Working as a School Administrator: Practical Advice for a Career in Educational Administration

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The Search is On

Getting Started:

So you blew the Praxis out of the water, your Master’s degree is hanging on the wall and you are fired up about getting a job that will actually allow you to pay back some of those student loans. Well let me start there. Just as teaching is not exactly a get rich quick plan, neither is administration. Remember you will no longer have your summers free to earn that extra cash, nor will you be able to sneak off to the beach for a couple of well deserved recuperative weeks. Assuming that you have now read the disclaimer for being a school administrator and still want to be one, we will continue.

Irons in the fire:

This is the stage at which you have decided to put your resume in the hands of potential employers. Before I delve into this, let me say that it is generally good practice to keep a current resume ready and available. The deadline for accepting resumes is always the day after you hear about it.

When searching for an administrative job you need to be more selective than you were when applying for teaching positions. When in search of a job, teachers often apply for anything within the allotted driving distance. This approach is frowned upon in the administrative circuit. You should be looking for a school that is a good match for you and your leadership style. For example: if you don’t have a lick of artistic talent then you may want to avoid the Fine Arts School for the Gifted. Administrative resumes usually make it to the district level and a shot-gun approach at a job search will quickly be recognized and interpreted as desperate.

So, you saw an ad on Career Builder that fits into your five-year plan of Educational Leadership advancement. What is the next step? Apply for it immediately. When you begin hiring staff for yourself, you will notice the great care you take with the first forty resumes or so and how your diligent attention to their detail will fade after you find a few decent candidates. The early resume gets the job. Your resume is now in the hands of your potential boss. Now it is research time. Become an expert on the institution for which you hope to work. Do you know last year’s test scores? What is the school’s mission statement? Do you have any friends from college that work there; will they put in a good word for you?

You Landed An Interview:

There are a few questions essential to ask during an interview for a leadership position, questions you may not have thought about. The answer to these questions may affect your view of the position. The first and most important question: Why is the position available? This is code for, “Did the last guy get canned and if so, why?” Another important question is, “if offered the position who will I report to? If the answer is more than one person, be very cautious. Ancient fortune cookie reads, “One body can not answer to two heads.”

You’ve Been Offered the Job:

Here’s a good question if offered the job: “Did the team of teachers who interviewed me, choose me?” If the administration went against the recommendations of the interviewing faculty / staff and offered you the position anyway, your next year as their boss could kill you.

Another situation that could bring you to an early retirement is skipping the interview process altogether and being appointed to a position in which the last guy was loved by everyone - except the superintendent. If you take that job, do it with the utmost humility. I cannot underscore that enough. You will never fill that last guy’s shoes; accept it and let your new staff know that you understand their disappointment in losing such a great leader. And, you may only hope to do as good a job.

Making a Smooth Transition

As you will soon learn there are a few things that do not get into the leadership text books, and only experience will teach you these things. I have gathered several truths in the past 13 years that may help you as you start a new position. You may scoff at the fact that, in addition to educational leadership experience, I will also draw upon my wealth of coaching experience. Don’t forget that your staff is your team and you are now or will soon be their coach.

Sittin’ In the Big Rolly’ Chair

First week on the job, in the middle of the summer, all the contracts have been signed, the building is in good working order and all is right in your little world. Finally, you’re in a position where you can make a difference, where you get paid to make decisions. It is now that you are the weakest, and it is now that the president of the PTA will be knocking at your door. You will be so eager to get the ball rolling and make your mark that you will agree to anything. Be sure to get the facts up front.

Before you allow the PTA president to run an online school store out of the computer lab, every Friday afternoon; to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for your school, you need to ask yourself a question. In fact you need to ask yourself this question every time someone brings you a wonderful idea.

Your new mantra should be, “This sounds like such a great idea, why hasn’t it already been done?” Why indeed? Well it is not because you’re the only one with half a brain that ever held your position. It just may be because your new school has a championship Math team that uses that computer lab every Friday afternoon, and fourteen students have won scholarships through the award-winning program. And it happens to be run by the superintendent’s best friend and Math teacher extraordinaire, Ms. O’Brian. Oh, and by the way, the PTA president can’t stand Ms. O’Brian because her child did not make the Math team. Can you imagine the backlash if you had made that simple little decision without knowing all the facts?

The “fact” is, about nine out of the first ten people who visit your new office will be bringing you a great idea: a great idea that has been shot down by the last four Principals. Be careful about breaking the chain of rejection. In all fairness though, not all ideas are shot down because of potential ramifications, but simply because the last person in your big rolly chair did not want to add anything else to his / her plate. Just make sure you get the facts.

Mr. Fix It

You know who you are, Mr. and Ms. Problem Solver. Every one of you believes that change is good or you wouldn’t be sitting in that new office with the smell of rectangular pizza wafting through the vent above your head. Just remember you are a member of a select few who believe this. There are teachers in your building who have been in the same classroom for thirty years and want to hear nothing of change. If they thought change was good they could have had your job twelve years ago. The majority of your faculty and staff are comfortable and do not go seeking ways to stir up their lives, much less their job.

The following would be an example of Mr. Fix It, futility. You could spend the summer months trying to streamline the faculty work center and be quite pleased with yourself at the result. But, it is entirely possible that your organized, efficient world of lamination and construction paper will offend some of your staff. So, here is the solution to the dilemma of Mr. Fix It. I am sure you have heard the saying, “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.” Well the new saying for you, new administrator is, “if they haven’t pointed out that it is broken, then it isn’t broken.”

While we’re on the topic of fixing things, heed this warning. Early on in your career as an administrator you will be happy to provide a solution to many, if not all of the problems that come your way. It will make you feel good, important, needed… Your precious time will soon begin to dwindle as you make the rounds to fix paper jams and the recess schedule. You will find it far more effective if you inform your staff of one simple rule: Don’t bring me a problem without a possible solution to accompany it. This will save you valuable time, and if the solution chosen ever goes sour, then the parties involved had a part in the design. The weight of potential blame is spread out evenly.

Speaking of blame, be careful about what you put in writing. When emailing or sending out a memo use phrases like: “Teachers, as you recall in our informal hallway gathering you elected to….” or, “as per our phone conversation on the 12th you suggested that …so I am implementing the…”

The World is Your Stage

If you think that your new position in school administration will bring you fame and recognition, think again. Only those of your kind will be able to see the wonderful and hard work you are doing. By “those of your kind,” I am referring to fellow administrators.

Here’s an example of what I mean: You may have had to broker a ten year deal with the parks and recreation department to secure a soccer field for Fall Celebration, but all you’ll get from the faculty is a, “man this is a long day” grin, and maybe if they like you a piece of pumpkin pie left over from the bake sale.

Consider the individual teacher who comes to you and wants all her students to have two copies of the Science book. It weighs four and a half pounds, and students are reluctant to take it home, so she would like one for home and one for class. From the teacher’s perspective, it takes just a moment or two of your time to make a decision, as to whether or not it will be allowed. Behind the scenes, however, it was a different story. Four hours of deliberation regarding equality for all children, and Title 1 marked your decision. Then, when that particular Science class excels in Science, don’t go thinking that you will get credit for it. The teacher gets the kudos and all you get is an, “I told you it would help” smirk. Remember, you are a servant to your faculty / staff. How often does the waiter get credit for a great meal? On the other hand how often does the waiter get blamed if something is wrong with the meal? As my old pal Super Chicken used to say, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” Did I just date myself?