Ambition & Audience Spiral

From High School Vice Principal to Elementary Principal: What I’ve Learned from the Transition So Far

This is the burning question I’m asked all the time lately: What’s the difference between elementary and high schools?

I loved being a vice principal at a big high school. After fifteen years of teaching and leadership in high schools I travelled to a strange new world, becoming an acting elementary principal in September 2014.

Please note: This learning is still ongoing. I haven’t landed on a definitive answer or a bumper sticker to summarize my conclusions. For the most part, the jury is still watching the evidence unfold, waiting to see what happens next in a complex case.

I love both panels. I feel blessed for the opportunity to experience schooling and education K-12.


The easy one. I left a high school with a population of 1200 to work in an elementary school with a population of 120. Benefits of a small school are many:

  1. There are no corners to hide in, everyone knows what everyone is up to. Natural accountability.
  2. I can visit classes more frequently. Abundant evidence of learning every day.
  3. I can develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with staff, students, and parents. Greater influence on individuals.
  4. I can spend less time responding to conflict issues and more time facilitating learning issues. Better ongoing focus on school improvement (SIP) priorities.

My day is still diverse and busy because my team is smaller, so I’m called on to contribute in a more hands-on way. I feel more part of the energy of the school, rather than standing on the sidelines with a big fire hose. I have time to be proactive rather than reactive.

The people are smaller too. That was the biggest surprise. Children in kindergarten are tiny compared to Grade Nines! Tinier than I thought. And I’ve learned that I need to use different words to communicate with them sometimes. Not necessarily smaller words, but more precise words. I have to think before I speak–of the desired outcome, of the best way to redirect a student, of the bigger picture of how this moment may support his/her growth and development and whole life today and tomorrow and beyond. “Because I said so” doesn’t work.

In a smaller school with smaller people there is more value placed on supporting the whole student–not just the part of the student who is learning to read. How does this reading moment fit within the greater context of the strategies being taught, the dynamics in the class, the culture in the school, the relationships with staff and students, and the values of the home?

In an elementary school there are many explicit connections, an unspoken focus on unity, sharing. Staff build many bridges every day to support students moving forward in curriculum and life skills. They take care to create schedules that make sense, to unravel the learning to spark ongoing inquiry, and to fill their rooms with images, words, and books that suit the needs and interests of their students in that year. Individual teachers do this in high schools but my experience is that it’s not a widespread cultural trend within a big school. Is the focus in a big school then on the collective experience rather than the individual experience?

As the little people move quickly throughout the elementary school building, the learning moves slowly with repetition and multiple entry points. The work that teachers do in their individual classes is valued by students and parents. The daily focus is on the teaching and learning, but most importantly on the individual student and his/her development. In a high school the big people move slowly while the learning moves quickly. The pressure to cover curriculum and “deliver” marks is high. The daily focus may be on the teaching and learning, but I’ve found it’s also on teacher contributions to the whole school through leadership in coaching or clubs or the arts. The work that teachers do outside of their classes is most valued by the community. The undefeated senior soccer coach is more celebrated than the amazing secondary English or Science teacher.

Treat Day

This was one of my big fears. High school teachers have heard about “Treat Days,” weekly mini-potlucks where staff bring in treats for each other. With my secondary view it seemed like Treat Day was just one more thing to add to a “To Do” list, an excessive opportunity to show off culinary prowess and spend time we don’t have snacking.

I was SO wrong.

Treat Days can be a sign of a vibrant staff who love and respect each other. They are a beautiful way to honour colleagues, to celebrate another week together, and to spend time relaxing and laughing. I am so blessed to be part of a staff who value time spent as a group and who want to do nice things to honour each other.

Teaching in high schools can be isolating. It can take years to develop strong relationships with staff. Most often, staff divide into small groups and create community for 10-12 teachers. It can be hard to navigate the groups–some even use the word “cliques”. It makes me wonder how we can support high school staff in working together more? Finding ways to get high school staff cultures to a place where a regular whole-staff treat days become a satisfying, anticipated weekly ritual rather than another thing to do (or a dreaded concept).

Then I wonder about small business vs. big business. How does this relate to the idea of small schools vs. big schools? What are small businesses doing to stay vibrant, to distribute the work so their staff remain energized, to build community? What are big businesses doing to create a sense of belonging, to ensure that each individual feels known and valued, to promote connections and collaboration?

Learning Culture

Last week a friend and high school teacher said to me, “Are we done yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like with all this stuff? We’ve been working so hard. Surely we’re done. Have we caught up to elementary?”

There is a culture of mystery between elementary and secondary systems. Neither really know exactly what the other is doing but the mythology that trails each can be misleading, entrenched in stereotypes.

We are all in the business of learning so we need to be lead learners whether we work in an elementary school or secondary school. I would hope that our learning is never done. We are not in a field where we can say, “There. I’ve learned assessment. I’m done.” The learning moves and changes with our experience and new connections. Learning cannot be static.

