New principal is already butting heads with staff

Q:  I’m a high school principal in Michigan. I was assigned to a new school in my district because I have a track record of turning around struggling schools. Not something I wanted, but it is what it is. I’m not the easiest person, but I get the job done. It was hard to leave my last school, and I’ve spent the summer trying to get my bearings. This has meant assessing where my new school is, and it’s bad. The furnishings are falling apart, the windows are cracked, the books are literally from the 1930s, not to mention that they’re all in English when my students speak 40 different languages at home. I’ve been meeting with my assistant superintendent to advocate for my school because it’s flat-out disgusting that we have so much less than other schools in the same district. I’ve even brought in a screwdriver and hammer and made repairs myself. I’ve also been looking at site issues, like making sure we comply with safety standards. I had to move a teacher to a different classroom so our evacuation maps are up-to-date. Well, she came flying in last week and let me have it. No “welcome to our school,” no polite dialogue, just hostility. I don’t do the whole “alpha male or female” thing, and believe me I find ways to get rid of malicious teachers. But I’m not looking to start out writing people up left and right — that can wait. I’m a hot-headed guy myself and want a smooth transition, so I’m open to ideas. How would you handle this type of situation? I’m worried there will be more of the same when teachers come back to work in a few days, and negativity isn’t going to help me, the teachers, or my students.

A: Change is difficult. It’s clearly been hard on you, and it’s hard on the teacher who verbally attacked you. You’ve had a summer to mourn the loss of your old school and adjust to the idea of a new one. You’ve done that in a positive, forward-thinking way. You’ve taken stock of the mess you’ve inherited and gone to work. You’ve channeled all your aggravation about the involuntary transfer into meeting with people who can effect change. You’ve been advocating for students, focusing on things like obtaining new books and making repairs. These have been great coping strategies, and they’ll benefit your school. I’m impressed, and I’m not surprised that they chose you for this job.

I’m also impressed that you recognize you’re hot-headed and want to focus on de-escalating tension. I’m in no way condoning your teacher’s attitude, but I’d start from a place of empathy. From her perspective, change has been foisted on her, and she’s had no time to process it. She has a new principal who’s planning to turn the place upside down and that’s unsettling. This teacher doesn’t hold much power, and she feels out of control. My guess is that her reaction isn’t just about the classroom, it’s overall panic about the unknown. She absolutely should have come in, welcomed you, initiated a get-to-know-you conversation and politely inquired about the reasons behind the space shift. That ship has sailed. So how can you handle these types of outbursts?

When someone is upset, start by listening. Reflect what you hear. Once people feel understood, they tend to calm down. Be the role model. Using this conversation as an example, treat her the way you’d like her to treat you (not to mention her colleagues and students). Stay in control, tell her you’re happy to meet her, ask her questions about her summer and her interests. Then do what you did in your question. Talk about your goals for the school and the steps you’re taking to obtain better materials and resources for your teachers, whether it’s new chairs or better professional development. Explain why you had to move her classroom. Stick to the facts and explain why it wasn’t arbitrary. Also make it clear it’s a done deal. Your job is to comply with state mandates and adhere to safety standards. You still can validate that it’s disconcerting to come back to a new space and that you’re sorry this had to happen. Hopefully, the conversation will morph into something more positive. My guess is that once she collects herself, she’ll realize you’re doing the best you can and will want to get off on the right foot with you.

She’ll also realize she can’t bully you or order you around. It’s your job to make some tough decisions. Since this is your first time meeting her, I wouldn’t take her to task for being rude. But if she treats you like this again, I’d address it directly. If she interacts this way with her boss, imagine how she talks to her peers. You say you don’t like an “alpha” culture, and I respect that. Keep this woman on your radar because she may make things toxic for your staff, and they may need your help. The good news is that it sounds like you’ve perfected that skill. So for now, focus on making a peaceful transition. In an authentic way, communicate to your staff that you know change isn’t easy. And then make it clear that you intend to focus on advocating for them and for students — even if it means making some unpopular choices.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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