The First Day: Stressful or Welcoming? The Crucial Importance of School Leadership – Setting the Tone for the School Year

Do you wake in a cold sweats? Are you nervous, grouchy,? Are your hands clammy? Yes, you got it – that beginning of school teacher anxiety. – sort of a teacher PTSD – pre-traumatic school opening stress disorder.

You want to squeeze out those last few moments of summer. Your principal is already sending e-missives, this meeting, that meeting, your class list, your amended class list, your stomach twists. Will the kids like you? Will you like your kids? You start making lists, they go on and on.

The summer is the time to decompress, to reflect on the past year, what worked? what didn’t?  Summer is the time for lounging on a beach, hiking on a far away path, to recharge the batteries and read those books you promised yourself you would read.

Your principal is your boss, theoretically, the instructional leader, the role model, and hopefully sets a tone for the school, for the kids and for the staff.

I’ve known outstanding school leaders and superintendents, some mediocre and too many wanting in leadership skills.

It was the first day of school and the first day of a teacher strike. The principal was new to the school, most of us had not met him. We were picking up our picket signs, beginning to walk back and forth and hand out flyers as passerbys gave us a thumbs up, or, mumbled, “disgusting.”

The school door opened and a lunchroom worker emerged pushing a cart with a large coffee urn. Steaming coffee, paper cups, she turned to the union rep, “Complements of the principal.”   A simple and highly meaningful gesture.


Thomas Jefferson High School was being phased out and four new, small replacement schools were beginning. The auditorium was full, the remaining Jefferson staff and the new staff for the opening small schools, it was awkward.

The superintendent walked out onto the stage.

The auditorium suddenly became quiet, really quiet.

She pointed to a woman sitting on aisle and asked her to stand.

She asked, “Are you wearing a Boy’s and Girl’s Football jacket?” Boy’s and Girl’s was the sports opponent of Jefferson.

The woman nodded.

The superintendent, “We don’t wear Boys and Girls Football jackets in Thomas Jefferson High School.”

There was a silence, one of those piercing silences, someone began to applaud, the entire audience broke into applause.

The superintendent: “Thomas Jefferson is not disappearing, we are moving toward four small schools on the Thomas Jefferson campus, The same colors, the same traditions, and we still kick Boy’s and Grit’s behinds.”

A standing ovation.


Who wants to drag to another school to hear the superintendent rattle on about some nonsense; you’d rather be setting up your room, choosing textbooks, the really important work.

The superintendent appeared and began to speak, He talked about change and risk-taking: how if we wanted kids to be more successful we had to explore changing our practices, we had to take risks.

He explained he had a hobby, he wrote songs and played a guitar.

“I wrote a song, it’s about kids and teaching, I  don’t know if it’s any good, I’m nervous, I’m going to play, you guys be the judge.”

He picked up a guitar, introduced two students who played in the school band to back him up, and sang the song.  He modeled what he hoped teachers would do – take a risk.

Unfortunately transformative leaders are too few. Every school of education has a leadership program. Teachers read about leadership, participate in discussions, serve an internship, almost always in their own school, and earn a certificate.  Do they possess the leadership skills? In fact, can leadership skills be taught? No matter how many golf lessons I take I’ll always be a lousy golfer.

Malcolm Gladwell,  in “Complexity and the 10,000 hour rule,” wrote,

 No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

Others aver that the 10,000  hours research is flawed,

The best explanation of the domain dependency is probably found in Frans Johansson‘s book “The Click Moment.”

In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. 

  • In games, practice made for a 26% difference
  • In music, it was a 21% difference
  • In sports, an 18% difference
  • In education, a 4% difference
  • In professions, just a 1% difference

In education, are the skills required to be successful innate or learned?

The New York City Leadership Program, reviled by teachers, was the prior administration’s concept, pluck candidates from outside of education, from the classroom, an intense training, albeit after school hours, not full time, and serve an internship. Teachers complained about young principals;; oft times younger than the staff, who, in the eyes of staffs, were ineffective, lacking leadership skills.

Rather than look to schools of education to examine leadership training I would look to the military. The consequences of ineffective leadership in schools is low achieving schools, in the military the consequences of ineffective leadership is putting lives at risk.

A British training manual entitled “Officer Qualities” explains,

Most officers lead a complex technical life with many highly specialized duties to perform. The duties are responsibilities as an individual and as a highly trained responsible member of an exacting profession. In addition an officer must lead his men. An officer does not exist for his individual personal value, but for his ability to show the way and make his men want to follow. This is indeed the core of the officer’s existence and without it, no hope exists of grappling with the tasks of command….

