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4 Job Transition Lessons for School Leaders

On my last day as a school principal, there was a dance party on the playground. There were bubbles, roller skates, leis, music and laughs. It was my perfect ending. The best way for me to say goodbye to my school and to 9 years serving as a principal. I looked forward to transitioning to a new job in the school district’s central office.

Jenay Enna roller skating on school playground
That’s me – Principal Enna skating off campus for the last time

It was the year we returned to school in person, while still experiencing the COVID Pandemic; a wild year to make that change. I wasn’t looking to leave the school, or even ready for a change, but I decided the opportunity was right. What I didn’t expect is how the transition would affect me, nor that it would last an entire year.

Going from a place of comfort and confidence – understanding my role and those around me, and into the unknown, where I had to figure it all out for the first time, was tough. I know change can be very difficult, even though it’s just a phase, and yet I fell into the trappings of my own expectations often and forgot to give myself grace and patience. From that year, I came away with four important lessons.

Four Lessons About Transition

If you’re a new school administrator, new to the building, changing roles, or having significant life changes that impact your work, here are four key lessons to pay attention to as you navigate your transition. 

  1. It takes time. Time is relative, but when it comes to education, it really does take a full school year to transition. A school year is a complete cycle. Each part of the year brings new tasks, different challenges and celebrations that will all be “firsts”. I learned that even after getting settled, there was always something I didn’t know coming up ahead and I just had to brace myself amid the ignorance. You don’t know what you don’t know. Until you do. You just have to go through the full year in the space of “being new.” You really can’t expedite it.
  2. There are important phases of transition to recognize. In William Bridges bestselling book, Managing Transitions, he describes these phases as Ending, Losing and Letting Go; the Neutral Zone; the New Beginning. 
    • When in a new role, especially if you’ve moved from a school where you worked for many years, there’s a feeling of loss. Letting go of your old role, your old school, or those you worked with can be tough, even if the change was desirable and welcome for you. In a sense you’re losing an identity you once had. For me, it was my identity as a principal. It was my very favorite job and the solace I found in the transition was that I could continue to work with and support schools. 
    • Most of the school year was spent in the Neutral Zone and that’s normal. Learning about the culture, operations, individuals, and what it takes to do the job well is a psychological process. You’re not quite adjusted. This phase is an emotional wilderness, Bridges explains. This phase requires patience. If you don’t give yourself and others a little grace in the Neutral Zone, you’re at risk of fatigue and even feeling burnout, which can be devastating during your first year on the job!
    • Finally when the year is coming to a close, when you have a chance to reflect and understand the cadence of the year, the key players, and the work that’s ahead of you, you can enjoy a New Beginning. You may feel that you’re out of transition, but in the New Beginning, you’re still establishing yourself in the new role and determining how you want to move forward with the people on your team. This is a key time to work together with staff on refining the mission and vision for your school or department. To get clear on your “why” and establish meaningful and realistic goals.
  3. Others are experiencing transition alongside you. You not only go through your own process, you’re managing theirs as well. While you are experiencing and ending, so are they. Maybe they miss their old principal or manager, maybe they have transitioned themselves to new responsibilities. Everyone will be trudging through the emotional wilderness together, at some degree or another. Knowing this in advance will help you recognize that the underpinning emotions of a member of your team who is struggling, may be due to the fact that they are in the Neutral Zone. Everyone is experiencing some degree of this phase and giving space for people give input and have a voice will help quell the fear and anxiety of something new and unknown.
  4. It’s important to trust the process. Whatever phase you’re in, transition is a process that you can’t skip. Trust that like seasons change, transition passes and you are right where you are supposed to be!

If you haven’t read Bridges book, I recommend it. It was required reading in a class I took years ago and I’ve referred to it many times over the years. If you want to know how to get through each phase effectively and lead others through the phases, you’ll find important suggestions and research-backed strategies. 

After a full year of job transition, It’s safe to say that I’m out of the weeds and able to see the horizon.

Sun setting on behind mountains with foliage in the foreground.
Jenay Enna

Jenay Enna

The goal of The Principal Support is to create and curate resources to help principals and school leaders dial in your work flow and empower your teams so you can accomplish big goals and leave your leadership legacy.

This is where we, as leaders, improve our collective capacity to do great work because, as the saying goes, better leaders make better schools!

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