Four years ago we gave our secondary staff a handout that looked like a puzzle with phrases to describe how to create learning goals. Every year we returned to the same handout and deeply explored a piece of the puzzle. One day in a session a consultant started talking about “clustering expectations” and our jaws dropped. Where was this coming from? Now “they” wanted us to do something new! Will it never end?

With grace and patience the consultant pointed to our old handout that looked like a puzzle. There, on the top right corner, was the phrase “cluster expectations.” It had been right in front of us for three years and none of us had noticed it–yet. Maybe we weren’t ready. Learning and change takes time. We need to be gentle with ourselves and our leaders.

One of the biggest gaps I’ve noticed between the two panels is the access to learning opportunities. The staff in my small elementary school participate in regular guided learning. Our small teaching staff of ten teachers are involved in ongoing job-embedded, research-based learning sessions on: Science and Inquiry, Science and Technology, Intentional Interactions (supporting primary students through play-based learning), Fractions, Algebraic Reasoning, Multiplication, and Primary Reading Assessment (using Running Records). And we are blessed to receive the support of a Math Coach twice a week to help build teacher capacity and consultants who regularly visit the school to support our school-based learning sessions.

If high school teachers had access to diverse learning opportunities then the strategies would seem less fragmented.  It’s hard to put the pieces together when your main source of learning about research-based strategies is on PA Days and staff meetings. To create a stronger learning culture within our secondary schools, a first step could be to create better learning conditions for our secondary teachers.

My role as principal is far more focused on driving learning culture in an elementary school than it was when I worked as a VP in a secondary school. Since the school is smaller, the staff is smaller, the conflicts are fewer, I have more time to focus my work on learning.

It comes down to learning conditions. What conditions are needed for learning?

Click here for a wonderful two-page summary of learning conditions and an opportunity to reflect on your school.

What are the conditions for learning in your school?

How can we close the gap between adult learning conditions in elementary learning communities versus secondary learning communities?

What barriers do teachers face? What barriers do leaders of teacher learning face?

Maybe the brilliant Steven Katz can help….

What’s Next?

As I started writing this post I realized I could probably write a book on this topic! My posts will often show the tensions and harmonies of both panels because I am now of both panels. This year I feel like I have a foot in two worlds and that I am continually reflecting on both in various contexts.

There are amazing things happening in education in Ontario K-12 and amazing educators in K-12. I’m thrilled to be an educator in this time and this province.


  • Lesley Nightingale

    Much to reflect! I have a weekly coffee with my best friend (Monique) and many of our conversations sound like your post but without the in depth academic support-it’s coffee! Please keep the posts coming it’s fascinating 😄

  • aunt estelle

    Oh Jessica you’ve outdone yourself. WONDERFULLY insightful and so well written! I really want you to move to Ottawa and run our kid’s school! Our little people NEED you!

  • Ammie H

    I am looking to make the move from a high school AP to an elementary principal. I was a secondary educator before becoming a secondary administrator. What suggestions do you have for me to learn, research, explore the world of elementary to make me more marketable? ALL and ANY tips would be appreciative.

    • Jessica Outram

      Thanks for your note! Good question! In the elementary panel admin is much more hands-on in the instructional program than in the secondary panel. I recommend spending time reviewing the curriculum (especially Math and Language). Reflect on Growing Success through the lens of a primary teacher. Check out the Kindergarten curriculum document–it’s excellent. Try following some blogs or Twitter feeds of strong elementary teachers to see examples of rich learning happening in classrooms. If you search on Twitter for #onted or #edchat you will find a number of educators. Spend time with Stuart Shanker’s work on self-regulation–very useful. Find some people who are working in elementary and ask lots of questions about everything. The Ontario Ministry of Education monographs are also amazing. There is lots of stuff out there! No shortage of resources. Some possible questions to reflect on might be: How will you use student learning needs to inform staff learning needs? And then use student and staff learning needs to inform your learning needs? What do you hope your vision/legacy will be for the instructional program? What does the shift look like when discussing behaviour with a 16 year old vs. a 6 year old? What are the ideal conditions for learning?–visualize what it looks like/sounds like in each division. When you walk into a kindergarten/primary/junior class how do you know the learning is happening?

  • Mark Dempsey

    I am in my 29th year as a public school educator at the secondary level. Over the past few years I have felt a strong urging to become an elementary assistant principal. I am certified in Secondary Administration only and our state makes it almost impossible to add elementary. I do have limited administration experience at the secondary level, but I KNOW that I can be an asset in an elementary school. What advice can you give me? I have had an excellent career teaching and coaching in high schools (respected and even honored as my school’s Teacher of the Year in the past), but I’m ready for a change. I still have a lot of gas in the tank and do not want to retire. However, I’m not having much luck with the certification issues I’m facing in my state!

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