Clearly people are not born with the same characteristics, and some from their earliest years have felt the power to show others the way, and to influence their minds.  We call them born leaders and they are just that, born with strong, independent assertive minds ….But this is not to say that the characteristics  of effective leadership cannot be taught and acquired ….

In all of the words spoken and written about leadership one fundamental point continually emerges, namely, that for most part the skills and qualities of leadership are not normally acquired instantly. The training of a leader, … takes many years.

The entire manual (seven pages) should be required for every supervision training/preparation program..

The Leadership Academy in New York City has been abandoned by the current leadership and  currently requires at least seven years as a teacher as a perquisite for a leadership position.

During my union reps days I always told principals and superintendents that their meetings should mirror the kind of instruction they expected in a teacher’s classroom.  Too many were incapable of engaging facilities in meaningful dialogues, they led through the promulgation of edicts and emails.

The title of principal is just that, a title, the title does not come with a scepter and orb, the title must be earned every day through the respect of the staff, and the kids.

We have created a compliance model, data points and check lists “measure” principals and schools. Data points are important; however, the data point does not define effective school leadership.

A state auditor was checking out a school: why didn’t the school have an after school program? The principal explained, many of his kids pick up younger siblings at the elementary school a block away, they wouldn’t stay after school. He had created a “lunch and learn” program, using the after school dollars to pay teachers to give up lunch and tutor groups of three kids – he had collected the data – the classroom room teachers thought it was very effective. The auditor: “lunch and learn” was not on the list – the school was debited..

Lesson: No good deed shall go unpunished.

I was invited to attend a school leadership team meeting. Something was being debated, the teachers favored it, the principal didn’t think it would work. The principal said, “I don’t think the idea is workable, you guys do, come up with a way to assess the effectiveness and let’s do it – show me I’m wrong.”

Until we recruit, train and support the “right kind” of school leader teachers will continue to move from school to school. continue to leave teaching: one of the most impactful problems is teacher retention (not “bad” teachers), and, a key to retention is school leaders who are viewed by superintendents, teachers and students as true leaders.

When you walk through the doors Tuesday morning will you be greeted by the aroma of fresh coffee, bagels, and appropriate accoutrements?   And, principals, remember, in the Army, the officers eat after the troops.


2 responses to “The First Day: Stressful or Welcoming? The Crucial Importance of School Leadership – Setting the Tone for the School Year

  1. Public school principals should be officers managers that order paper clips and copy paper and manage the main office staff and make sure the custodians do their jobs. They are not officers in the military.

    My first few years under contract as a full-time teacher in the public schools in Southern California, I was spoiled. You don’t really appreciate a great principal until you have others to compare him with. My first principal as a teacher was Ralph Pagan. He was a Korean War combat vet. He was hired to clean up a middle school called Giano in the San Gabriel Valley. Giano had a reputation as the worst and most dangerous middle school in that area of Southern California.

    Ralph agreed to become the principal of Giano only if the district management let him do it his way. This was in a district micromanaged from the top down.

    Ralph was a bottom up manager. He hired me and also requested transfers for other teachers working at other schools in the district. He also requested transfers out for some of the teachers there when he arrived.

    The teachers he started with were the type of teachers he wanted. Then he organized management teams and let us run the school from the bottom up while he supported us.

    We had no idea of the stress he was under from the district micromanagers to do it their way. He became the Great Wall protecting his staff from the district office and the stress caused him to have a stroke. He survived but had to retire early. The new principal was a toady managed from the top. Of the 9 or 10 principals, I worked with after Ralph none managed from the bottom up.

    Ralph cleaned up Giano while he was there and turned it into a model school. In a community known for its poverty, its street gangs, its violence, and drugs, he formed alliances with parent leaders and even called the known leaders of all the violent street gangs and went to their homes and had dinner with them where he asked those hard core killers and gang leaders for their help to make Giano a safe haven for learning, and they all agreed to back him up and keep their gangs from causing problems in that school.

    Most of the staff didn’t know Ralph had done all this until after he was gone and the alliances he had formed started to fall apart because top down micro managers cook up problems and make them worse just like Fake President Donald Trump. After Ralph recovered, he ended up at Cal Poly Pomona where I earned my teaching credential and he in the education department training and supporting new teachers.

    He is the only principal of the 9 or 10 that I worked under that I want to remember. I’ve forgotten the names of all the others. I do remember some of the nicknames I gave a few of them: For instance, Hitler, Stalin, Sauron (from Lord of the Rings).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had an education professor one summer for a courseat NYU whose favorite expression was, “If you’re not on the verge of being fired everyday, you’re not doing your job.” It took me 35 years of teaching to understand what he meant.


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