What I Wish I Knew as a First Year Principal

I started my administrative career in January of 2000. I spent 11 years as an Assistant Principal in 3 different middle schools. All three of them were very different schools, with very different leaders and staffs. I can tell you without hesitation that I learned many things from each situation. When I was appointed as the Principal of Tomahawk Creek Middle School, I really did think I was prepared for this new challenge. And for the most part, I was. However, in retrospect, there are a few things that I did not expect, and quite frankly was unprepared for. I survived, and I learn something new almost daily. Here are a few things that I wish I knew before I assumed the Principalship.

You Are the Person Everyone Else Relies on

I was very accustomed to dealing with student issues. I was comfortable and confident talking to students about their home life, alcoholic parents, lack of money, no electricity in the house. After 11 years I had heard almost everything and dealt with so many sad situations I felt I could handle everything. I was always amazed that we put kids in these situations. When I heard some of these stories, I was amazed these kids were functioning as well as they were. But when I became principal, I realized that I was the one every adult in the building would be turning to. I was counselor, psychologist, coach, cheerleader,, parent and friend to 125 adults on staff. I have helped people get through divorces, losing sons and daughters, cancer of all kinds, parents dying, you name it. When you become the Principal, their pain becomes your pain. I understand it, I just wasn’t ready for it.

You Don’t Have to Always be Right or Have all the Answers

When I first started, I knew I didn’t have all the answers. I just didn’t want anyone to KNOW I didn’t have all the answers. I tried to pretend that I knew what I was doing. That ended pretty quickly. I discovered that it was ok that I didn’t have all the answers. I learned that  it was more important to surround myself with the people that DO have the answers. And even more important, to let them have the authority to make decisions and implement the actions. Everything does not have to flow from my office.

Your Words are Powerful

When I was an Assistant Principal, I felt that I was a respected person in the building. I did my job well, supported my teachers and students and did everything I could to make the school a better place. But there were times when I swear I was talking to a wall. But something happened when I became a Principal. All of a sudden, people listened to every word I said. I mean, really listened. This was both good and bad. Staff, students and parents remembered every word I had said, and they held me to my words (which they should!). Where as when I was the AP, I could make some flippant, funny comment and not worry about the outcome, because I was not the one making the final decision. But as the Principal, I WAS the final decision. My words were an indication of what was going to happen. They actually carried weight and power I did not have as an assistant principal. I also quickly discovered that every word that came out of my mouth or that I wrote in an e-mail was thoroughly examined and interpreted. And sometimes not in the right way. I had to learn to be very deliberate in what I said and how I said it.

As a leader, we have to be aware of just about everything that goes on. It is a difficult, lonely job. What are some things that you wish you knew when taking a leadership position?


About drellena

Principal of Tomahawk Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County, Virginia. 2018 Outstanding Virginia Middle School Principal of the Year 2018.
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2 Responses to What I Wish I Knew as a First Year Principal

  1. Craig Smith says:


    I read this last night as I closed down my first day as a High School Principal. I am bookmarking it to revisit throughout my first year. Thank you for your insight.


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