Wisdom for Wannabes: Encouragement from a New Principal

Every fall semester, I begin a new journey with aspiring school leaders who quickly have their eyes and minds thrown open by new, sometimes conflicting ideas, possibilities and controversies as they try to understand school leadership from a broad perspective. I call it the balcony view. They probably tire of the phrase.

Inevitably, we spend time talking about how simple and straightforward good school leadership looks from the safety of a comfortable chair, newspaper article, politician’s stump speech, corporate board room, faculty lounge, or classroom or office tucked away in the Ivory Tower. And every fall semester, through those messy and often long-running conversations, I’m encouraged by the passion, level of commitment and desire to do good work I see in our students.

A couple years ago, I asked Tara Estep (@TaraEstep), one of our program graduates and a new principal, to participate in a blogging project with my class of aspiring principals. I knew Tara, who is as good as they come and now the principal at Hansen Elementary School in Cedar Falls, IA, would have a lot to offer, but I didn’t know she would provide me with something I now view as a virtual classic piece of writing for aspiring principals.

Every December, I send them out the door with this bit of encouragement from one of the best young principals anywhere. This fall, I’m expanding the circulation of that wisdom by including it here.

Hello everyone! I trust you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with your friends and family!

I had the chance to read through your week 8 reflections. They were great…honest and real. I remember thinking those same things! At the time, I was journaling, and I went back to see what my reflections were. Here are a few things I had written down when I was just beginning my journey…

Am I ready to be an island? Ready for the inevitable loneliness?

Am I ready to create relationships that will never turn into friendships?

Am I ready to transition to the “dark side,” and to forever be looked at differently?

Am I ready to go against the grain and no longer with it?

Am I ready to have everyone’s problems become my problems?

Am I ready to think about 400 kids rather than 25?

Am I ready to walk into the lounge and hear the once bubbling conversation come to an abrupt halt?

Am I ready to be the target…the one to blame…the one that gets judged?

These are important challenges to think about. Many of you had these same themes in your reflections. It’s great to reflect on those challenges, so you have a sense of what you’re getting yourself into. But, many have said it and it’s true…the positives of school leadership far outweigh the negatives. Here is the second half of this journal. I finished it toward the end of my program.

I am ready to be a visionary…to share and develop that vision with my staff.

I am ready to affect positive instructional change and always ask, “Is what we’re doing best for kids?”

I am ready to be involved in positive conversations that move us forward!

I am ready to make informed, research based decisions…I’m ready to make those tough decisions…the ones everyone expects me to make.

I am ready to be a motivator, a leader of learning, and a compassionate ear for kids and staff.

I am ready to be a trusting mentor…one who facilitates, assists, and supports.

I am ready to lead with ethical behavior…to lead by example.

I am ready to instill the importance of teaching: an opportunity to teach young minds, touch young hearts, and make a difference each day.

I am ready to take on the politics…fight for our school, and do everything ethically possible to make sure my teachers have the best resources needed to do their job.

I am ready to be involved with teachers and their learning! I am ready to be a collaborator, a listener, and a sharer of ideas.

I am ready to love my job, hate my job, care too much, work too hard, leave too late, cry, laugh, and scream.

I am ready to make a difference.

Ready or not…here I come.

Although it may feel like you are getting a lot of the “doom and gloom” right now, please know that as a principal you get to do all of the above and more! UNI does a great job to prepare you for all the challenges that are sure to arise, but once I got into the job I was more surprised by the positive outcomes I wasn’t expecting. I was pretty much expecting all the other stuff…Well, maybe not all of it.

Will you ever be prepared enough? No. Does it feel like a blur sometimes? Yes. Is balancing really, really tough? Yep. Are you a target at times? Sure.

I truly believe everyone makes their situation as positive or negative as they want it to be. You stand at the beginning of a journey. This journey will make you think, make you question and, at times, make you want to run out the door, but remember why you started on this path.

Most of you probably started like me; you wanted to make a difference in the lives of children.

You will


  1. Well said, Tara! Thank you for putting so many of our thoughts into words!!

  2. This is excellent. Thank you for sharing!


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