Whether it’s their first year on the job or they have decades of school leadership experience, principals face a unique set of challenges each and every new school year – even without a global pandemic thrown in the mix. So how do they do it? What can rookie principals learn from their veteran colleagues? And what can seasoned pros pick up from first-year principals new on the scene?
In honor of National Principals Month this October, we checked in with four HCPS principals with varying years of experience to discover what they believe effective principals know and do to provide all students with access to high quality education and productive learning experiences.
Bobby Wilkins is in his 29th season as a principal, having served the past two decades at Hendersonville High.
Kim Henderson has been a principal for a total of 7 years, the past 2 of which have been at Hendersonville Elementary.
John McDaris and Dena Wolfe are each in their 1st years as principals, at Rugby Middle and Clear Creek Elementary, respectively.
All four educators have taught and served as Assistant Principals in Henderson County Public Schools prior to their current roles, and together have an impressive 102 years in education.
Tips from Seasoned Leaders
Bobby Wilkins stressed the importance of setting expectations and being present. In thinking about the single most important thing a new principal should do in their first year, Wilkins was quick to say that setting and communicating expectations is critical.
“Show them that you will do whatever it takes for the school to meet those expectations,” he said. Wilkins advises beginning principals to be part of everything that goes on in their schools. “Go to all of the games, productions and concerts. Let (students and staff) know how much you care about them and their areas of work.”
Kim Henderson said a principal needs to be flexible, and an empathetic, trusted communicator.
“A principal should be an open and willing listener to staff, students and parents,” she said. “They should strive to be kind, calm, and prepared to tackle a variety of different situations, and they should be caring toward everyone they interact with and follow through on the promises they make to others.”
Local Mentors in School Leadership
Dena Wolfe said she feels fortunate to work with and glean experience from both new and veteran principals in the county. She recalls that Melanie Adams, retired principal of Flat Rock Middle School, taught her two key tenets that impact her work as a new principal: “One is to model what you expect,” Wolfe said. “And the second is that you are going to have to make tough decisions, but it’s all about how you treat people.”
John McDaris said that the most impactful principals he’s known have all been exceptional in building strong relationships. He said, “They made it a priority to know the names of students, respond promptly to concerns, and worked to build great partnerships with community members.”
He added that good principals genuinely care about the wellbeing of others, and their passion for service is evident in every interaction. “Those principals have given me a model of leadership, kindness, and professionalism that I aspire to reach in my own practice,” said McDaris.
Asked how seasoned principals can learn from new leaders coming into the field today, Wolfe said that new principals offer a fresh perspective on what’s become familiar for those with more experience. New principals bring new ideas.
“The experienced principals in Henderson County Public Schools have been a tremendous support to me. What I have discovered in our conversations is that they are willing to talk through situations with me (and) even if they may not have a definite answer, they are willing to learn alongside me.”
McDaris agrees. As a beginning principal, he observed that one of the best things about educators is that they are always learning, even well into their careers.
“One of the things I admire most about all administrators in Henderson County, regardless of title (principal, assistant principal, etc.), is that everyone possesses a unique genius that adds to our collective capacity to lead our schools,” said McDaris.
Navigating Schools through COVID-19
Over the last nearly two years, the global COVID-19 pandemic ushered in some dark and challenging times for schools and families across the nation, and certainly in our own communities. Our principal panelists weighed in on how these distinct challenges have made them better educators.
“Having started at a new school last year, I was already adjusting to new staff, students, and parents during the peak of COVID-19,” Henderson said. “These specific challenges made me a better listener to all of these groups and allowed me to effectively decide what was best for students and staff during unconventional times and moving forward.”
Many exceptional tools, approaches, and resources have been created and discovered, which will enhance the quality of teaching and learning beyond the end of COVID-19, reflected McDaris.
“The work I have seen my fellow educators doing during this difficult time has pushed me to grow in my own professional practice and think differently about how we support our teachers,” he said.
Wilkins and Wolfe observed that the challenges associated with the pandemic taught everyone how quickly they are capable of pivoting and moving forward with grace and flexibility as educators.
“I believe we all became better collaborators and that it reminded us that attention to the well-being of the whole child is essential for success,” Wolfe said. “It forced us to rethink student engagement and how we have the opportunity to move ahead with students who are excited to be back in school.”
Regardless of years served at the helms of their respective schools, all four HCPS leaders agreed that most importantly, a principal must always: remember their role as a key influencer, have a passion for education, have a love for students, and make the students their reason for going to work each day.
Wilkins put it this way: “Doing what is right for the kids is the most important thing you can do. All of the other ‘stuff’ will eventually work out, but it is about the kids first. They should come first in all decisions.”
Throughout October, the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), the National Association of Elementary School principals (NAESP), and the National Association of Secondary School principals (NASSP) join together to celebrate National principals Month, recognizing and honoring school leaders for their work and unrelenting commitment to their students, staff and school communities.
HCPS recognizes all 23 of our amazing principals for their vision, leadership, and dedication to our students all year long. Throughout this month, and after, we hope everyone will join us in reflecting on the contributions that our principals have made, and continue to make, in support of the whole student.