Ways to Build Better Working Relationships with Your Principal

 “My Administrator Hates My Music Program!”

Ways to Build Better Working Relationships with Your Principal

By NAfME member Gabriel L. Woods

As I have traveled across our beautiful country, I have increasingly found that many of our music educators are having issues with their administrators. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve had good and bad administrators. Some support music education, and some support their own agendas—trying to please district personnel in eventually becoming a highly paid executive.

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I must admit that I wondered if the administrator was the enemy in my first year of teaching. In teaching preparation programs, we talk about music theory, music history, music literature, and other courses that lead us to be great musicians. As a student and in my career, I have never heard conversations about who really can make or break our programs—the administrator. The only course for this is experience.

The administrator is the one person who will decide whether or not your music program will perform at Disney or allow students to stay overnight, or assist you financially in building and supporting your music program. The administrator is the person who may make or break your career.


BYOP, or Build Your Own Program

When conversing with college undergraduates, novice and veteran teachers, I always hear, “I want to have the best band program.” Or, “I want to have that school’s program”—not realizing or understanding that no program can be built the same because we all have different leaders with different management styles.

I can’t expect my inner city middle school to have the same resources as the suburban affluent middle schools. However, I can set and deliver higher expectations for my students. This can be done anywhere and in any situation. In most cases, your administrator wants high expectations for your students. Each district and state may support music education differently especially in the finance department. It may take some time before your administrator asks you, “Do you need more money?” Find what makes your band program thrive; then ask the principal for assistance in small steps. You don’t need fifteen tubas when you only have five tubas in the band.


Communication and Manners

Born and raised in South Georgia, I understand the importance of utilizing manners with leadership. I see many of my colleagues make unrealistic demands for their program instead of simply asking for what they need in a professional manner. Remember, your principal is human and should be treated with respect.

Learning how to communicate through respect and professionalism can help your program progress each year. Communicate with all stakeholders of your program. Our parents can be our best advocates or our worst foes. Parents typically decide their first year rather you will be a good or bad fit for their child’s band program. In many cases, this same parent will talk to an administrator about you at some point in the year.

Your first year at a school should not involve implementing your entire five-year plan in one year. Try to plan early with your administrator in the months of June or July when the school is empty and they have the extra time to sit down and talk about your program. Make appointments and have no more than five items on your list. Administrators typically lose interest after the fifth item.

Just remember that the Grade 6 band program was not built in a day. It takes time and patience.

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How do you feel when your child gives you a permission slip form and tells you it needs to be signed right now at 5:30AM in the morning or the night before and needs $25 on the same day? In most cases we become upset at the child because they have known about this information for about two months.

Your principal feels the same way when you propose a field trip two weeks before it is supposed to take place, when the form should have been signed a month before. Or say, “I need $1000 by tomorrow to purchase instruments because we have a concert in three weeks.”

Plan, plan, and plan ahead to ensure your music program receives the items and funding needed for the school year. Keep in mind your administrators report to central office and often they have meetings after meetings with central office which pulls their time from the school setting.

I have learned when to approach and not approach my principal in regards to money or other needs of the music program. The weeks before any state or district standardized test is probably not a great time to talk music with your administrator. If you know your principal has a meeting with central office a couple of days before, it is probably not a good idea to talk about financial goals for the year. Be strategic in everything you do. Good timing will be one of those strategies that will greatly benefit you and your program.


ADMLNT, or All Dogs Must Learn New Tricks

I know many of my colleagues may not want to hear this but in order to have longevity in the field of music education, All Dogs Must Learn New Tricks.

Over the years, you may have noticed administrators come and go. Some of us are very fortunate to have an administrator for five years. I have many mentors who taught band in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—many of whom do not understand times have changed. Students are on social media, they play every sport, and they are in every club available at the school. We live in a world of increasing literacy and math scores. Don’t be disappointed that your principal is talking about standardized test scores instead of what grade of music you are playing for your concerts or large group performance evaluation. Instead, join in the conversation and show how your music program can support academics in the school.

My academic goals for my students are for them to be able to read on grade level and increase reading comprehension through music. As students continually increase reading comprehension, their understanding of music will increase. Remember: you repor t to your administrator at the school, not three adjudicators that you will only see for less than thirty minutes in a year.

