Back-to-School Planning for Principals: Creating a “Playbook” for a Strong Start


On the first day of the new school year, high school principal Ashley Martin moves through the building with purpose. She observes student culture by the lockers and in the breakfast line, and pops into several classrooms to watch how teachers start class. If a teacher needs support with a particular skill, like giving clear directions, she may step in to model or whisper feedback.‍

This may look like the typical first day of school for many principals. But guiding Martin’s every move is a carefully constructed back-to-school plan, rooted in her vision for success at her school. We call it a “Strong Start” Playbook.

What are the key components of an effective back-to-school plan? A Playbook includes the criteria that school leaders want to see in hallways and classrooms; a focused schedule that allows the leader to monitor those criteria and take time to reflect; and a plan for targeted follow-up, like PD for teachers or discussion topics for instructional leadership team meetings.

Every year we at Relay Graduate School of Education work with hundreds of school leaders to help them craft Playbooks that guide their time and ensure that every minute is used for what really counts — not just for putting out fires.‍ We encourage principals to print their Playbook out and take it around with them, just as NFL quarterbacks consult playbooks strapped to their wrist when out on the field.


A “Strong Start” back-to-school Playbook will usually focus on school culture: ensuring a safe, orderly environment between and in classes; warm relationships between teachers and students; clear school values and expectations; and sufficient support for social-emotional learning and check-ins on students (and staff) who may be carrying trauma. This is also an opportunity to reinforce basic skills like effective communication and start-of-class procedures that help students focus on learning. Such a plan ensures equity for students who may need extra support.

It’s essential to start the new year off with a clear focus on what matters to your school and community. A Strong Start Playbook lays the foundation for a healthy school culture, consistently rigorous academics, and support for your leadership team and staff. And when you as a principal follow your own carefully constructed back-to-school plan, you will reduce your own stress, gain back control over your time, and mostly importantly — see measurable impact.

Dr. Ben Klompus and Katie Yezzi are former teachers and school system leaders, currently serving as senior leaders of Professional Education Programs at Relay Graduate School of Education. Jesse Corburn is Assistant Superintendent at Uncommon Schools.

This Guide is supported by a grant from the Barr Foundation.



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