The “Care and Feeding” of Your Principal
A New Teacher’s Guide for Fostering Positive Relations and Good Interactions with School Administrators
By NAfME Member Paul K. Fox
Conventional wisdom suggests that the initial school staff you should get to know immediately on a first-name basis in your new teaching job are 1) the building secretary, 2) head custodian, and 3) cafeteria workers. (The first one keeps you out of trouble, the second cleans up your messes, and the last group makes sure you’re well-fed!)
However, even more influential, the principal “assigned to you” will literally “make or break” a smooth transition and orientation into the workplace. Especially if this person was partially responsible for hiring you (a member of the screening committee that chose you from all of the other qualified candidates), he/she should be your penultimate mentor! To validate the administrator’s judgment (and you continuing to be the “hero”), he/she will likely be highly motivated to foster your success!
So . . . once you land your new position, your first move should be to learn everything you can about your “champion”. Find out his/her goals, needs, and pet peeves, and while you’re at it, get off on the right foot with relations with all of your school supervisors.
Here are some tips for “rookie” or new music teachers to cultivate these relationships.
According to the article, “The Principal’s Role in the Music Program” by Orville Aftreth in the Music Educators Journal (Vol. 46, No. 3, January 1960, pp. 41-44), “A successful music program requires a principal who enables the following basic attitudes:
- A belief in the value and importance of music;
- A desire to grow his ability to enjoy, appreciate, and produce music;
- A willingness to vitalize school activities through music.”
But, unfortunately, it seems that few administrators have significant and ongoing experiences in making music.
While I was doing online research for this blog, I stumbled upon an excellent thesis titled, “Why We Love Music: A Case Study of High School Principals,” which seemed to support this premise.
A principal’s musical background influenced their view of music as a key part of a quality education. Most of the principals’ formal experience in the arts ended early in their life, and none took classes on how to be an effective administrator for an arts program. Principal certification courses typically deal with finance, special education, and general leadership and administration.—D. Benjamin Williams
My own history (35 years of teaching in the public schools with 30+ administrators) was to serve with only one principal who was a former music teacher, and perhaps 10% of the remaining administrators had any real arts education experience (or even regularly played an instrument or sang in a choir).
Williams shared the purpose of his case study: “to gain an understanding of school administrators’ thoughts on their school’s music program in regards to music’s role and value.” He documented the comments of five principals in their advocacy of the arts.
The research questions posed in this study centered on the following:
- What are common values and/or themes among administrators when it comes to music in their schools?
- Are there common points of advocacy administrators find themselves making in support of their school’s music program?
- What do administrators see as benefits of having a music program in their schools?
- Where does music fit in the overall vision of a school?
- What is music’s role in a quality education?
They mentioned how the arts are an opportunity to plug in, be engaged, and earn scholarships; that they create an identity for the individual and for the school; that they make a whole student and contribute to a whole education; and that they provide opportunities for higher-order thinking, such as critical or creative thinking and problem solving, that are encouraged in core-content areas as well. The pressure placed on education institutions in the 21st century are focused on these concepts, and the principals saw that music helped and encouraged students to develop these abilities. This is why they chose to support, advocate, and build up their school’s music programs.—D. Benjamin Williams
I repeat: the first advice we give to newcomers to the profession is know your bosses! And, intentionally invite, “educate,” include, and engage them in your music classes and ensembles’ activities! Draw a circle around him/her to become a member of your team!
He drew a circle to shut me out,
heretic rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
we drew a circle that took him in.
— Edwin Markham
This view is reinforced by the article “Ways to Build Better Working Relationships with Your Principal” by Gabriel L. Woods on the NAfME Music in a Minuet blog. He shares a summary of the basics:
- Understand your principal and his/her job.
- Build positive relationships with your principal.
- Learn techniques to make your principal work for you and your program.
- Learn how to think like a principal.
Each year when I return from honor bands or other music related field trips, I make it a habit to purchase my administrators a small token of appreciation to let them know the trip was a great success. Students must write an essay, and they present the administrators with the gift. In the essay, students are required to write what they learned, what the field trip meant to them, and how they will use this experience to make the school better. Praise is effective.— Gabriel L. Woods
Also, you should check out an even more recent NAfME blog, “Stronger Together: How to Get Administrators on Your Side” by Lori Schwartz Reichl, which offers a great perspective. Several meaningful quotes from her piece:
Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. — Henry Ford
Remember that even though you are not taking the role of administrator, you are a leader. You lead a program. You lead a musical family. You are the leader of a superior sound. You are the leader of inspiration for your community. In the most genuine way, lead your administrator to a music education crescendo.— Lori Schwartz Reichl
After a little brainstorming, I recalled my own working “top-ten list” of techniques for building harmonious interactions and collaborations with your school leaders.
- Be the first to arrive and the last to leave, and you will earn their respect! Professionals, especially music teachers who participate in co- and extra-curricular activities, are not “clock watchers” and need to put in the time before and after school to prepare and achieve meaningful learning experiences for their students.
- Learn what makes them tick! Is your principal a site-based manager? Is he/she a stickler for “chain of command”? I had an administrator who would go bonkers if he thought you back-copied a memo to the superintendent or called a central office manager first. Be sure you conform to the management style of your chief. This is a way of showing him/her respect and cooperation, which in all likelihood, will be returned to you in spades.
