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What Makes a Great Principal?

Great principals lead effective schools. Under their leadership, teachers thrive, students engage with core content and school administrative functions run smoothly. Conventional wisdom recognizes the value of school principals, and research backs it up. A report by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that, of the most important factors affecting students’ academic achievement, leadership comes second only to instruction.

This finding makes sense as principals serve as the head of their schools, and their decisions affect school culture, parent involvement and overall community satisfaction. The level of influence a principal possesses, along with the benefits that can accompany the position, make it a post that many motivated educators aspire to hold. Not everyone has what it takes to execute the job effectively, however. Serving as a principal requires specific skills and characteristics that positively affect the school as a whole.

The Importance of a School Principal

Before considering the qualities of a great principal, it’s important to realize just how vital a principal’s role really is. Research published in the Hechinger Report showed that school principals account for 25% of students’ academic gains, and only teacher effectiveness had a greater impact. Researchers now believe that what makes a great principal also makes a great school. Setting clear direction, mentorship and investment in professional development – these things matter in the classroom, at the school level and at the district level.

An article written by The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement stated that leadership’s effects show the greatest impact in the areas where they are most needed. A troubled school, for example, is unlikely to turn around without an effective leader’s guidance. Increasing awareness of a school principal’s influence on student and teacher performance is reshaping how educational leaders and thinkers view school reform.

Rigorous testing, with its system of teacher-directed rewards and punishment, is being replaced by a growing consensus that the key to school reform lies in effective leadership. Districts and private schools are recruiting top-quality educational leaders and empowering them to create the educational changes the public demands. As leadership expert John Maxwell famously put it, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Since the evidence suggests this is as true in schools as it is in businesses and nonprofits, educators now have to ask, What makes a great principal? 

The 7 Priorities of a Great Principal

1. Collaboration

A great principal fosters a collaborative school culture. Education consultant Steve Barkley has identified six distinctive school cultures, three of which – toxic, fragmented and balkanized –clearly emerge from and perpetuate organizational dysfunction.

Another of the six cultures, contrived-collegial culture, enforces collaboration from the top down, which may be necessary in an organizational transition, but without teacher buy-in, forced collaboration rarely works in the long term. Instead, a truly collaborative school culture emphasizes working together within the common framework of strong educational values. The goal of a collaborative school culture is effective instruction, and great principals engender this kind of culture in their schools. 

2. Listening

Traditional models of leadership focus on a single charismatic leader who tells others what to do, but contemporary leaders listen to the people around them, consider a variety of ideas and then make their decisions. Great principals spend time listening to students, teachers, parents, other administrators and educational researchers.

This kind of listening goes beyond simply paying attention while others talk. It requires understanding a speaker’s motivations, listening for what they are not saying and asking powerful questions.

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3. Leadership

When asked what makes a great principal, many teachers and parents may give their answer with a single word: leadership. Though definitions of leadership vary, their common thread is influence. A principal holds a title, and with it, the authority to implement their will on teachers and students. However, a great principal uses influence, as opposed to demands, to illicit the desired behaviors and attitudes from their team and students. People follow an effective leader because they want to, not just because they have to.

4. Visibility

Effective principals make it a priority to spend time in the classroom, the lunchroom, the hallway, the bus line and the main office. Essentially, they get out of the office. This approach used to be called management by walking around, or MBWA.

By simply walking around their workplaces, leaders can glean a lot from observing their team, resources, student behavior and how teachers respond to students in formal and non-formal settings. An article in Forbes said, “Companies (and schools) could benefit significantly if senior leaders would get out more — get away from their offices, the unnecessary meetings and the power lunches and see what’s going on elsewhere in the organization.”

5. Relationships

Nearly everyone wants to maintain relationships with other people, but meaningful relationships go deeper than maintaining. They have purpose. To build meaningful relationships, great leaders need to know how to set and respond to relational boundaries. They don’t isolate themselves or let their teachers hunker down in their classrooms all alone. But they also don’t force all teachers to act or teach alike.

Great principals establish high, reasonable and clear expectations that don’t keep teachers guessing. This approach creates trust, allowing teachers to be comfortable with taking ideas or problems to the principal. By creating meaningful relationships with parents and students, principals can often curtail problems or conflicts before they begin. In so doing, these principals keep teachers from having to manage too many emotionally draining situations on top of their regular work.

6. Support

Many classroom educators leave the profession every year because they feel unsupported by their administrators. There’s even a saying: “teachers quit principals, not schools.”

Research backs that up. An article published by the Brookings Institution said great principals do an exemplary job of retaining effective teachers, but not ineffective ones. The article went on to say that the best principals practiced “strategic retention.” A great principal must be abile to discern between high- and low-performing teachers. They must be able to create an environment in which high performers flourish and low performers can grow and improve.

7. Learning

Great principals never stop learning. Common sense dictates that the best educators and leaders are also lifelong learners. Research from the National Education Association (NEA) revealed the same thing. According to the NEA’s landmark report, Great Teaching and Learning, educators can take charge of their professional development through a specific series of steps. They start by taking an initial self-assessment, setting career growth goals, working toward those goals and finally conducting a post-activity self-assessment.

For a principal, working toward a career growth goal might mean conducting and publishing research in an academic journal or assuming a leadership position in an educational or community organization. Teachers who aspire to serve as great principals can also set ongoing learning goals, such as obtaining additional formal education through an online master’s degree in educational leadership. This kind of advanced degree prepares teachers to transition out of the classroom and into administrative roles.

The online Master of Education in Educational Leadership program from East Central University will help you gain the confidence and skills necessary to carry out your new responsibilities effectively. Our program was designed with working teachers in mind, and because of the online format, its flexible to fit around your busy schedule.