6 Steps to Shape School Culture When You’re a New Principal

Leader 2 Leader Blog, Industry,

By: Tim Ridley

Think back to the 2020-2021 school year—arguably the most challenging school year in education. Just as it ended, I was selected to be the next principal of Mt. Washington Middle School. I was both excited and nervous. 

It was exciting because I was going to get the opportunity to lead a school with my vision in mind. It looked like we were at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, or so we thought at the time. And it was a new start with new possibilities. 

Nervousness crept in, too. What if my vision isn’t successful? As new school leaders know, change is always nerve-racking—for the administrator and for everyone in their new school community. 

Unfortunately, no coursework or on-the-job training can prepare you for some of the challenges you will encounter when you are leading a culture shift of a school building. But as many lifelong learners do, I turned to books to learn more. One book—The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon—stood out and influenced my views on school culture.  

As an early career principal, I want to pass along some lessons I learned about overcoming challenges as I shaped my new school’s culture.

1. Create a Vision

Before reaching your destination, know where you are going and how to get there. For me it was simple: be the best school we can be where all students achieve at high levels. High levels, in our case, are defined as grade level or above. Achievement in and out of the classroom is essential to build community pride in our school. 

It is important to resist the urge to change everything that is not aligned to your vision right away. My advice to any new principal is to first have a lot of conversations with faculty, staff, and students and observe for a while before making huge changes. This will give you valuable insights and nuggets of knowledge to help guide your decision-making as you identify both areas of challenge and strength.

2. Invest Energy into the Right Challenges

In our school, we realized two things: We needed to create a more positive culture for all stakeholders, and we needed to set up systems for having essential instructional conversations about student learning.

We invested time and energy into our culture through how we interacted with students. We combined those efforts with skills to overcome negativity in their home and school lives. We were able to do this by becoming a certified Energy Bus School, which gave us lessons and resources based on the book.

3. Facilitate a Mindset Shift Through Collaboration

While a school needs to be a positive place for everyone, it exists for student learning—and that starts with improving our instructional conversations.

A natural starting place was to get our school’s collaborative teams and professional learning communities (PLC) moving in the right direction. This was a mindset shift for our teachers because they were used to working in isolation instead of within the PLC process, which we are still working to strengthen to this day. 

4. Get the Right People on Board

From year one to year two, 10 new teachers joined our team. Despite the vacancies and hiring, the priority was getting the right people on our team.

I realize it can be tough in today’s climate with the lack of candidates for open positions, but my advice is to be patient, wait, and find the right people. This will save you lots of time down the road.

Instructional knowledge is great, but we really prioritized finding teammates who truly cared for students. Our students don’t deserve for us to settle for any applicant; they deserve for us to recruit and find the best. 

5. Remain Consistent and Committed to the Vision 

There are always going to be situations and people who try to suck positive energy and progress out of your efforts. We had our fair share of unusual circumstances and resistance to change, but my message did not change. Consistency is key.

While navigating resistance, it’s also important to reinforce to those who are actively engaged in forward progress that their efforts are seen and appreciated. I had several conversations to encourage them to let anything steal their joy and passion for the work we were doing. It was tough, but eventually we came out on the other side and stronger as a school.

6. Take Care of Yourself—and Your Team

Being a principal is tough and lonely at times. You have to take care of yourself because burnout is real. Find something not school-related and disconnect from time to time.

I had to realize that the work was still going to be there the next day and I don’t have alerts on my phone for emails because if someone needs to get a hold of me then they will call or text me.

You cannot shift the culture alone, so it’s important to fuel the ride of others. Invest in your team and staff. Take the time to get to know them and their individual goals and build their capacity. This will help move the bus toward achieving your vision as a school and shifting the culture. 

Tim Ridley is principal of Mt. Washington Middle School in Bullitt County, Kentucky.