My First Year as an Assistant PrincipalJuly 12, 2019
Since his Milken Award surprise at Smalley Academy in New Britain, Manny Zaldivar (CT ’16) has transitioned from first-grade teacher to administrator. Here, he reflects on his first year as an assistant principal at New Britain’s Chamberlain Elementary School.
My transition from a teacher leader to an administrator came with a lot of learning, surprises and unknown situations—but, best of all, it came with many rewarding moments.
Stepping into a role that demands instructional, behavioral and personal skills at a larger scale (and all the time) was not easy. Two realizations served me well: that I did not know it all and that I need to learn. Was I going to be able to connect with so many students, staff and parents? As a classroom teacher, I took part in difficult conversations with parents. As a leader, I would have many more. I always questioned myself: Was what I was about to do or say correct?
At the end of the day, what mattered most was being happy with my decision and actions, and having fun while inspiring (rather than managing) others. I made it a priority to spread my enthusiasm, passion and ability to see the best in every situation, while demanding high expectations from all.
The importance of a solid team
As the days went by in my first year as an assistant principal, I was reminded often how much I did not know. This forced me to see myself as a learner. I had to seek mentorship, professional development and resources, but most importantly, I had to rely on support from the staff to build my background knowledge about teachers, students and parents.
I quickly learned to stop before taking an action and seek advice from my team. I found someone on the staff with whom I could share my frustrations and celebrate successes. That person grounded me, helped me see things in a different way, provided great advice, and picked me up when I needed it.
To my surprise, my initial goals—adjusting school systems and instruction—took a back seat to building authentic, strong relationships with as many stakeholders as possible. I began by being myself: genuine, authentic, human, honest and relatable. If I wanted the school to accept me as part of their ecosystem, I had to fit in by leading by example, demonstrating that I care and appreciated everyone’s work.
Change requires buy-in
As a teacher, I was able to change things in my classroom at any time, and I lived with the results. Making changes as a school leader comes with a lot of planning and input from everyone involved. Change needs to be laid out in phases. I found that I had to keep myself in check, as once I decide change is necessary I like it to happen quickly. Now it was not only about the desired outcome, but taking others’ opinions and points of view into account.
I confronted endless unknowns this year. It took courage to be able to listen and talk with (not to) my colleagues, and to help others be accountable for their actions and reflect on them. At the end of the day, I had to understand and trust that all involved in a given situation were looking out for the best interest of the children. I lived in the unknown and uncomfortable. I had to learn to lean into my discomfort to tackle the many demands of my new role.
Connecting with students was my reward
The most rewarding moments came every day when I welcomed students, teachers and parents as they enter the school. I went to every classroom in the morning so everyone would get to know me. When I came back to a classroom for observation (formal or informal), I felt welcome. Students and teachers began to make me part of the lessons: reading, math, morning meetings, STEAM projects.
There were difficult days when things weren’t going the right way or challenging situations arose. But then, in the hallway, students would greet me and engage me in conversations about their day or personal lives. More than anything else, those conversations changed my mood and grounded me. They motivated me to continue the work of transforming the academic and behavioral culture of our school. Once a student asked, “Why do you always have a smile on your face?” I replied, “Because I am happy to be here and see all of you ready to learn.”
Overall, in the midst of surprises and unknowns, I was a witness to teachers improving their craft, students becoming academically independent and developing social-emotional skills, and parents who became more involved in their students’ academic and well-being. My biggest learnings this year: getting to know myself as a leader, understanding the value of strong relationships, and realizing that reaching any goal starts with small steps.
As I look to the future, I am inspired by the teachers, staff, students and parents. I am eager to continue to foster relationships and dive deeper into the instructional practices that will support students’ academic and social emotional gains. Do we as a school, and I as an administrator, have more work to do? Of course. But I already see positive changes—in all of us.
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