National Principals Month, King Kekaulike Principal Mark Elliott is providing a guest column here on supporting and cultivating school leaders.
As someone who has jumped from airplanes, swam with sharks, taught life science to middle schoolers, survived Minnesota winters and commuted daily in New York City traffic, I feel that I can credibly say that there are few experiences in life that are more scary than one’s first day as a school principal.
I remember my first day at Lokelani Intermediate like it was a few hours ago. When I stood in front of the staff on Oct. 31, 2012, everyone looked at me in a way that I’d never been looked at before. Their eyes told me I was supposed to know something, and say something and do something — but what was it? After walking blindly into a campus-wide celebration in progress, I timidly officiated the student Halloween Costume Contest and then, after self consciously announcing every enthusiasm and profession of commitment to Lokelani students’ success that I could think of, I spent the rest of the day wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into.
Then, a couple of days later, I got the notice from the Hawaii State Department of Education that I was assigned to the New Principal Academy (NPA) for two years. Several visits off island were required. Lots and lots of meetings were scheduled. I was not enthused. I thought, “Great. More work. I don’t need this right now. I’m in over my head as it is...”
I couldn’t have been less accurate in my apprehension.
NPA provides many newly appointed principals as well as myself a lifeline of sorts. The NPA also provided essential tools to help me and others who were stepping into the leadership role of school principal.
The program requires all new principals to participate in a two-year cohort where educational officers gather for a series of professional development sessions as a large group, as well as an opportunity within smaller groups to visit one another’s schools for focused discussion and comparative evaluation of each schools’ programs, strengths and areas for growth. Within the large groups, specialists walked us through school budget process and procedure, school climate and culture, working with diverse staff communities, developing relevant and organic academic plans, maintaining positive and transparent relationships with our communities, and a host of other topics — the details of which can make or break principals.
The most essential element that continues to carry me today is the ongoing dialogue with my cohort and other administrators from across our island chain — all of us who are in the initial stages of finding our way through myriad challenges and expectations as a school leader. These cohorts of trusting collaborators were cemented more than anything through loosely structured visits provided during the second year of NPA: we explored and analyzed real-time challenges leading to valuable, shared insight.
This network would never have happened without the time and expense provided for us — we would’ve had no means to create such an opportunity. These ongoing relationships have made a world of difference in shortening the learning curve.
NPA’s organized visits to other schools had a tremendous effect in opening my eyes to many new possibilities for student success. I saw firsthand that the best models are found in many of our HIDOE schools. The opportunity to share with other new principals in a HIDOE-directed and facilitated forum not only allowed me to face the challenges — it was critical to my survival during the first two years as principal. I wish the program’s duration was four years instead of two. NPA provided perspectives that have been the most influential factors in keeping me on my chosen and cherished path in support of the success of our Hawaii keiki.
Principal, King Kekaulike High School, Maui