27 September 2011

What makes a good principal good?

On day, while walking out of school, after a particularly tough department chairs' meeting, my principal, after whom the idea of going out in a Blaze of Competence is named, asked if I had ever considered a career in administration. I told her that I had not. She asked why not. I had a simple response. I don't like cleaning up other peoples' messes.

Today, I thought the BlazeBlog might investigate what makes a good principal. I was inspired to write this post by a tweet which led me to this New York Times article. I know that you don't want to read that article. Go ahead and read it anyway, because I want you to know how much I stole from it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to give you that column's list of the things which make a good principal:

1. A good teacher has been a teacher
2. A good principal feels at home in a cafeteria filled with 800 children eating rubbery scrambled eggs for breakfast.
3. A good principal has her own style.
4. A good principal protects her teachers from the nonsense. 
5. A good principal sets her own high standards.
6. A good principal works with union leaders to carry out her educational agenda, and if she can’t, takes them on. 
7. A good principal knows teachers are only part of what make a school run.
8. A good principal takes money out of her pocket for the school. 
9. A good principal loves and trusts the public schools where she works.
10. A good principal worries in private, ignores the surreal and finds a way to get things done.
11. A good principal has a To Do list several feet long.
12. A good principal leads by example.
The column surely uses one principal as the basis for the entire list, and there are certainly risks in that approach. Also, he doesn't actually quantify how he determined that she was successful. However, I've worked in 5 high schools (6 if you count my student teaching. I wouldn't though, since I was hardly thinking about the principal because I was mostly focusing on survival.) and he seems to have figured out most of the keys to what makes a principal good.

But you don't read the BlazeBlog to see me link to the professionals. (aside: if you want me to run a links column once a week, either email me or post in the comments.) So, here, in a totally derivative fashion, is what your humble host thinks makes a principal good. 

1. A good principal sets clear expectations.
The principal is the captain of the ship that is a school. They need to be the person who sets the goals. They need to set clear goals for all members of the school community. When a principal has clear goals for 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and longer, people know where they are going. These goals can be developed with members of the community and teaching staff, but the principal has to be the person who enunciates them and pushes people towards those goals. 

2. A good principal recognizes effort from all people, not just faculty.
 The principal needs to recognize that while the teachers have the most direct interaction with students are the faculty, students are learning from all of the employees of the school. Students learn about life from janitors, lunch ladies and secretaries. Indeed, I think most people who have worked in schools can agree that the support staff keeps a school running. They make sure the toilets flush, the trash gets taken out, and the hungry mouths are fed. They are the first and last faces most visitors to a building see. Principals have a duty to recognize all of those people as equal partners in the education process. When those people feel appreciated, they will keep working hard, and the school will continue to operate as a team. 

3. A good principal is an umbrella.
Schools are constantly under assault from people who can't teach. Legislators, board members, and community lunatics are constantly flinging rocks on the internet, on the phone, in person. (Ok, they don't actually fling rocks in person. In person they yell.) There is a constant stream of people who think you could/should/must do 95,000 other things. A good principal deflects as much of that as they can. They absorb the abuse so that teachers can focus on teaching, instead of worrying about new legislation or board policies, or, or, or. I'm not trying to say that teachers shouldn't have to deal with problems they have created, because they should have to clean up messes that they made. However, many of the messes teachers end up dealing with aren't self-inflicted. You know what? I misspoke up there in the subheading. A good principal isn't an umbrella. A good principal is a Kevlar vest.

4. A good principal keeps their worries to themselves.
A principal has the hardest job in a school. They are a member of the team, but they often have to be an individual. I think this is hardest when the times get toughest. When the worries of the world, of test scores, of insane parents and stressed out kids piles up on a principal, the temptation is to spill all of those worries out to the staff. I think that all that does is to make the rest of the staff worry about things that they can't change. Perhaps principals need to find some sort of support system to allow them to get their worries out without making their staff's heads hurt. 
5. A good principal is predictable.
One of the things that educators are constantly told is that students need to have a predictable environment for behavior. Schools are no different. They need to be able to predict how a principal will react. They need to know if the principal is going to be enthusiastic about new ideas, how the "boss" will respond to behavior problems. They need to know if they can expect the principal to rant and rave when he shows up to a swimming pool full of jello and goldfish, or if he's going to laugh and put the fish in a tank in the office. It is when people don't know what to expect that students and staff start to take chances, (Going Rouge in mavericky Republican parlance) and that's when schools make the front page for bad reasons.

6. A good principal engages the community.
Schools, when they are at their best, are centers of community. They serve as a gathering place, a rallying point, a home for those seeking one. It is imperative that the leader of that gathering place be engaged in the community outside of their building. Further, in the modern era, schools have to focus more on creating career ready graduates. To do that, schools should be utilizing the business leaders in the community, bringing them in, finding out what they need. The principal should spearhead those efforts. When the principal has been out talking to community leaders, it makes it easier to ask for money, or to diffuse potentially disasterous events. When the principal doesn't engage, the school seems like a foreign place, and community leaders judge it more harshly than they would if they knew the people who lived worked there.

7. A good principal believes in and trusts their staff.
Too often, schools are attacked for what they are or are not doing. A good principal defends their staff because they believe in them. One of the worst things a principal can do when they're new in a building is to not believe in their staff. I think the most damage I've ever seen done by a principal (and admin team in general) was when they entered a building and decided that every problem was caused by "the way we used to do things". For the record, I've been through that twice in ten years. Attacking in this way shows that you don't trust your staff, and that you think they were simply along for the ride with the old boss. Trust in your staff is key to getting them to trust you.

8. A good principal builds relationships.
 I firmly believe that education, at it's root, is about relationships. Kids learn more and better from adults who they believe believe in them. Teachers work better for administrators when they think that those administrators will defend them. Support staff works better and harder for bosses who they think care about them as people. If the principal leads this, and builds a culture of acceptance and positive relationships, the whole school can and will follow. The opposite is also true. If the relationships from the big office feel forced or false, people will no longer give of themselves totally.

9. A good principal provides guidance to young and new staff members.
Schools have a high turnover rate. Some day, perhaps the BlazeBlog will address this problem. At heart today, however, is principals and how they can be good. When dealing with new staff, it is important for a principal to provide support and guidance for new staff members and especially for new teachers. Support doesn't necessarily mean being in the classroom a lot (although they can help by providing lots of informal observations). Support can be an honest and frank discussion. Most of all, they must avoid creating a culture of fear.

10. A good principal stays out of the way.
If the principal is completing number 7 on this list, then they know that they should just let their teachers teach. Too often they can't manage to do this. District officials press down on them, and they press down on their faculty. They think that the best way to improve scores, behavior and reputation is to be heavy handed. Far too often, the end up like Michael Scott. (ok, maybe not like Michael Scott, perhaps more like David Brent.) They think that they are changing things, that since they've had 15 meetings with 30 different people things are changing. They aren't. Teachers will ignore a principal who is all hat and no cattle.

So, to summarize, a good principal sets goals, shields staff from idiocy, helps new staff get the lie of the land, and then gets out of the way. Thanks to all of my bosses who did that.

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