Daniel W. Smith

Who Is Today’s Principal?

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.

In order to effectively lead as a principal in today's school, individuals must focus on high-quality classroom instruction. Yes, principals must serve as visionary, instructional, influential, and learning leaders, but they must serve in these roles in relation to effective instruction. For example, principals must have a clear vision for what curriculum, instruction, and assessment should look like within the school, and set a path towards accomplishing it.

Schools are trying to keep up with the fast rate of change, and principals must have a deep understanding of the change process and the zone of proximal development within their staff. Principals must know how to select changes that are needed but also to shelter teachers and staff members from changes that are not aligned with the school's focus. They also must know what changes teachers and staff can absorb and how to scaffold the approach and provide the resources needed to implement the change. Principals must walk the fine line to push teachers to the cliff without pushing them off the cliff.

As an instructional leader, principals have the obligation to know, walk, and talk high-quality instruction on an ongoing basis. Principals may not be an expert of every content area but rather an expert of pedagogy and how to cause learning. Observations and walk-throughs are conducted on a daily basis and teachers expect their leaders to model effective feedback by ensuring that it is timely and specific. Teachers should seek out the principal as the instructional leader to discuss lesson ideas and learning opportunities for students.

Additionally, as an instructional leader, today's principal must provide teachers and staff with the learning they require to grow and move forward. The principal should play a key role in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of professional learning experiences. They should ensure all professional learning models effect instruction, consider the ways in which adults learn, are job-embedded, and are differentiated to meet the varied needs of participants. Principals who utilize these skills set the tone for high-quality instruction and help to foster the development of teachers and students.

Ultimately, principals are responsible for every student and staff person within the school building and they should leverage their influential power to ensure that these individuals are provided with the necessary tools, resources, professional development, and time to plan and deliver high-quality instruction. Many people think of influence as lobbying key individuals for position on hot topics. Principals must keep the best interests of students and the fundamental purpose of learning as the top priority. Leaders who do not recognize this and do not develop the skills to support learning for all will not be successful as a principal in today's schools.

One of the key skills, required by today's principal, is effective communication. This skill is more important now than ever before. Principals must communicate their vision, help stakeholders understand its value, and use a variety of communication tools to get them on board. Individuals in today's world expect information to come to them as opposed to going to get it. We used to think it was sufficient for each teacher to develop and maintain a website. However, we now know that parents and students want information pushed to them through listserve e-mails, mass phone messaging systems, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and any other feasible method. In their role as instructional leaders, principals must use communication skills to express what effective instruction looks like, how to plan and deliver it, and how to know when it has occurred. Principals must be highly skilled at communicating with teachers through coaching and helping teachers to develop a reflective practice. With the many different communication tools at their fingertips, principals must strategically select and utilize the methods that will effectively provide the necessary information and keep stakeholders focused on the mission, vision, and goals of the school.

The role of the principal has drastically changed over the past decade. Instructional leadership has been thrust in the driver's seat, and effective leaders have embraced this opportunity to have a lasting impact on learning. New tools have paved the way for principals to communicate with all stakeholder groups with the push of a button, and leaders must now strategically utilize effective communication skills to capitalize on opportunities. Accountability measures on student achievement have forced educators to understand that learning is the main outcome; however, focusing on the best interests of students has not changed and should not change. Principals will continually be faced with new mandates, pressures, and accountability measures, but in the end they must keep their focus and heart on the best interests of students.

Daniel Smith currently serves as a middle school principal in Virginia Beach, Va. He has worked as an elementary and middle school principal for the past six years with prior K–12 teaching experience. Smith is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leader class of 2011 and an active board member of Virginia ASCD.

Comments (1)

Hari Ratnopanowo

May 1, 2013

I’ve been a vice principal for the last two academic years but not yet a principal. I agree with you. I just want to share my own opinion. Besides all that you have written, a principal should be a role model for all the academic community especially the teachers. A principal should be able to accommodate most of their colleague teachers to build sense of belonging so they can support every decision and implement it willingly and happily.

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