How to ensure your 'principal radar' serves you well

How to ensure your

by Mark McKelson

We all remember our first day as principal.

The Principal Radar is in overdrive. From the second you walk in the front door, to your first interactions with staff, how do the students react, looking at the condition of the facilities, the presentation of the classrooms and most importantly taking note of staff room dynamics.

You are friendly but you don’t want to make friends, who will you be able to trust? Who is going to come on board? Who are going to be the barriers to change? The school council and region had set a mandate for me to transform this school. The staff had no idea of the tsunami of change to come.

The assistant principal had organised a staff meeting for me to meet the staff before the start of the school day. I was watching who sat with who, who was listening, who stayed around to chat, who was on their phone. They are oblivious to what I was looking for and what I was watching. The staff are understandably nervous when the new boss starts and so was I, but I had a job to do and I was ready for them.  I’m not sure they were ready for me. More about that later.

I spent the first week in classrooms, in the yard, hanging around the office and meeting with key stakeholders.  What did they think of the previous principal? What was her style? What were they used to? What did they expect from me?  That would come out in the fullness of time, but first impressions count and it was fascinating. Make sure you have spreadsheet open on your desktop with four pages:

  • Teaching and learning
  • Student behaviour
  • Facilities and resources
  • Administration

You need to write it all down. Each night I made notes of what I’d seen and what needed to change. Whether they are asking you to change the school or not, there will be things you see every day that don’t sit right with you. Plan from the first day. You will surprise yourself by how much you notice in the first week. It helps you clarify your thinking and getting ready for the first school council meeting. The more analysis you complete before the first meeting, the more impressed they will be by how well you know their school.

You’re going to see resources that need replacing, processes that need refining, but most importantly you need to watch the staffroom. 

Who sits next to who, who looks the other way when you walk in the room, who doesn’t come in during recess, who is complaining about their class? Who is talking positively? Who is talking negatively? 

You are just taking it all in, not challenging, just lots of paraphrasing and empathy in the first few weeks. Start to build those professional relationships and see who is going to come on board. If used the right way your Principal Radar will serve you well.

Mark McKelson is a principal at Langwarrin Primary School located in Melbourne, Victoria