(Originally posted on A Principal’s Life.)

By David Ellena

Today, I had one of those rare moments where I actually sat at my desk and ate lunch. Now, I ate while I was signing checks and about 8 dozen other documents that need an original signature, but still it was a rarity. As I was signing away, I had a thought. As I look back on 31 years of public school education, I thought to myself, what have I learned? Specifically, what have I learned about being a Principal? I am in my 16th year as a school administrator and my fifth as Principal. So, after all these years, what have I come away with? Here is my list.

You Can’t Fix Crazy

Oh, sure, you can read every “How to Deal with Difficult (fill in the blank)” book out there, but sometimes none of that applies. I have determined that it is almost impossible to rationalize with a person who is acting totally irrationally. Sometimes it is just better to cut your losses and make your decision.

I Can’t Do It Alone

This was a difficult one for me. For 11 years my job was to keep things off my principal’s desk. This entailed a lot of decision making and some independent work. When I transitioned into the role of principal, that was hard to let go. I had to learn that my picture was bigger now. I had to learn that the day to day minutia needs to be delegated so that I can focus on that big picture. Easier said than done sometimes.

Relationships are Everything

Without trusting, positive and meaningful relationships with students, staff and the community, nothing else matters. Nothing.

You Will Always Get the BlameEllena-what-I-learned

With the position of boss comes the responsibility of making decisions. Every decision you make will be unpopular with someone. If it goes well, there will be people out there who ask why it didn’t go better, and that was your fault. If it blows up, well, the blame will be placed on your shoulders, fair or unfair. Get over it. We are not perfect. We make mistakes. Last time I checked, so does everyone else. We do the best we can, and in the end, if I have to protect my people and fall on the sword, so be it.

You Will Never (or Should Never) Get the Credit

Along those same lines, when it goes great, you should never get (or accept) credit. The running joke in my school is that my job is to show up and stay out of the way. I have a fantastic staff, who do great work and are far more talented than I am. That is where the credit belongs. Always.

I Still Love the Kids

I can’t fix crazy, I get no credit and all the blame and I can’t do this job from a cubicle. Why am I still doing this? Because I love the kids. Let me give you an example. I have a Principal’s Advisory Committee made up of 18 kids, 6 from each grade level. We meet once a month. I feed them a good lunch, and then I ask two questions. I am constantly amazed at the thoughtfulness and sincerity in their answers. Now, we are talking middle school kids, so we have a fair amount of, well, interesting, responses. But they are so insightful. I share the comments (well, most of them) in my weekly newsletter to staff. The comments aren’t “you are doing this wrong”, but more along the lines of, “here is a kids perspective…keep it in mind” types of things. At the end of the day, it really is all about the kids. Something good to remember.

What have you learned?


David Ellena is the Principal of Tomahawk Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County, Virginia. President of the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals. He shares his insights on his website, A Principal’s Life. Follow David on Twitter at @TCMSPrincipal.