate between their ‘parental’ role and their BOE role. A BOE member may blur this role when they come into the building. Always keep your superintendent apprised of any meetings or conversations and when they ‘visit’ so as to not have any allusions.”

Provide Direction for Others

As a first-year supervisor of extracurricular activities at Manalapan (New Jersey) High School, John Hein relies on the mentors he had as a coach to model his behaviors in his new role.

“When I became an athletic director I had a mentor who not only I could rely upon for advice, but he had the ability to settle those down around him when difficult situations arose,” Hein said. “And if education has taught me anything over the years, it is that situations always arise. My mentor taught me that composure is something that all truly effective administrators possess.

“As a first-year athletic director, problems will arise and mistakes are going to happen, so it is important to not make excuses, but to figure out a solution and do so in a way that builds confidence in those around you. Even when you feel under pressure, remember that your actions set the tone for that part of the organization that you oversee.”

Put Pride Aside and Ask Questions

Perhaps you are taking on a new role for which you may not have had previous experience. For example, being a coach does not automatically give you all the knowledge needed as an athletic administrator. It is necessary to ask questions as you navigate your new role. As you gain your experiences, different individuals will become your “go-to” people. They may share the same role or are approachable and knowledgeable in your school’s policies and practices. Do not hesitate to lean on them for information or advice.

Kim DeGraw-Cole, currently assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, remembers taking on her new role as athletic director at Southern Regional High School, where, had it not been for a random phone call from a fellow athletic director, her football team would not have had a game schedule that year.

Clarify Your Core

Although there are different administrative roles that occupy the “front office” in diverse schools of various sizes and with different clientele and school cultures, there is one element in all the roles that will drive the proverbial boat – your core beliefs. Depending on these core beliefs, your boat will either remain adrift or steer steadily through the waters. Whatever your role, you need to define your philosophy and your beliefs. These statements will be what you rely on when making decisions.

For example, as an athletic director one core belief may be to provide a quality educational opportunity for as many students as possible within the athletic department. The coaches and staff would be encouraged and supported in any effort to increase participation. Perhaps a core belief for a principal is to provide the best instruction for all students. To support this, a principal puts time and effort into hiring the best teachers and treating them with respect and dignity. Operate in your new role with a vision, with a set of core principles and beliefs, as this will be your foundation in difficult times.