The 3 Prongs of Principal Voice

By Sandra A. Trach

Exercising your voice as a principal entails listening as much as you’re leading, according to Russell Quaglia.

Quaglia, researcher and author of Principal Voice: Listen, Lead and Learn, presented an #NAESP16 keynote on his principal voice model. It’s based on three key behaviors: listening, leading, and learning. Listening, he said, builds a solid foundation, with leading and learning as consecutive tiers. To transition between listening and learning, principals must build trust and respect; to transition from learning and leading, principals share responsibility, he said.

Session: Principal Voice: The Power to Listen, Learn and Lead

Speaker: Russell Quaglia, president and founder of the Quaglia Institute for School Voice & Aspirations.

Key Takeaway: Support teachers’ and students’ voices in your school. Amplify your own by listening and learning.

Schools where students’, teachers’, and the principal’s voices are all respected look “very different” than ones where they are not, he said. Employing the principal voice model’s listening, leading, and learning is “profoundly complex” work, according to Quaglia.

Why Listening Matters for Teachers

In his presentation, Quaglia emphasized that listening is critical for leaders. National survey data of more than 20,000 teachers showed that:

  • 64 percent of teachers said their building administrators are open to new ideas.
  • 48 percent of teachers said they like having a voice in decision-making.
  • 56 percent of teachers said their administrators are willing to learn from staff.
  • 53 percent of teachers said their administrators know my professional goals.

“When teachers have a voice, they are four times more likely to be excited about their future career in education. When teachers believe [the] administration is willing to learn from them, they work three times harder to reach their goals,” said Quaglia.

He encouraged principals to tell teachers, “I want to learn about your idea.” He encouraged principals to be proactive rather than waiting for something to go wrong at school and then start listening. Principals must routinely listen and learn from all stakeholders.

Enhancing Your Listening Skills

To enhance listening skills, Quaglia advised principals to be good observers and proactive, genuine listeners. He openly challenged the idea of administrator as a “fixer.”

“You don’t need a survey to learn if people are not communicating with you,” Quaglia said. “Have an open door policy, look them in the eye, and do a lot of listening.”

This goes beyond faculty meetings, he said. Staff members at faculty meetings don’t like to talk and may not enjoy listening to the principal, either, he said. Instead, he suggested, leaders should get to know each teacher and staff member personally and authentically.

What Leadership Means

Principals should model to students how to use their voices respectfully. When Quaglia surveys students, they often believe that leadership entails being quiet and doing what they are told to do. This, he pointed out, is actually the antithesis of leadership.

“How can we bring kids up with voice to understand this?” he asked, emphasizing students should be supported as “disruptionists” for the future.

Unfortunately, this student data parallels Quaglia’s research on superintendents. Superintendents surveyed describe their best principals as ones who, “don’t rock the boat and do what they’re told.” Quaglia argued that this is profoundly concerning, because a principal’s voice is crucial in unlocking the potential of the school.

Superintendents, he advised, should not go into schools with an agenda. Each school has its own DNA, he said. Each leader within each school must start his or her own movement; all it takes is one leader and one follower to initiate change.

Change to Build Trust

Ultimately, we need to change our systems from accountability and testing to trust.

“What do you do in your organization to build trust?” he asked. “When you engage students with trust, they rise. Kids surprise us.”

Principals can enhance their leadership and build trust, he said, by protecting their followers, sharing responsibility, failing fast, and celebrating successes. Quaglia closed his talk with takeaways from his research, and wisdom from his own experience as a school leader:

  • Turn up the volume of your own voice.
  • Spend time thinking about where kids are going, not where they’re from.
  • Remember students and teachers have something to teach us.
  • Learn from your past experiences.
  • Live on the edge. “Do something that shows your kids you are alive every day,” he said.
  • Prepare for an unknown future.
  • Be a learner as much as a leader.
  • Be the voice you want others to hear.

Sandra A. Trach is special assistant to the superintendent at Lexington Public Schools in Lexington, Massachusetts.