The Principal’s Role in Transforming Education

No position in education has been transformed more over the last two decades than that of a school principal. The role has transitioned from being a building manager, to being an instructional leader. A former mentor of mine, who is now retired, remembers when he began as a principal and what the expectations were from his superintendent. Those expectations included keeping the building clean, making sure parents did not call the central office, and ensuring that all the blinds in the front of the building were closed and level at the end of each school day.

Now as a superintendent, I have a different set of expectations. For me, safety and managing a building are baseline expectations. Principals should be able to handle buses, books and students who require more discipline than others; because if they can’t, then there can be no real improvement in student learning. Ensuring that students learn is their most critical role. A recent report by the Mid-Continental Research for Education and Learning (McREL) examined hundreds of studies about the principal’s role and found that a good principal can help raise student achievement by at least one standard deviation. When a good principal is matched with a good teacher, they can move an average 50th percentile student to the 90th percentile. A poor principal can hinder a great teacher.

How does this happen? There is no easy answer, because great school leaders come in many forms. Some are consensus builders, some are very direct, some build capacity in others, and some are old school. Whatever their style or approach, a great leader has a unique ability to get 50 to 100 adults to move in one direction. When everyone is moving in the same direction with the same focus, you see great results. There are some common themes among great principals. First and foremost, they have a clear vision of where they want the school to go. Great principals put students first and make student-centered decisions. They monitor the right things, such as teacher instruction and preparation. Great principals learn very quickly to say no, and make sure that limited resources are put to their best use. Great principals are also good coaches who work to make their teachers better. They understand good instruction and find ways to impart this to their teachers.

The modern principal has so many jobs that there is not time to do them all. Therefore, the principal must learn to delegate effectively. However, delegation does not mean abdication. The principal is still responsible. Students have more needs; parents are more vocal; teachers require more time; and, the rules and regulations continue to mount. A school is a multi-million dollar enterprise, more complex than many small businesses. Principals manage budgets, personalities, student behaviors, facilities, and district expectations. The best make it look easy, but it is not. They decide what is most important, and focus on that and do not allow distractions to interfere with their goal. A great principal I once worked with knew that if she wanted to get the best out of her teachers, she needed to be in their classrooms observing what was going on and coaching them. To achieve this, she made sure that a large part of her day was scheduled in classrooms and unless the building was burning, this time was not to be interrupted. Parents and staff learned quickly that this time was not to be interrupted. This practice also had a secondary effect on the assistant principal who learned to deal with a variety of mini-crisis situations.

Even the most focused principal though has to deal with a myriad of unexpected issues that arise in the course of a school day. These include: angry parents, hurt students, upset teachers, personal tragedies, last minute district requests, public relation moments and many other surprises. What the great principal does is use these as opportunities to reinforce the vision and to drive home the message about what is important in a school. Another former mentor of mine was a high school principal who had to deal with a fire in his school that destroyed a third of his school. Instead of complaining, he used it as an opportunity to rally his staff and community together. They quickly shuffled space and schedules and reopened in two days. At the end of the year, they discovered they had their best year ever when the state testing results were released.

What does all of this mean? For me, it means that if I want to change a school, I have to look at the leadership. One person can make a huge difference and make that difference quickly. I have seen it happen in many places and at all levels. A new leader comes in and changes the culture of the school and the staff starts pulling in one direction. In a short time, the school is transformed and student learning takes place. These types of transformational leaders are hard to find and we look to people both inside and outside the system to find them, and often, we lose them to promotion or other districts who can offer higher compensation. Still, I would rather have a transformational leader for a short time than an average leader forever. I say this because even in a short time, they can put a school on the right track for their successor.

The role of the principal has become harder and more demanding. The principal’s responsibilities have come a long way from the days of my previously mentioned mentor. The average work week is sixty-plus hours with lots of evening work. The summer is simply planning time and gearing up for the next year. A great year is often followed up with a challenging one. Finally, there are no two days alike with new challenges each and every day. With all of this, why would anyone take the job? The answer is easy; great principals relish a challenge and they love to see students and teachers achieving at their highest levels. There is great satisfaction in doing the job and doing it well.

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