Your music program will be able to progress even more when you take the time to show your administrator the importance of large-group performance evaluation and how it can benefit the music program or each child individually through academics. I have always had positive reactions when talking with my administrator and tailoring my lesson plans to academics and music. It is a win-win situation for students, the music educator, and the educational leader. In most cases, you and the administrator would like to develop—and should develop—academic goals for the band program. Know your data in literacy and math and show how you can improve the overall school goals through your music program.

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KYP, or Know Your Principal!

My principal always wants all the concert programs to start on time, and not a minute late, and just like mom, she does not like embarrassing moments in front of the public. Also, I know what type of day it will be by her demeanor in the morning. If she is stern today, then it’s probably not a good idea to ask her about anything. In some situations, she approves when she has finally eaten something and had a bottle of Coke.

Know your principal’s likes and dislikes about the program and improve on the perceived weaknesses. Give a plan of action of how you can change these weaknesses and what you will need to make the program better over time not in one year. I know her facial expressions, and for the most part I understand when she leads the way she does. Knowing your principal and understanding their leadership style can save you a lot of frustrating days and trips to the principal’s or district office.



Believe it or not we all will have to play the politician role at some point in our careers in music education. When I think about it, we do this each year with student recruitment, parents, and through other entities that support our programs.

I have learned to play the game with my administrators to benefit my students. This means when your principal calls you to the office and tells you, “I need you to complete a certain objective,” find the way to do it. Your administrator does not forget about key things, and it could benefit you and your program over the years.

Talk to your school board members and invite them to concerts at school. Allow district personnel, administrators, and board members to conduct or speak at your concert. This encourages educational leaders to be accountable by the words that they have spoken in support of music programs with parents, keeping the pressure on leaders to find ways to build programs. There are simply battles that you won’t win, and they are really not worth fighting in certain times.


Praising Is Not the Same Thing as Kissing Up!

Praise your principal: let him or her know that what they are doing for the music program is building a stronger school. Remember, just because you are leader does not mean you do not want to receive praise.

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.


Grand Finale

Finally, understand that the school does not evolve around the music program. As I have moved into leadership roles from the public school system and higher education, I have a better understanding that my administrator simply can’t tailor everything around the music program. It is her job to ensure that the music program plays an integral role in the curriculum for all students.

Learn to work with your principal—even the ones who are challenging. Each principal will have his or her own agenda and management styles. For those of you who have bad administrators right now at your school, know that this administrator will leave eventually. Seek out advice from all directors and listen to their experiences with their administrators. Learn to work with all situations, and eventually, your love and passion for educating students will show through your students’ work.

Continue to progress one step at a time, and know that you are making a difference even when you never see it. Ultimately, find ways to make a difference with your principal and build a team that will make your program the best in your administrator’s eyes.

This 2016 National Conference session covered how to build positive working relationships with your principal and how to make your principal part of the music-building process. Music educators often omit their administrators in the process of building the music program. Topics covered in this session included:

  • understanding your principal and their job,
  • building positive relationships with your principal,
  • learning techniques to make your principal work for you and your program,
  • and learning how to think like a principal.

Two principals served as panel members for a question-and-answer session after the presentation.

About the author:

music professor

NAfME member Gabriel Woods currently serves as the Director of Bands and School Induction Coordinator at Myers Middle School. He received his undergraduate education from Georgia State University. He holds a Masters of Music in Music Education from Anderson University South Carolina School of the Arts. Mr. Woods is a current graduate student at the University of Georgia. He has served as an evaluator of teacher certification test in Georgia and certification test developer for Educational Testing Services. He also has presented sessions on increasing literacy through music and teaching with themes in music based classrooms. Mr. Woods serves as a full time faculty member at Savannah State University, adjunct professor and curriculum developer for Ogeechee Technical College. Mr. Woods’s professional affiliations include the Georgia Music Educators Association, the National Association for Music Education, the College Music Society, and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. 

Gabriel Woods presented on this topic at the 2016 NAfME National Conference. Register today for the 2018 National Conference!


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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, September 14, 2016. © Natio nal Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)