The Media Center
Communicating with Your Principal:The Heart of the Matter
by Mary Alice  Anderson Lead Media Specialist, Winona Middle School, Winona, Minnesota
MultiMedia Schools November/December 2002 
How you communicate with your principal varies with the structure and size of the school and district, personalities, and communications styles. Get to know the person you are communicating with and use the most appropriate method for the person and situation.

My principal. . . ." Two words that hold a lot of meaning when uttered by media specialists. How frequently do you use that phrase? Do you end with the lament " . . . doesn't know what I do?" Or with, "is great!" All media specialists recognize that a supportive, involved principal is a critical factor in the success of the school library program. It's not just obvious to media specialists; it's documented by research. Before there can be support, there must be understanding; before that, communication, a topic of concern to many practitioners.

What is the best way to communicate information about the media/technology program to the principal so that he or she has a basis for support? What types of information should be shared? When's the best time for sharing information? How can technology help us? There are essential considerations in the administrator/media specialist communication process.

1. Most school principals' professional training included little or no information about media programs. Many can recognize a great media program when they see one, or know what they don't want, but would find it difficult to describe what it takes to shape and manage a program. It's up to us to teach them, provide information, and model the role of the media specialist.

2. Administrators are busy and pressured; they face many diverse demands and may lack the time to pay attention to everything we consider important. But they do like to be informed and kept in the loop.

3. When we fail to communicate, we fail. What we communicate may not always be immediately applicable, but it can be a tool both for heading off potential problems and for laying the foundation for future growth.

How you communicate with your principal varies with the structure and size of the school and district, personalities, and communications styles. Get to know the person you are communicating with and use the most appropriate method for the person and situation. In some situations, communication may be daily, in others, only a few times a year. Some topics are suited for informal conversation; others require a formal approach. Where should you begin?

Share good news. Remain positive and upbeat. Principals (and board members) are more interested in what the students are learning in the media center and labs than how busy you are or how many books were circulated. Focus on big-picture topics that involve student learning and teachers. Principals like to hear good news; it makes their school look good; it's even better if it makes the principal look good. Help the principal have a good day by conveying student and teacher success stories. In an era of accountability, the contributions our programs make to student achievement are of supreme importance.

Share your programs' role in helping every child succeed. Share the significant amount of research on media programs and student achievement, indicating how your program measures up. Discuss how the program supports the curriculum and standards. Share current research about technology in education, technology issues, or topics you know the principal is interested in. I am fortunate to have a principal who is very interested in technology, so anything to do with what's going on with technology or something about technology is an attention-getting topic.

No whining! Nothing is more ineffective. Save gripes and concerns for the important issues that the two of you can solve together. Put yourself in the principal's, or the teacher's, shoes when you address a concern.

Numbers and data help provide a sense of the program as a whole. It does little good to share trivial statistics. But it is wise to maintain ongoing statistical information about circulation, lab usage, prices, hardware inventory, and materials usage patterns, so it can be shared at the appropriate time or to support a related issue. Is funding for your school's online subscription database questioned? Use access and hit statistics to build your case. Teachers in one school reported that with home access, teachers confirm that kids are using less time to find and include better sources in their research reports. This past summer, our statistics included a high number of hits during July, the month many teachers were completing graduate research projects. Spread the word that resources and technology help teachers, too!

Take advantage of questions or requests for information to share any relevant information you can about the media program. Recently, my principal forwarded questions and concerns from a parent about our district's grade level restructuring. I could have replied with a short e-mail. Instead, I chose this as a time for advocacy. The response was written to inform the parent and administration about the media center collection, technology access, teacher-media specialist collaboration, and information-literacy instruction. The two-page reply eventually became part of an information packet prepared for the school board and shared widely in the district. Some of the information was cited in local newspapers.

Informal, frequent communication works well for me. My principal and I communicate informally several times a week, almost daily by e-mail and in person often. I like to share little tidbits about "what's cookin'." He claims he receives more information from me than from any other staff member. I consider that a compliment. A busy elementary principal said she likes to be informed by e-mail. "I'll look at it, respond to it, and move it along. I don't like a lot of stuff when I'm busy with the daily work. Give me enough to pique my interest; if I think it's cool and need more information I'll ask for it." Good advice. Information shared informally via e-mail or in "do you have a minute" situations make up the building blocks of knowledge and relationships that help principals understand and support the media/technology program. Just as we cannot learn how to do our jobs in a short time, we cannot expect our principals to understand our programs or rely upon us as colleagues with only occasional information from us.

Informal, casual communication helps plant the seed for formal communication on important issues. Presenting the information in phases helps build support. This school year has just started, but I've been planting the seeds for big-ticket items we need to think about for the 2003-04 school year. Another media specialist said she often sends the principal a memo to give him lead time on topics that are not of immediate need. The principal can think about and prepare for comprehensive discussion.

