Advice for 1st Year Principals to win the Marathon

I’m not gonna say that your first year is ‘make or break’, but it’s pretty damn important. Here’s some advice, resources, and at least one book, for you to prepare to win the marathon. Culturally responsive leaders don’t have time to make many mistakes.

“Making the most of your first year as principal” has come up in a few recent conversations. I have usually left this topic to many writers who have taken it up like Principal Kafele and others you can pursue on Amazon.

But, in talking with a few folks, I figured I might have a few gems to drop. I did make it through my first year and lived to talk mess about it. And truthfully, there are things I wish I did that would have helped tremendously. And, I happen to know an expert on the topic, who helped to write this post.


How is this Advice Different?

I am not writing to just any school leader. I am talking to you. I am speaking to those who are going into the belly of the beast, like the trojan horse.


Most folks, not you, are going into schools looking to keep the trains leaving on time. Status quo.

Culturally responsive leaders, on the other hand, are doing something different. You are engineering for equity. Creating the conditions. This means they/you are looking to lay new tracks and replace the coal engine with a Tesla model 3.

Doc Brown meets Elon Musk meets Geneva Gay.

Therefore, you need different strategies, resources, and tools. In addition, you need to be thoughtful, intentional, and a visionary.

Advice I got from Mentors

  • Pick 3 things to improve during your first year, that you CAN control. Focus on them, put your efforts there, and celebrate your success at the end of the year
  • Go on 90-day listening campaign, observe, reflect, and build a strategic plan
  • Build relationships and get to know who people are, their families, their passions, their goals
  • Don’t come in guns blazing. Wait until you have a lay of the land before you pull that pistol out

Go Beyond Those Initial Coffee Dates

(written by Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss)

When I first became principal, I knew I had to take time to get to know my staff, so I handed out my cell phone at that initial staff meeting, inviting everyone to meet me for coffee. I thought I was being so personable, skilled, and open. I really wish I had a principal who had done that with me. What I didn’t realize was that being a good listener and going slow that first year involves something much deeper than coffee dates. Even those innocent and well-intentioned coffee dates had the potential to have the opposite effect of the trust-building and rapport I was going for. I didn’t yet have a lay of the land or a sense of the politics at my new site.

Being a leader means every move is going to be scrutinized and interpreted, so you need to be as transparent as possible and strategic in every way. If you want to start meeting individually with folks, you need to be clear and upfront with everyone about who you plan on speaking with, what you hope to get out of the meeting, what questions you plan on asking and what you plan on doing with the information. This can be in the form of an introductory letter or email to everyone, with a little bit about yourself and then your specific plan for getting to know the community that includes one:one dates, group meetings, events etc.

You also have to be really good about saying as little as possible in those meetings because you don’t yet know how people are connected to one another and where their loyalties lie. If you wear your heart on your sleeve like I do, this can be really hard! Through a lot of trial and error, I learned how to pull back, slow things down and become more transparent in my own learning process, which formed the basis for my book Entering the Lion’s Den: A School Leader’s Guide to Earning Trust, Inspiring Others and Not Getting Eaten in Year One. I was on the precipice of getting eaten back then and am fortunate to have had many mentors along the way who helped me course correct when needed.

Jennifer Kuhr-Butterfoss is an Assistant Principal at a Middle School in San Francisco, and I recommend you check out her upcoming book!

Culturally Responsive Leadership - 9 Times when leaders need to shut up and listen

Advice I would tell my former self

  1. Slow down, Ricky Bobby! Listen more than talk.
  2. Find out what work has been done in the past, and honor it
  3. Create the conditions (schedule, funding, values, norms) for change
  4. State your values many times, explicitly
  5. Make a list of successes and record them
  6. Find the bright spots in the building and spotlight them
  7. Get a culturally responsive leadership coach and find like-minded colleagues
  8. Identify mindset work and adult culture as parts of your strategic plan
  9. Create a long term, multi-year strategic plan
  10. Read more books, visit more schools, and go to 1 conference

Culturally Responsive Leadership - Transform Your School With Bright Spots



My Admin School Professor, Lynda Treadway told me, “go slow to go fast”. I wasn’t trying to hear that. I thought she was co-opted and complacent, but I was wrong. Instead of taking the advice, I went too hard. I found out I was on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, but I was the only one on board. Instead, I needed to be walking along the Philosophers way, with my crew. I wish I knew better where I was headed and what to do only during my first year. I wish someone told me,

“take your plan for year 1 and spread it over 5 years”.

Now, what CAN you accomplish this year to get there? What conditions can you control and adapt to get there? What mindset shifts (white supremacy culture, discourse 2, participation patterns, brave norms) are needed?”

Culturally Responsive Leadership - Interrupt Patterns of Participation

It’s easy to get ambitious and try to change everything at once. But slow down Usain Bolt. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We should be listening to Marathon runners like Wilson Kipsang, from Kenya.

Go easy on yourself, be patient, and practice self-care. Similar to the first years of teaching, it is easy to go into martyr mode. But your school needs you for multiple years and that’s how long it will take to see that fruits of equity grow. So until then, tend the garden Johnny Appleseed, and water it. Build those relationships, make small talk, and set the right conditions. You need to get through the first year with yourself intact, stronger relational trust in the building, and a clearer vision for where the ship is headed next year.

You got this.

Resources for developing your culturally responsive leadership

Free Resources from the book Entering the Lion’s Den: A School Leader’s Guide to Earning Trust, Inspiring Others and Not Getting Eaten in Year One.

Sample Introductory Letter

Questions to Ask Your Predecessor

Sample Transition Plan Timeline

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