The qualities and skills required of today's principals have shifted quite dramatically over the past decade. It was not long ago that principals were expected to manage the building, and those hiring principals looked for individuals who were organized and knowledgeable about building operations. Those individuals who were never taught the skills that are needed for today's principal are now caught in the shift in priorities. This shift has made it very difficult for principals who were appointed under the previous expectations.
The topic of principal effectiveness and its role in comprehensive, sustainable school improvement has been on our minds as we bring our ASCD Forum discussion to a close. We asked readers of ASCD SmartBrief, a free daily e-mail news service that provides summaries and links to major education stories and issues, what best defines effective principals. More than a third (34 percent) of readers agree that the most important standard is for principals to have a clear vision and inspire and engage others in developing and realizing it. At a secondary level, about one in six educators felt that one of the following four standards were equally important and most descriptive of an effective principal:
I am a principal. I knew I wanted to become a principal soon after I began my teaching career almost 20 years ago, and I count myself as among the fortunate few who can honestly say they are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing. Seven years ago, when I began this phase of my career, a colleague, herself a retired principal, asked me if I understood the difference between being the principal of the school and every other position in the building. I am sure that I gave her some academic response, to which she simply stated, "Always remember, the lives of every student in the building are in your hands." While I imagine she was including the literal safety of my kids in her comment, I am certain that what she really meant was that my success or failure as a leader would have life-changing implications for the quality of the futures my students would live.
In elementary school I could not imagine why I was being tortured by Latin or math, and my perception of soccer was chiefly that of being a crashee.
But I loved starting things, especially newspapers. Once I had saved enough to buy a mimeograph machine, which was an improvement over my prior mass reproduction method of typing hard on as many carbon copy sheets as possible, I was unstoppable.
Who's the best principal you ever worked for? And why do you say so? Ask this question of educators from the classroom to the superintendent's office and the common denominator answer is quite consistent: he or she cared. Cared about what? Content? Pedagogy? Test scores? Well sure, those are a given. But in this case, the principal cared about them. They felt a connection with this principal, that he was more than just a supervisor. He made a difference in their day, much in the same way they made a difference in their students' day. It's all about the relationship.
In this Educational Leadership article, Gordon Donaldson, George Marnik, Sarah Mackenzie, and Richard Ackerman focus on the relational skills school leaders must use to build strong, sustainable, solid relationships and thriving schools—skills not typically taught in workshops or courses, so many principals have to figure them out on their own.
Many schools are making major changes in structures and professional development to make sure teachers are implementing effective project-based learning (PBL) schoolwide. I've been honored to be part of that journey with many schools. I have seen many different kinds of PBL schools, and with it, many kinds of PBL projects. This work has also reaffirmed the belief that the principal is one of the cornerstones to effective PBL implementation. We know this! This is not new news, but because PBL is a change in the paradigm of curriculum and instruction, it means that implementation has unique strategies and challenges as well. Here are some straightforward ways I have seen principals at PBL schools lead toward excellent PBL implementation.
Do you remember your first year in the classroom? It was an adrenaline rush everyday! We wanted to change the world, inspire students to become great, support struggling students, establish our own reputations as excellent teachers, and earn the respect of our colleagues. I would not trade my first year of teaching for other opportunities. Whether we recognize it or not, the first several years of teaching and administration focus on personal development.
A recent Metlife survey (PDF) found that 75 percent of principals feel that the role has become too complex and a third are looking to move out of the role within the next five years. The role of principal has changed dramatically in the last decade and has, to many, become overwhelming. So what is the role of a principal? Or rather, what are the roles of a successful and effective principal?