Timing is important. Anticipate the need the principal has for information and the best time to present the information. Even in the midst of chaos, there are predictable events: new staff orientation, school budget preparation time, testing time, or parent conferences. There is also a cycle to how long it takes to prepare for discussions and work through bureaucracies that exist in all schools, small or large. Use your calendar, experience, and flexible nature to predict when your suggestions, reports, or requests will be timely. The elementary principal likes to receive detailed information when she's in the visionary and dreaming stage of planning. At that time she'll refer to lengthier documents for the information she needs. Don't be too early, but also not too late, to make a difference.

Don't assume the principal will always know what you are referring to. A reference to something the principal said is a good reminder and discussion starter. "You remember how at our staff meeting you said that the research shows aligning our curriculum across grades and classrooms could improve performance? We've looked at curriculum mapping, and I've worked with several teachers. We think the time has come to propose this for our entire building. Are you familiar with curriculum mapping?" Tailor information presentations such as these to the needs of the principal and the situation. Provide enough information to educate, but not enough to overwhelm and confuse.

Don't prepare a request or write a report and then drop it in the principal's mailbox. He or she has too much to read. Instead, deliver it in person. If that isn't possible, send an e-mail or tell the person the report is available and request a time to discuss it.

Technology is the ideal tool to aid the communication process. Always apply your best writing and creativity skills to develop a professional-looking document, PowerPoint presentation, or perhaps even a video.

Spreadsheets are ideal for presenting budget data and statistics and convey a good management image as well as the data. Spreadsheets are also a helpful tool for displaying non-numeric information in an organized, tidy way. Graphs are an especially valuable visual aid to tell a story.

Another effective technology option is an ongoing, evolving Web site that highlights the media/technology program. Go beyond the typical collection of links and information about the media center's resources and hours. Include photos of students working in the media center and labs and highlight what teachers and kids are doing. Send the principal the URL every time the page is updated. An excellent example of a Web page annual report is the 2000-2001 annual report from Lawrence, Kansas. It can be viewed at The report has loads of pictures and highlights each month's activities.

Increase your value by being a problem solver; use technology to help the principal solve problems or meet deadlines. Perhaps he or she needs information quickly. Apply your research skills to find the answer to some question with information the principal needs. Are the reading teachers interested in purchasing a reading motivation tool? Search the listserv archives to see what others had to say. Is the principal dealing with a policy issue? Offer to e-mail your colleagues in other schools to find out what they are doing. Does the principal have a Web page? Help him or her create or maintain one. In all three situations, you've used technology to find information and communicate a positive image of your own talents.

Be professional. There is no excuse for printed or electronic documents not to look professional. Whatever the format, the materials must be free of spelling errors and professional in appearance. My principal has an eagle eye for spelling errors. Years later, I'm still thankful that my principal caught a spelling error on document I was about to distribute to the staff. (No, I'm not perfect yet, but I certainly try, even with informal e-mails!) You never know where it might end up, as the document on grade-level restructuring illustrates.

Brevity is essential. Write short sentences or make bulleted lists. If the document is long, write a short summary or highlight key points. Use white space and readable fonts, but not in a way that appears immature.

Maintain consistency in format and style. Use the same logo, fonts, or slogans on documents so they will be instantly recognizable as something from the media/
technology program. Our school district wants the district logo used on all communications; I use the phrase "information connections" or "because students achievement is the bottom line" on most documents from the media center. Very brightly colored paper is attention-getting for less-formal communications; avoid using notepaper that is cute.

The bottom line. A failure to communicate will only set you and your program up for failure. The principal is an essential partner. Media specialists and media programs are able to help in ways no one else can. We see every kid, we see every teacher. We see how the curriculum is being implemented in every classroom in the school. When our role is understood and supported, the use of technology, information technology, and school performance can be raised to the next level. Communication can become powerful when it is focused on actions that have been well thought out. Through this advocacy on behalf of kids, we can move to the center, instead of being pushed to the periphery. Make the 15 minutes your principal spends with you the most informative part of his/her week.

Mary Alice Anderson is a frequent contributor to professional journals, a conference presenter, and an adjunct instructor in the College of Education at Winona State University. The Winona Middle School Media/Technology Program has received both state and national recognition and awards. She is also the lead media specialist for the Winona Area Public Schools and was a Library of Congress American Memory Fellow in 1999. The Winona Middle School Web site can be accessed at Communications to the author may be addressed to Mary Alice Anderson, Media Specialist, Winona Middle School, 1570 Homer Road, Winona, MN 55987; e-mail:

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