Strong Principals, Strong Schools

Most successful school leaders fall into at least one of the 10 categories of “principal principles.”

Most successful school leaders fall into at least one of the 10 categories of “principal principles.”
By Anthony McConnell and Jeffrey Zoul
October 2019, Volume 43, Issue 2

Although the impact of the school principal upon student success might be more indirect than that of the classroom teacher, that impact is nearly as profound. Part of the reason for this influence is that almost everything the school principal does—or does not do—has a direct impact on teachers who, in turn, have a direct impact on students.

When identifying the traits, behaviors, beliefs, and actions of the most successful school leaders, the list tends to go on and on. However, we have found that most—if not all—fall into at least one of 10 categories we call “Principal Principles.”

Principle 1: Priorities

Effective school principals understand and accept that everything involving the school they serve is important. As such, they make it their practice to communicate that message to the school community—in particular, to the staff members they lead. Although they treat everything and everyone in the school as important, they also realize the need to prioritize the many competing demands upon their attention, intentionally making time to focus on each. They know what to start, stop, and continue doing and how to recognize what needs attention, when it needs attention, and whom to enlist to help lead the way.

Principle 2: People

Effective school principals know that education is a “people first” endeavor and work intentionally to build positive relationships with everyone in the school community. They work hard, yet they never forget the “fun factor,” modeling for those around them that teaching, learning, and leading should be joyful enterprises. When they make a mistake, they admit it. Effective principals realize that little in our noble profession is inherently “right” or “wrong” and allow others autonomy in how they accomplish goals.

Principle 3: Self-Leadership

Effective school principals are acutely aware that to lead others, they must first lead themselves. They are passionate about leading and learning, constantly trying to grow, learn, and share their learning with students, staff, and parents. They send the message to those they serve that they consider themselves a work in progress, evolving on their quest to improve. They seek out people, opportunities, and resources that can help them get improve. Effective principals model lifelong learning and self-improvement.

Principle 4: Outcomes

Effective school principals know results matter and hold themselves and others in their schools accountable for adding value to the social, emotional, and academic lives of the students they serve. They seek answers to the question, “How will we know if we are making a difference?” and plan periodic assessments to elicit data which will inform both how they are doing as well as which steps they must take next. They analyze all student, classroom, and school data consistently and share these findings with staff members. When results show the school is making a difference, they celebrate. When results are less than expected, they confront these facts openly collaborate with staff to improve.

Principle 5: Talent

Effective school principals know that effective teachers can have a profoundly positive impact on the students they teach, so they take hiring very seriously, recruiting and hiring the best professional they can find for every opening in their building. They have intentional hiring practices in place that increase the likelihood of selecting individuals who will succeed once hired. Effective principals surround themselves with excellent people.

Principle 6: Change

Effective school principals welcome change, viewing it as an opportunity for growth. They realize that not everyone in their school enjoys change; as a result, when initiating change, they work to address the hopes and fears of those involved in the change process. They realize that our global society is changing at a furious pace and that schools, too, must change. When leading change, these principals clearly explain why change is happening, whom it will affect, and how it will be carried out.

Principle 7: Communication

Effective school principals communicate frequently and effectively with the students, staff, and parents they serve and, when in doubt, err on the side of over communicating. They realize the damage that can occur when members of the school community feel uninformed. They communicate in a variety of ways, using both traditional and innovative means to meet the needs of all stakeholders. They realize the power of stories and often communicate the messages they wish to send using powerful storytelling techniques.

Principle 8: Management

Effective school principals are visionary leaders passionate about “big picture” plans for

transforming the school experience for students and staff. At the same time, they know each day is filled with a host of less glamorous, but equally important, managerial or operational duties and responsibilities. Serving as a school principal at any level can be one of the most hectic jobs we know; 12-hour workdays become the norm rather than the exception. In such a fast-paced and task-filled atmosphere, it can be easy to inadvertently allow certain managerial tasks to fall through the cracks. Successful principals know how damaging this can be to the culture of a school. Therefore, they have in place systems for attending to every aspect of how the school runs. Although they perform many of these tasks themselves, they also enlist and empower others to help lead this important work. Effective school principals know that taking care of the “little” things makes it more likely they will accomplish the “big” things.

Principle 9: Harmony

Effective school principals relish professional debates that are conducted in a professional and respectful manner and encourage staff members to let them know when they disagree with something or someone in the school. They are equally adamant about taking on underperformance or behavior that misaligned with shared values. They are leaders who cultivate an atmosphere of harmony in the school, establishing and maintaining an environment in which all people in the school go out of their way to be kind to one another. Moreover, when stressful situations arise, these leaders maintain an aura of calm, modeling how they would like others to respond to the inevitable mini crises that occur.

Principle 10: Collaboration

Effective school principals tend to be collaborative by nature and are collaborative by design. They know that school leadership is a team effort and rely on colleagues within the school and across the district to help move the school forward. Although they enjoy collaborating with others on a variety of school-related issues, they are not afraid to stand up for what believe, even when such beliefs go against those of others on the team. When collaborating with colleagues, effective school principals keep the focus on what works best for the kids they serve.

When strong principals are in place at schools, they positively influence the school culture and the instructional quality of the teachers they lead.

Anthony McConnell is superintendent of Deerfield Public Schools District 109 in Illinois, and Jeffrey Zoul is an author and educational consultant for What Great Educators Do Differently.

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