Trials of a First-Year Principal: Getting Hired

Trials of a First-Year Principal: Getting Hired

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By Christopher Bailey, Ed.D.

Being a principal takes hard work, passion, and a network of those who’ve walked the path before you to offer their lessons learned—especially if you’re an early career principal. This is where I come in.

After serving as a band director for nine years and an assistant principal for six years, this year I am proud to serve as a middle school campus principal for the first time. Over the next 12 months, I will reflect on my journey as a first-year principal. From deciding when to start applying through preparing for year two, I will share successes, failures, tips, and pitfalls to support you on your journey in school leadership. Thanks for taking a ride with me on this amazing roller coaster of school leadership.

Am I Ready to Be a Principal?

Great question! The short answer is probably no, but we must start somewhere. When I started my career as a band director, if you would have told me I was going to be a campus principal, I would have probably laughed hysterically at the notion. But one day, a mentor, my then-superintendent, asked me, “What’s your plan?” His confidence in my potential as a school leader was all the motivation I needed to start thinking about how I could scale my leadership influence beyond the band hall to support student learning at the campus level. Eight months later, I began my first year as an assistant principal.

Campus principals will tell you that there is a stark difference between the roles of principal and assistant principal. That doesn’t prevent you, however, from seeking ways to think and operate at the systems level on your campus. Don’t wait for the invitation to serve on a district-wide committee or start a new outreach program. Start building your understanding of the broader scope of leadership within the school setting. Find ways to build your network of leadership development and support. While serving as an assistant principal, I also completed my doctorate in K-12 Educational Leadership from Baylor University. A large part of my network is through my doctoral program.

Some other ways to develop your network include:

  • Following thought leaders on social media platforms;
  • Attending state and national conferences offered through organizations such as NAESP;
  • Organizing group sessions with other aspiring leaders within your school district or region;
  • Starting a blog, podcast, or Twitter chat to share your leadership journey.

Defining Your “Yes”

The average tenure of a public school principal is four years, with a third of principals leaving their position within the first two years, according to a Learning Policy Institute report. Sometimes reasons to leave, such as salary, pressures of high-stakes accountability systems, and poor working conditions, are out of their control. The search for the right fit in professional and personal aspirations, however, is within the candidate’s control.

As leaders, we have to define what is best personally and professionally prior to starting our search for new positions. It is easy to jump at every new vacancy and land in a pitfall of a seat that is not right for you or the students and staff that you serve.

When defining your “yes,” here are some things to consider:

  • What geographic region do I want to serve (urban, suburban, rural)?
  • How will this move affect my family?
  • Will this district help me to grow and allow me to lead?
  • Are this district’s strategic plan and daily operations aligned with my core values?

Preparing Your Application

While every district and every principal search are different, it is common for a school district to receive triple-digit number of applications for a principal position. If your application lacks substance as it relates to the position that is not organized in a reader-friendly fashion, you might struggle to get noticed.

Through research, I learned that the district valued strong community connections, so in my cover letter, I highlighted my family connection in my current district and how I served the community in my previous district. I also researched the demographics and assessment history of the district. Having a strong understanding of these components allowed me to know how to include the systems of campus improvement that I facilitated on my previous campus.

Here are some ways that you can make your application materials stand out:

  • Update your resume every time you complete a noteworthy task, presentation, or committee participation.
  • Introduce yourself in a way that connects to the unique needs of the school and district.
  • Ask your network of leaders to share their past cover letters and resumes, and use them as a point of reflection for your own resume.
  • Be as detailed as possible in your online application, and triple-check spelling and grammar.

Wrapping it Up

While I never felt entirely ready for the principal position, I prepared, and I continue to prepare, every day for the opportunity to serve. Paraphrasing French chemist Louis Pasteur, chance favors the prepared mind. We have no control over whether we get an interview. But we do have control over how we prepare. Being prepared starts with you defining your “yes.” Then, out of the blue, the phone rings with the invitation to interview.

Yikes! Now what? We’ll discuss that next month!

Christopher Bailey, Ed.D., is principal of Clack Middle School in the Abilene Independent School District in Texas. Connect with him on Twitter at @stixbailey.