Three Valuable Lessons from a First Year Administrator

Post-it note: I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening.As I approach the end of my first year as Assistant Principal at Hickory Elementary in Avon Community Schools, I am taking time to reflect on the experience. After years of experience in education, I was faced with a new reality, I often needed help. Reflection is key to growth, but in this new role the pace can move so fast that slowing down to reflect is impossible.

I learned these three valuable lessons that were learned over time. As I grew into the role, I began to change my behavior to be a better listener and learner.

1. Learn By Listening

As a new leader, it is tempting to share your knowledge to prove you “know your stuff,” but you’ll get a lot farther by knowing when to step back and listen. The following quote from Larry King was helpful in reminding me why I needed to improve my listening skills, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” The truth is I have a lot to learn and hearing myself speak isn’t going to increase my knowledge. When I am tempted to share my opinion or advice, I stop and follow a three step pattern: Actively listen, paraphrase, and ask a probing question to gain more information. If we really want to move thinking, we need to serve as coaches to our staff and not as the keepers of all knowledge.

If we really want to move thinking, we need to serve as coaches to our staff and not as the keepers of all knowledge.
First Year Assistant Principals: Karmesha Molton, Tonya Moody, Jen McCann Thomas, and Melissa McCollum
First Year Assistant Principals: Karmesha Molton, Tonya Moody, Jen McCann Thomas, and Melissa McCollum

2. Find Your People

It is important to find a mentor or mentors! As a first-year administrator, new situations arose that I have never experienced before, and it would not have been wise to make these decisions alone. Each mentor may serve a distinct purpose such as someone to help with curriculum and instruction or a mentor who is great with difficult conversations.

You’ll need a team. Just like we build strong collaborative grade level and support teams, you will need an administrative team. These are the people who push your thinking, have your back, and cheer you on! Luckily, I started my career in administration next to three other first year Assistant Principals. Their constant support and guidance were a crucial component to my success.

3.Notice and Name All the Strengths

Your job is not to come in ready to make changes. The school was already moving and grooving before you ever showed up. Resist the temptation to “fix” and instead focus on greatness. Strengths exist in every building and as the leader, it is your job to notice and name them! So, be the leader who is willing to build on strengths. Just as we would want teachers to build on the positives, it is our job to do the same.

As my first year concluded, I was extremely grateful to the strong leaders who set an example for my entire career in education. Their leadership was a reminder that we can continue to improve while also pushing for growth in our schools. As I walk into year two, I am a little wiser and still just as grateful to lead in an incredible building full of learning and JOY.

Be the leader who is willing to build on strengths.

2021-2022 First Year Administrators Reflections:

This first year as an assistant principal was a whirlwind! If the worst of Covid-19 were behind us and then quickly learning it was not, it would make the first half of the school year challenging in a way that was unexpected. However, maneuvering through that challenge also provided a way for me to get to know my staff and students on a personal level. Before checking in on instruction, I was often checking in on well-being. We all know that building relationships is so vital, and during a pandemic, it was the most important first step. Leading during a pandemic also taught me to lead with grace, patience, and flexibility as we kept the health and safety of our students at the forefront, while also providing them with the tools to be successful academically.

While I truly hope that the worst of the pandemic is finally behind us, I am thankful for the lessons I learned and look forward to taking those lessons with me as I continue my assistant principalship in a new building this upcoming school year.

– Karmesha Molton, River Birch Elementary

My first year was a whirlwind of listening and learning.  I am blessed with a principal who leads by example and has shown me how to lead with a blend of high expectations and grace. One of the biggest takeaways from my first year as an assistant principal is that teamwork is truly what builds a solid foundation for a building. Having strong teacher leaders and building their capacity is essential to creating an optimal environment for growth for students and staff.  Finding people who can prioritize the school’s mission and balancing their strengths is key to creating an effective network of support.

-Jen McCann Thomas, Pine Tree Elementary

As I reflect on my first year as an administrator, I think back to the many times I found myself saying, “I’ve never worked this hard in my life, but I love it.” I feel like that was a bit of an exaggeration because I can think back to my years as a classroom teacher and felt the same way. There are so many similarities and differences between administration and classroom teaching. Constant decision making, bridging miscommunication gaps, pressing forward for growth and development, connecting supports for student success, and putting in the work to make sustainable change. Administration comes with an added responsibility of making the call and being responsible for the outcomes and an awareness that many people are most likely questioning your decision. Some might say that an administrator’s decisions are hasty or not thought out, but I can assure you that I lost many hours reflecting on and considering the decision I made this year.

-Jessica Aldrich, Westfield Intermediate School