What Makes a Good Principal?
After many years of teaching at all levels of education, I distinctly remember the principals I served under. My first principal was a nice guy but very defensive. Another was very supportive of me, but never came into my classroom. Another liked to discuss educational problems and issues with me. Another visited my classroom twice a year but never gave me much feedback, other than suggesting I write the Learning Objective on the board. Each one left a mark on the school and on me. They were the leaders, and how they led made a difference in how I taught.
These experiences made me wonder what makes a good principal, and in this blog, I will review some of the best practices I found. I encourage teachers to share these ideas with principals, or if you are a principal, see what ways you embody these leadership modes.
Here at DataWORKS, we believe that the best school leader is an instructional leader. That is, a good principal focuses on instruction, not just the building. The research fully supports this idea of what a good principal looks like. The best principals demonstrate leadership in five key areas: vision, culture, delegation, instruction, and data.
The research clearly indicates that an effective principal adopts and communicates a clear vision of what they want from everyone in the school. That means high expectations —for students and teachers—that are “non-negotiable.” They keep their focus on the improvement of learning, and every decision is geared towards that standard. Specific ways to promote their vision include encouraging research-based strategies for teaching, limiting announcements that take away teaching time, and providing support for teachers and students as they make positive changes.
Changing the school’s culture is often a daunting task. However, the principal sets the tone for the entire school. A fear-based, authoritarian, “my way or the highway” approach is toxic to growth. Effective principals create an atmosphere that is non-bureaucratic and trusting. They promote a professional community that helps teachers collaborate and not work alone. They foster respect for everyone on the campus from students to teachers to classified staff. Specific strategies include maintaining a welcoming, solution-oriented attitude, participating in staff training programs, and modeling what it means to keep learning. They set the tone by being a “learner among learners.” In our trainings here at DataWORKS, we often see the principal attending all the professional development sessions and even teaching demonstration lessons himself with the teachers. This models collegiality and positions the principal to talk “instruction” with the teachers. They are seen as being able to “walk their talk.”
Shared leadership is not only an effective strategy but also a way to keep principals from burning out. Principals don’t have to be the “lone ranger” saving the West from bad guys. They are more likely to form a posse to help them right the wrongs. That means they take advantage of the leadership skills of their faculty members. They encourage them to take charge of programs, meetings, trainings, community outreach, and more. The research shows that students and community appreciate the “collective wisdom” of the team from the school – not just the principal. More heads are better than one! They collaborate on the direction and progress of the learning at their school.
Dewey Hensley with Kentucky’s Department of Education often reminds people that the original meaning of “principal” was the one who was the “principal teacher”1. He believes that modern-day principals should emulate that notion. In fact, the research indicates that school improvement is correlated with the principal as the key instructional leader. Effective principals focus on instruction by encouraging research-based strategies in discussions with teachers, spending time in classroom visitations, providing specific feedback to teachers, and providing time for teachers to collaborate on instruction. This includes such things as shortening administrative time to give teachers more planning time, encouraging lab sites, peer observations, grade-level meetings, and effective professional development.
Today, federal and state regulations insist on accountability for schools, and principals must learn to manage this data efficiently. There is demographic, achievement, instructional, and perceptual data that they have to deal with. They have to ask the right questions of the data, and use it in discussions with teachers. It can also provide good information to parents and students. By using data judiciously, principals can drive the continuous improvement in their schools. They can identify gaps, inconsistencies, and needs. They can challenge staff to analyze the data and determine what practices to change based on the results.
A principal must be an instructional leader to have the most impact on student learning and the culture of his or her school. That’s why DataWORKS offers training for Instructional Leadership Coaching. More details are found online. As Pamela Mendels says in her Learning Forward article on The Effective Principal, “the crux of the principal’s job today is not, as it was in the recent past, to sit at the apex and attend to administrative tasks, but to work collaboratively and unleash potential.”
1The Effective Principal by Pamela Mendels, February 2012, www.learningforward.org. Report on the Wallace Foundation research on best practices.
2Qualities of Effective Principals by James H Stronge, Holly B Richard and Nancy Catano, Nov. 2008. ASCD report, www.ascd.org
What do you think about the role of the principal in your school? Do you use or have you seen examples of these types of leadership? Share your comments in the feedback section below.
The key to effective focus on instructional excellence in your school is the tools and language that you use. Our Instructional Leadership Workshop will help you gain automaticity with them and take your administrative capability to the next level — and your school as well! Schedule a webinar today using our form.