What makes a good school principal?
Experts share their thoughts on the traits that lead to school success
When education insiders pick apart the factors that make a school successful, there’s often a lot of conversation about academic rigor, resources, quality of teachers and even, in some cases, the socio-economic makeup of the students within the school.
But the success of a school is as dependent on the principal as any other single determining factor one could list. If there’s a great emphasis on continuous learning environments for students, it stands to reason that equally important is the professional development and continued education of the adults in the school, too.
Jason Dougal, CEO of the National Institute for School Leadership, said the key determinant of principal effectiveness is, “Does the principal see [him or herself] as a learner? How they approach their own learning, how capable [they are] of creating the type of professional learning environment in their own school where teachers would have accountability to each other and would be relied upon to create their own learning.”
“What we see is that organizations that are really high-performing have a lot of similar traits, and one of those is this continuous improvement or continuous learning culture,” he continued. “That type of learning environment will trickle down to the students, where they see it as their charge to be constantly improving learning.”
“What it comes down to is the best principals out there are the ones who filter every decision through the question of ‘is this good for student learning,’” said Bob Farrace, director of public affairs at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“That goes down to the vision that the principal creates to the furniture that you select for the classroom,” he added.
That vision also extends to a leadership style that includes all of the voices in the school, which Farrace summarized as “distributive leadership, collaborative leadership” — “Sharing some of the responsibility with some of the other leaders in the school” and “allowing teachers to take the lead on some of their own initiatives.”
There is also a practical benefit for shared leadership in a school, Farrace said: “The principal’s day is completely riddled with decisions, and the fact is we know that the principalship as it is currently constructed is far too big for any one person to do.”
Dougal agreed, saying, “A principal who comes in feeling like ‘I already know everything, I have nothing to learn from my staff, I’m in charge’ … that type of mindset, it is not conducive to a professional working environment.”
It does not benefit anyone when the principal has “a blue-collar management mentality where the principal sees themselves — if they don’t think so explicitly, it’s implicit — where they see themselves not unlike the foreman of a factory 50-60 years ago, where it’s their responsibility to set the expectations from a top-down accountability model,” said Dougal, who added, “unfortunately, we still see a lot of leaders who adhere to that mindset.”
Farrace said, “The best principals also recognize that the path to getting there is through strong, caring relationships, not just thru the principal — though the principal certainly sets the tone for it, but what is the relationship between the teachers and the students?”
“It’s really the principal who is hiring the folks who will build those kinds of relationships that will allow students to flourish, empowering the teachers so they can make their own decisions, and also setting a climate in which students are empowered to take control of their own learning as well,” he said.
“The way instructional leadership was viewed over the last 15-20 years, it had this notion that the principal should be the person that has all the knowledge,” said Dougal, “when in fact, [each of the teachers from each discipline represented in the school] has a core set of concepts and knowledge that, if you’re not really deeply embedded in, it’s hard to give actionable feedback in those learning environments.”
But it isn’t just the empowerment of staff that suffers with this type of top-down leadership, they said; student success suffers, which shows up in data around school effectiveness.
Re-framing student success
For too long, said Farrace, “Students have felt like the implicit objects of their own education.” A good principal will help find “ways for students to be able to take the lead on their own learning.”
“The mindset that you bring to your work — a principal who has what Carol Dweck would refer to as a fixed mindset ... you’re probably going to organize your school that way, where you have high expectations for some group of kids … middle expectations for others, and still lower sets of expectations for other types of students,” he said.
Farrace said the best leaders will create a climate around “project-based learning, challenge-based learning.”
“It’s the kind of instruction in which students are able to identify real-world problems and go through a process of proposing and possibly executing solutions,” he said.
“This is a great way to first make sure that the kids are acquiring the right schools and the right knowledge ... but we recognize that you really need to go way beyond the basics in education these days,” continued Farrace.
Dougal said there also needs to be a conversation about the conceptual organization of the school.
“We’ve had the same conceptual way of the way students progress from grade to grade for over 100 years.”
“Maybe the best teachers shouldn’t be teaching AP, maybe they should be teaching the students who are behind, because that is how you begin to close the achievement gap and achieve equity,” he suggested.
Both agree the key to successful leadership is an attitude that empowers all of the leaders in the school — from students to staff to other administrators — to think about what’s best for students, even if it isn’t always the popular approach to take.
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