- Keep your principal “in the loop” and “in your corner,” and make sure you communicate any serious disputes that come up (especially with unhappy parents) that could blow up in your/his/her faces in the future. This also means you don’t subscribe to the philosophy, “Don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness.” Proponents of this belief will tell you to go ahead and stick your neck out, perhaps do something “for the good of the order,” and later declare “oops!” if it goes south and your administrators disapprove. I cannot vouch for the ethics of this position, and “venturing out without a paddle” usually did not serve the best interests of the students. There’s no reason to place “the teacher’s convenience” over the safety and welfare of the children, and you should first try to obtain the legal and political endorsement of your boss(es) as you keep them appraised about what you are doing. Don’t be a nag, just “cc:” when appropriate, and “ask,” don’t “tell”!
- Give them credit! Publicly, you make it clear: you and your students’ awards and accomplishments are also your administrators’ awards and accomplishments. If it is possible, have your principal join you on stage to accept any ensemble honors.
- Serve on a non-music related committee or project. Principals are always looking for volunteers to help fulfill the overarching goals of the district. This might mean signing up for the strategic planning committee, Middle States accreditation evaluation team, school renovation planning meetings with the architect, etc.
- Engage your principal as a participant in your program: concert appearances as guest conductor or solo/ensemble performer, featured narrator or announcer, limited-engagement as a walk-on part in the musical, judge of talent show, etc.
- Model professionalism and good time management skills. Be prompt in the completion of all deadlines assigned by administration. Don’t turn your principal (or his secretary) into a “nag” requiring numerous follow-up reminders.
- Understand the importance of public perceptions and “appearances.” Many school leaders spend an inordinate amount time trying to defend the sometimes questionable actions of their staff. Don’t make this necessary! Be responsible for your “public brand.” If it looks bad, it is bad . . . and that’s always up to you!
- Don’t just bring up problems, have answers! At odds with an existing policy or practice? Suggest a solution and a Plan B to an issue you would like to address. Upholding “moral professionalism,” tactfully but firmly point out what is not working (and why). But, do your homework first. Share the “facts and stats” and try to propose several different directions to consider (even a Plan C and a Plan D). You will impress the “head honcho” by modeling the traits of flexibility, creative problem solving, and sensitivity to the needs of other staff and programs.
- Think long term and back-up your requests with numbers! When you submit your budget for the next school year, include the “tangibles” and statistics that your principal could use to fight for you. Include data on and percent changes in student enrollments, per-pupil costs, history of past purchases, etc. and separate your proposals into one-, two-, three-, and/or five-year “plans” to spread out the expense for big-ticket items. Be specific and prioritize! When asked to “cut” my sheet music amounts, I assembled a set of sample folders with all of the music I used in the current year and broke down each selection’s current (replacement) price, each concert’s overall value, percentage of the repertoire used from my library, projected losses, etc. In one case, I predicted that if the district went through with its reduction of the music budget by 20% and (at the time) the cost of sheet music was rising 15%, I would be forced to schedule one fewer public performance in the school year. (It never happened!)
Edutopia provided excellent insight in promoting collaborative relationships with your principal. In “Five Ways to Develop a Partnership with Your Principal” by Ben Johnson, this advice was shared:
- Have a Face-to-Face Meeting
- Make Your Resource Needs Known
- Write It Down
- Invite Her into Your Classroom
- Offer Encouragement
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.— George Bernard Shaw
Another resource worth reading is “A Teacher’s Guide to Working with Your Principals” by Kristy Louden. She reflects: “But aside from the obvious factor that your principal is your boss, and you want your boss to think well of you, I have found my relationship with my principal has helped in more ways than I probably realize. Here’s why:
- They’ll think of you . . . (when an opportunity comes up that you might want).
- You can ask for what you want.
- You’ll get respect and recognition.
- You have a reference (just in case).”
Finally, the most comprehensive manual I have ever read on this subject should be a required read for every music educator: Enhancing the Professional Practice of Music Teachers: 101 Tips That Principals Want Music Teachers to Know and Do by Paul Young. To add to the above guidelines, I would especially peruse these recommendations:
- Tip #13: Work closely with classroom teachers
- Tip #30: Take charge of your schedule
- Tip #41: Continuously improve classroom management
- Tip #62: Make ethical decisions
- Tip #80: Write notes, return phone calls, reply to email
- Tip #93: Perform (satisfy your own pursuit of creative self-expression)
- Tip #97: Improve your leadership skills (quotes from the book Leadership 101 by John Maxwell)
This final point is an excellent one. You are in charge of your own self-improvement projects and professional development. Administrators want to see staff members who seek growth experiences. Don’t wait for the annual implementation of the district’s “latest flavor of the year” in-service program (as it is sometimes referred to by teachers) or your supervisor’s year-end conference. Do your own self-assessment and plan specific and measurable goals and tasks to fulfill them. Always strive to do your best and be harder on yourself than anyone else (even administration) can ever be. Model the concepts of focus, cooperation, self-discipline, and a positive attitude in the workplace.
Now, take a deep breath. It’s all about one step at a time. Soak up these ideas. You can and will nurture happy and productive relationships with your principal and other school administrators, enhance your professional image and effectiveness, and foster opportunities of achievement and self-fulfillment for you and your music students!
About the author:
Paul K. Fox, a NAfME Retired Member, is Chair of the PMEA State Council for Teacher Training, Recruitment, and Retention. He invites you to peruse his website.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
September 25, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)
September 25, 2019
September 25, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)