I’ve Been a Principal for 15 Years, Here’s 12 Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

This marks my 15th year as a principal. I have learned directly from my coaches, mentors and colleagues.

Many of the lessons I have learned and continue to learn, are no different than any leadership advice that I have read in countless articles and books about leadership: Be curious. Be humble. Read. Read some more. Use data to decide what’s the best course of action. Listen. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Set a high bar of expectations and be flexible in your approach.

As a tribute to National Principals Month, and a reminder to myself, I wanted to share several of these messages with you.

  1. Protect the culture of achievement in your school. It seems obvious, but the most egregious undermining to a culture of achievement are often low expectations. While people generally ascribe low expectations to student-facing work, the lowest held expectations are usually attributed to adults. Set the bar of high expectations and high levels of support to reach those expectations unapologetically high. A culture of achievement is bound to follow.
  2. Don’t harm children in the name of efficiency. Schools and school systems are often case studies of inefficiencies. But, changes need to be made with the well-being of children in mind. If your efficient system increases undue stress on children, it is far from effective, it is oppressive. Be sure that you analyze the plethora of systems in your school to ensure students are feeling whole, valued and emotionally safe.
  3. Hire folks you disagree with. Not on ethical issues—you and your team should be tightly aligned in those. But, look for people who see the challenges with different lenses. Find the educators who look at the same problem and see different potential. My leadership team is very different from me and we have very different backgrounds. But, we are all relentlessly committed to our community.
  4. Be political. I often hear that schools should be devoid of political statements. But, proponents of such misguidance fail to realize that everything an educator does, from choosing materials, books, and curriculum, delivering instruction, or remaining silent on issues of oppression are political decisions. Being apolitical doesn’t mean remaining silent, silence is often the most political of all statements and actions.
  5. Do your job (protect and promote what’s in the best interests of your studentsand don’t be afraid to get fired. Although this can relate to being political, it often means not being afraid to stand up for children. As I speak around the country, I sometimes receive emails telling me that I am in a unique position, that some of my declarations would get me fired in other districts. But, I wonder, is that line really that wide? Or is my outlook on who and what is most important only second to my faith? Choose your battles wisely, but safeguard your integrity when it comes to the children and families you serve. You may eventually hear, “We don’t think you’re the right fit.” And, if your conscious is clear, you can tell them, “You’re absolutely right.”
  6. Embed yourself in the communityeven if you don’t live there. Despite the long hours and the tons of tasks, your school should serve as an anchoring and supportive hub within the community you serve. How else do you support that community? Do you shop there? If you serve Black communities, how often do you buy Black? Do you support students’ interests outside of school-sponsored activities? Find ways to engage the community outside of the school.
  7. Don’t blink. Be fearless. You are there for children. If you’re Black, know that you’ll continue to encounter micro-aggressions. You very likely encountered them as a teacher leader or as an assistant principal. Although you should be prepared to have your intelligence, work and commitment questioned. Some of the critics will “share your skin, but they won’t be your kin” in this work. Just because someone is Black does not mean they are all in for Black liberation. We saw revolutionary DuBois call out the popular Booker T. Washington when the latter promoted a universal education system that didn’t call for immediate equality for all Black children.
  8. Be a good manager, but be a great leader. Tom Peters said, “Managing is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing.” Implement both, but know the difference and be able to discern what is needed in the moment and situation. Mack Story remarked, “If we want to be served by the people, we manage them. If we want to serve people, we lead them.” In schools, servant leadership can go a long way to meeting the collective needs of the school.
  9. Don’t have anyone surpass your own expectations. If someone, even your supervisor, has higher expectations for you and your team than you do, resign. Immediately.
  10. Self-care is important. Don’t make excuses to avoid taking care of yourself. The stress of the work and the limited time will wreak havoc on your health if you allow it. The two pounds a year I gained during my principalship is catching up with me, and I swear to do something about it. As I am often reminded, you can’t be there for others, if you’re not there for yourself. But, in addition to that, find other ways to rejuvenate. The stress of safeguarding the aspirations of thousands of others, can take its toll. You see up close the havoc that institutionalized racism and oppression can wreck on communities. So, determine how you will  find peace and beauty in the world. I choose reading, writing and nature (I’ll add exercise back on my list soon). What will you choose?
  11. Don’t undermine the principalship. Your role is isolating, challenging, and it may even feel thankless at times, but be wary of complaining. Be open about your experiences, but know that when folks only hear how hard and challenging your role is, it decreases the bench, causing less people to aspire to serve in this important role. Sure, share the challenges, but don’t be shy about sharing why you love your job.
  12. Have fun. It really is one of the best and most impactful jobs in the world. When I retire, not only will I miss the honor and opportunity to serve, but also the camaraderie and collegiality I have had with so many different teams.

This list is hardly exhaustive. The honor of having worked with thousands of students, their families, and hundreds of teachers and staff, teach and remind me daily of habits that are important to principals. What would you add?

Happy National Principals’ Month!

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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