We write a lot about teaching on this site. To celebrate back-to-school season this year, we posted a series of articles containing “tips and tricks” from Sister Maryann Ronneburger, who has a thirty-plus-year tenure as a principal and teacher. We love celebrating teachers year-round (many of our sisters were, or are, teachers!) but we would be remiss not to highlight other important people in school, from custodians to volunteers to principals.
October is National Principals Month. So, we sat down with Dominican Sister of Hope Estelle (Maris Stella) Kilpatrick, who not just served as a principal but was also the first principal of an opening school (more on that story here). We asked her what makes a principal outstanding, from her experience. Below, she shares her secrets to success.
1. Know what you want.
For Sister, knowing what she wanted from her tenure as principal helped her to make important decisions when starting the school. Whether it was choosing textbooks or buying desks, Sister had to first have her own hopes and goals down as a foundation for her decisions. She knew that she wanted her students to get into prestigious high schools and be well prepared for their future education and careers. She also knew that she wanted her teachers and staff to be cohesive, get along well, and work as a team. Once she had an overarching vision for the school, she was able to make a series of smaller decisions to help realize it.
2. Prepare, a lot.
“A good principal will have mapped out the needs to achieve her goals before school even opens,” Sister Estelle shares. For her, this meant meeting with the Pastor before school opened, which allowed them to be in agreement about what they wanted from the start. The planning ahead also helped them to execute it together during the year. “You don’t want to go making changes after school starts because the kids catch onto that right away,” Sister Estelle warns. “The pastor allowed me to be the principal, but he showed up enough to be known by the children. They knew that he would back me.” If you develop a unified plan for the school, you’ll have an easier time executing it once students flood in.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Being a first-time principal in a brand-new school, Sister Estelle wasn’t always sure how to proceed with certain decisions. Luckily, she had the support of the principals of a neighboring school and even the local public school. When she was in doubt, she didn’t hesitate to call on them. “I would call and ask about which books to order, or why they ordered certain ones,” Sister Estelle divulges. “The public school principal was a very gracious woman. She’d call me and ask if there was anything she could do to help. I appreciated her thinking of me.” For Sister, knowing that she had a support network was crucial. Tucking away your pride and reaching out to others can help you to feel supported and make better decisions, too.
If you have a plan and you’re prepared enough, the next step is to communicate your goals and plan to everyone in the school. No doubt, it’s an ongoing task, but it starts on day one. “On the first day, when the bell rings and the students line up, you have to know how you want them to line up and where you want them to line up,” Sister Estelle says. “And you have to have meetings with your teachers, too, so that they know what you want.” If you’ve been planning all along, you’ve already done the legwork. The next step is to be clear, concise, and reasonable in letting those around you in on your vision.
5. Be honest.
Sister Estelle lists this as a key to success in the classroom and outside of it. With parents, teachers, and students alike, honesty is the best policy, even when the circumstances are tough. “The questions they ask can be difficult sometimes,” Sister says. “Be honest with them. Even if that means saying, ‘You’re right, it’s not easy,’ or ‘It is easy,’ or ‘People do that sometimes.’” Another important but difficult part of the honesty policy: “Don’t try to cover up things that you know are not acceptable but do go on.” Being honest about mistakes and then taking active steps to change is a much better strategy than denial or deceit.
6. Give of Yourself.
You already know that teaching is about helping children become their best selves. As we wrote in August, teachers and principals are really servant disciples. Yet, it’s impossible to fulfill this mission without giving of yourself. “If you’re really interested in helping children, you give yourself to them,” Sister Estelle says. When asked if she felt like she was helping children in her career, she replies sheepishly, “For the most part.” In that moment, Sister Estelle affirms that being a principal isn’t about achieving success every minute of every day. But it is about remembering your mission unfailingly. “I dedicated my life to this,” Sister Estelle continues. “I dedicated my life to training children.”