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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
List Archives
What Makes an Effective Principal?
November-December 1997

It has been pointed out that whenever you hear about a "good school" someone points to the principal. They are usually dynamic, good communicators with a vision, etc. 

A couple of problems arise for "reform."
1. There are a limited number of such individuals and so what do you do to reform school when you don't have a good principal?

2. Even some who have all the qualities that we regard as exemplary may function more like benign dictators who do not build leadership into the staff but rule "top down". So what do you think makes a great principal for both the short run and the long? And what do you think can be done in the unfortunate absence of this archetypal hero?

--Joe Rafter

I just finished a mini research paper on principals and this is what I concluded. In the old paradigm, principals were trained as school managers who dealt with the regular "runnings of the schools." Unfortunately, this is not in alignment with the new emerging role of the principal today. These are the key findings from Marsh (1997): Effective principal's integrate management and educational leadership, integrate educational leadership pieces (activities and functions), deepen and integrate views of educational leadership, reflect about integrated educational leadership and school life, and transform the school in relation to a vision. The principal at my school is an effective manager who knows the pieces of management but lacks the instructional leadership skills. This drives me crazy when I facilitate science department meetings. My solution is to keep her informed of everything we discuss at our meetings, which involves frequent "in her face" meetings because she doesn't quite understand what we are trying to do (improve instruction). We love her dearly, but she just doesn't have the leadership skills needed to run a reform school.  

--Diana Taga

My response would be that teachers who find themselves with a "benign dictator" need to empower that individual to hear the voice of his teachers. Most principals are "running scared" of the political  pressures they face. They need to learn that an effective school, a school which can stand together with one voice, provides a principal with a much better buffer against criticism and pressure than when he/she is perceived as "the" target and stands alone without the support of his/her faculty. Decisions which are shared are much more likely to be defensible than the decisions of a single individual. 

A good place to begin with such a principal would be to suggest a leadership team, a principal's council, which would meet regularly with the principal and be liaisons back to the rest of the faculty. The faculty could communicate concerns, issues, and ideas back to the principal through this group. This would be a relatively low-risk approach for a principal to take to foster inclusion in the decision-making process.  

I think that principals have a tough assignment, and those who are not strong and visionary, need to be supported by a staff who can help them become more comfortable with being more forward-looking and change oriented. Not all principals are capable of making the leap from dictator to coach, but teachers working collectively and supportively can help many principals make this transition in management style. 

--Jerry Swanitz

I've been fortunate to have an innovative, strong principal in the past few years who is also a dedicated teacher. I believe the principal should have roots in classroom teaching. That perspective is vitally important if reform is to be implemented. A good principal certainly needs to have a clear vision of how the school should be run, the quality of personnel/faculty he or she wants, and the ability to voice his/her opinions and beliefs about education. Carmen, my principal, is certainly an advocate for the students as well as the staff. She is willing to share with other administrators how she runs the school and this is important if there are to be changes in administration. I feel she is a good role model who has affected other principals in our district. If there were more principals like her teaching and helping as mentors, this would certainly start improving the kinds of principals we now have in the system. 

--Alice Hom

Those of us who know her know she is the best. What can people do who don't have the best, or even close? 

--Joe Rafter

In lieu of the charismatic leader (by the way, we are lucky to have one here at Westie, Mr. Donald Pellegrini), I would vote for my definition of a good leader, i.e. one who leads by bringing out the best in all of her constituency.  

--Maggie Hoyt

I definitely agree with Maggie about a good principal—one who brings out the best in her teachers and staff. I would add that recognizing and supporting those strengths is probably not a skill that comes easily to most supervisors (at least in my experience). I also think that that more than a superficial commitment to a school, it's children and families is a necessity in a good leader. A long term investment in the school and community should be expected from principals—that is one reason I have no problem with principal tenure (an issue in NYS right now). Consistency in leadership is so important.

--Judi Fenton

Could it be that the problem with principals is, in no small part, the following? Although they are supposed to function as leaders of a school community, they are not accountable to that school community, but rather to the bureaucratic structure which essentially chooses, rates, disciplines and removes them, and which is the avenue to further progress in one's administrative careers. Should it not be that a leader should be answerable, first and foremost, to those whom she aspires to lead? 

--Leo Casey

Leo's last point concerning principal's accountability really hits home with me. So many times, I have encountered principals who fit the profile. 

--Peggy Wyns-Madison

Absolutely, Leo! I think you've said it in a nutshell. How, then, can principals be made more accountable to the educational community they serve? I would have thought that principal tenure would do just that—free the educational leader to do the right things by his/her constituents. But it hasn't done that. And what does it mean for us in NY who have a chancellor who wants to be able to remove principals? Am I off target on this???? Or are we to anticipate less principal commitment to schools?  

--Judi Fenton

While I too agree with Leo, we cannot simply look at changes in principal accountability without addressing whole-scale changes in school accountability. It is not simply a question of making principals accountable to the school community, but making the school itself accountable to the community. And to do this requires giving schools a significant stake in their own accountability. This translates to moving control over budgeting, hiring, and development of curriculum closer to the school as the focal point for decision making and governance. Until this happens, principals must dance a delicate dance as they try to protect the school from districts that want to micromanage. It is often easy, as a teacher, not to see the battles that principals have to face as they try to make the schools which they lead better. What is unfortunate is that too often these battles don't have students at the center of their concern. 

--Mark Silberberg

I just got an e-mail from Judy suggesting that the focus of the "principals" discussion  move on to ways to democratize a school. In between your holiday shopping and general merry making perhaps you could all give a thought to the problem of involving everyone in a  school community in the "life". That is, can we come up with ways of making it possible for everyone from students, parents, staff, teachers, and (yes) administrators to participate in authentic ownership of their lives and their own destiny as fully entitled members. My experience is that there are a great many tokens of membership and trivial exercises supposed to represent genuine membership, but a real shortage of commitment to empowering all of the segments. You know the "Let's have the custodian vote on the cafeteria menu", kind of involvement. How can we approach the people who have been fooled a million times and ask them to take us seriously? How can we get the people in position of bureuacratic power to first see the benefits of a democratic environment? And for those who do, how can we help them to implement it? I realize it is easy to ask these questions and far more difficult to design strategies to be effective. To even consider this we will have to wade through the trite, the banal, and the truly hackneyed. But I realize for myself at least it is fundamental. Do I really believe in the possibility of democracy or do I opt for some form of realistic, efficient accommodation to "what is"? 

--Joe Rafter

One last shot at the principals question. Suppose you were going to get together with a group of people and start your dream school (public, private, or public charter) would you organize it around an administrative hierarchy, around a teacher, student, parent, staff cooperative with rotating administrative duties? Would you brain storm to find a unique form of governance?  

--Joe Rafter

I think that Principal's and Director's are in a difficult position because of the politics within the system and district's—as Mark mentioned, they are often under pressures/expectations that we, the classroom teachers, aren't privy to. However, if the welfare of children and honesty were made priorities, then I think Administrators wouldn't be caught. I also agree with Leo and accountability to staff—as one who has anything but a pleasant relationship with her Director, I think mutual accountability might balance things out. Ah, but hierarchy doesn't lend itself to mutuality. 

--Lexi McGill


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