School Principals are Special Leaders
School Principals are Special Leaders

POSTED: January 21st, 2012

CATEGORIES: Article, Budget, Charter School, Edu Business, Education, Leadership, Superintendent,

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DISCUSSED: 7 Comments, (Join the conversation)

I always tell principals about how after a couple of years, the school begins to take on their personality.  I suppose that’s true with just about any organization.  But, because I know schools, I can say that much with confidence.  So, when we select principals, we select as much for their personality as we do for their technical skills.  That’s not to say we have a certain personality type that we choose or that any given personality type will fit in any particular school or situation.  However, there are some attributes that every great principal has.  These attributes are not something that everyone has, although I think they can be developed.  It is an incredibly demanding job that requires an amazing amount of skill and talent.  It’s a job that is not for everyone, and requires an amazing amount of people skills, tenacity and vision.  Principals, therefore, are special leaders.

When I look at schools, I want to see the students self-motivated and self-reflective, happy, friendly, engaged, excited about what is going on in their school, hold a vision for their future, and be compassionate towards one another.  In short, I want to see a family centered on learning.  A family that is accountable to themselves and each other.  To that end, the adults at the school need to model that behavior.  The principal needs to model and demand that behavior.  In fact, as the superintendent, even I have to model that behavior if that is what I want to see from our students.

In our District we have a pretty solid ‘No-blame’ rule where we always talk about solving problems rather than placing blame.  We don’t look for excuses and we accept our mistakes, learn from them and continue to get better each day. We look in the mirror and not out the window. We understand that complacency is our biggest enemy. Therefore, because we can really only blame ourselves, and our personally responsible for our actions and results of those actions, we place a pretty high premium for self –reflection and self-motivation.

Another premium quality we place on our principals is teamwork.  Nearly every successful principal we have hired either played sports growing up, was in the band, or in the military.  I truly believe that these activities teach you the skills to work with people and to subjugate you own interests for the good of the team.  You learn to be accountable to others and to hold each other accountable.  To be part of a family centered on common goals.

Principals live in a world of contradictions and need to constantly be balancing competing thoughts.   They need to have the confidence to be wrong when everyone around them is right.  They need to err on the side of compassion and keep the greater good in mind at the same time.  They need to be optimistic and realistic.  Understand schedules and be flexible with their time.  To be nice to people as they question their competency – to be stern and smile. Therefore, they need to be creative and have a vision of what they want the school to be so that they can take these competing views and mold them into a consistency of thought and action.

We also want our principals to be excited by the challenge.  Excited about doing what they do and how they are do it.  Excited about seeing teachers and students succeeding and excited about small victories.  Excited about the communities they serve and the opportunity given to them.  Excited to find out how good they can be.

In sum, they need to be everything we want from our students.  They need to show how it’s done and be a role model for teachers, students and parents.  They need to exhibit the best of what we want our young to be become and have a passion for their charge.

Principals need to understand that theirs is an almost impossible job. That the greatest applause they get is silence; that no one really gets what they are doing or why.  People surround them, yet they are alone most of the day.   Therefore, they have to be comfortable with themselves and be confident with the decisions they make.

We ask for a lot and we have a pretty special group.  Though not all of them are special…yet.  But, we are working on it.  I really believe that our success as a district is due to the incredible job they do each day.  I don’t always remember to let them know how special I think they really are and intend to change that in the next couple of weeks as we old our mid-year conferences.  I think they deserve to know.

So I’d like to get out ahead of the curve a bit and ask for your help.  If your school’s principal has what I just described, then you have a great principal.   And, if you have one at your school or know one, do me a favor and let them know.  You’d be surprised just how much it will make their day.

by The Ed Buzz
  1. andrewravin says:

    i’ll tell her on monday! :)

  2. My principal has all of the qualities you describe here. I consider myself very fortunate. You are right about a school taking on a principal’s personality. Over the ten years I have been at my middle school I have seen the climate and culture undergo a sea-change. My principal took on a troubled, low-income school and turned it into a model for schools everywhere. I don’t think there are many who can say this about their organization. She actually makes me worry about how well I am living up to her expectations. How many can say that about their boss?

    • The Ed Buzz says:

      Then make sure she knows it. Principals like that are more rare than you think. Most only stay in situations like that for a short time before moving on the ‘bigger and better’ things. Glad you are is such a great situation

  3. The only caveat I would have for the no blame philosophy, when dealing with students, is that they do need to be able to tell their version of how they thought the situation occurred. In that way, the adult can help them process the situation through the eyes of the other person. They then can learn how to inhibit reactions and process situations before reacting.

    • The Ed Buzz says:

      Totally agree with you on that – I was referring more to adult situations. You always need to let kids express themselves or you’re not teaching compassion and understanding.

  4. I think it is true in any organization, The company/department/team take on the personality of the leader. It can be good, or it can be a train wreck. Pick your leaders wisely.

  5. Over my 10 years of teaching, I have taught in four different schools, and I must agree that a principal is instrumental in creating a positive learning environment. I taught in inner city Brooklyn and saw a school go from safe to frightening in a matter of days. They moved our powerful, caring principal to the high school and replaced him with a parade of inexperienced, uninspired successors. I had never seen evidence of a gang presence until he left. Teaching in an upper middle class suburb for the last four years has shown me that strong principals are needed everywhere, not just in tough neighborhoods. I have seen students of color and of low socioeconomic status languish simply because of the prejudices of the administration and subsequently the teachers. Your post has convinced me that my gut feeling that I would be a great principal is one I should trust and certainly pursue. Our kids deserve strong leaders who believe in them. I am excited to follow your blog. Thank you for your thoughts.

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