What Does It Take to Be Principal?

Five questions for aspiring leaders to ask themselves before going to the next level.

Topics: Assistant Principals

Considering a new role in school leadership can be daunting, especially when the demands on administrators often extend far beyond what happens in school. What if you are unsure about taking the next step in leadership, and what does it take to be a great principal?

According to Principal Baruti K. Kafele, a public school educator for more than 20 years and the author of 12 books, part of leadership is your energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. “What do you bring in terms of your presence?” he asks. “What do you bring in terms of your passion, your joy, and your excitement for the work, the students, and the staff? That’s leadership, too.”

Suggested by Principal Kafele and the lead instructors for the National Aspiring Principals Academy, Gail Pletnick and Eric Cardwell, the following are five questions aspiring leaders can ask themselves to prompt strategic thinking and self-reflection on the journey up.

  1. How would you handle the principalship in a school where the previous principal was not part of instructional leadership or the school culture? There’s a chance you didn’t get to pick your school, and you might be thrust into an environment that’s far different from your expectations. You may even come to realize your presence in the classroom is unwelcome, or that the culture doesn’t support pre- and post-observation conferences. You’ll need to put yourself in a position to educate people. “You have to have that audacity—that is leadership,” Principal Kafele says in Episode 55 of his Virtual AP Leadership Academy video series. “You can’t avoid being in the classroom.”
  2. What is it about me taking this job that will make achievement levels rise? The core of the conversation is student achievement. Every community will have different agendas, different lenses, and different levels of optimism. Leaders need to be able to say how they will manage and influence that environment. “The purpose of supervision is the improvement of instruction,” Principal Kafele says. “You must live in the classrooms, or you won’t know what’s happening, and you’ll have no influence on what’s going on.”
  3. How will I support the whole child? This is a foundational aspect of school leadership today: ensuring a supportive, inclusive school environment that uses culturally responsive instructional practices and behavioral support to embrace and educate the whole child. Great test scores are a direct byproduct of embracing the whole child, Pletnick and Cardwell say: “Keep the scholars at the center!”
  4. How will I promote collaboration and build productive relationships with stakeholders? Leadership is about relationships, so Pletnick and Cardwell advise aspiring leaders to “tear down the walls.” Empower your staff as partners in leadership. Look to community partners that want to participate in your learning community but have never been asked. “Have fun with your scholars, teachers, and parents,” they say. “Everyone is rowing in the same direction.”
  5. Can I do it all and still take care of myself? A successful career in education is like running a marathon. World-class runners keep their minds and bodies in peak condition, so what do you do to be at peak performance at school and elsewhere? Do you leave work at a decent time? Do you have hobbies? Do you have time to exercise? “All of these are critical to serve your learning community at the optimum level,” Pletnick and Cardwell say. “We need you around.”

They add that there’s another familiar question that aspiring leaders often overlook: “What’s my ‘Why?’” “Great leaders are able to identify the intrinsic motivation that drives them to do what they do,” Pletnick and Cardwell say. “Building leadership can be a lonely existence. But a strong understanding of your why will sustain you even in the most difficult of times, while rooting those around you in your shared core values.”

Belinda Lichty Clarke is director of alumni engagement at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.