Thursday, July 14, 2011

Qualities of Effective Principals

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post: Effective Leadership in the Age of Reform.

School improvement efforts rely heavily on quality leadership.   Educational leaders are tasked with establishing a collective vision for school improvement and initiating change to spur innovation, ensure student learning, and increase achievement.  On July 13th I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. James Strong, from the College of William and Mary, deliver a keynote address at the NJ Department of Education Leadership Institute entitled “Qualities of Effective Principals.”  Dr. Strong emphasized that the job of a principal, or school leader for that matter, is about making a difference in the lives of children.  Leading and teaching are challenging work that requires a high level of understanding and patience. 

What do good principals do?  The audience at the leadership institute identified what they perceived to be the top elements.  These included the following items below where I have added some of my personal thoughts:
  • Great communicator: Principals need to be able to communicate what the school is all about.  School leaders don’t always do the best in terms of epitomizing effective communication.  In terms of evaluations, we can’t keep telling teachers that they are doing good work when they are not.  Being a direct communicator is often lost during discussions on teacher performance.
  • Difference maker:  Principals need to be able to keep the focus on important initiatives and culture characteristics that have an impact on student learning and achievement.  They establish accountability measures to hold teachers and students accountable for learning.    Great principals see solutions, not just problems.
  • Risky, but not too risky:  Principals have to be willing to try new things and have a mindset to keep trying until improvement is the end result.  They need a backstop of support that allows them to fail in these efforts.  The most effective decision makers take risks but do not bet the farm or take quantum leaps without knowing the end result.
  • Manage by walking around: Principals that consistently walk around know the students can better identify areas where teachers can improve, and set the tone for practices to be emulated throughout the building.  The human factor is extremely important.  Great principals establish a positive school culture by treating people the way they would like to be treated.  How we smile, say hello, and engage in conversations all are important factors in setting a positive tone.
  • Address problems:  Strong principals will do the hard, dissatisfying work associated with addressing and removing ineffective staff.  This requires addressing problems head-on with a positive attitude. When hiring new staff, principals need to go to great efforts to hire educators that align best with the vision of the school.
  • Cares about students and staff:  Effective principals never give up on kids and their support staff.  They are the epitome of instructional leadership and will show teachers how to become more effective based on evaluative data.
As noted by Dr. Strong, the elements above are important at a personal level.  He then identified the following indicators of principal quality that is supported by research.
  • Instructional leadership: building a vision, establishing a shared leadership model, leading a learning community, using data, and monitoring curriculum & instruction.  The most effective teachers seamlessly use multiple instructional strategies during a lesson and good principals can identify them.
  • School climate: creating a positive culture, establishing high expectations, adhering to a practice of respect.
  • Human resource administration:  hiring quality teachers & other staff, inducting & supporting current staff, providing meaningful opportunities for growth, retaining quality staff, and effectively evaluating teacher performance.
  • Organization management: safety, daily operations, facilities maintenance, and securing & using resources to increase student achievement.
  • Communication and community relations: effective communicator with all stakeholder groups.
  • Professionalism: ethical standards, serves as a role model, models life-long learning.
Now more than ever schools need great leaders.  As the reform movement continues to swell across the country more eyes will be on the principal, as well as other district leaders, and their ability to ensure student learning and increase achievement.  The task now at hand is to develop a plan on how to support principal effectiveness while developing an evaluation tool that will help us do the best job possible for the students that we serve.

For more information in this area check out the resources at NASSP.


  1. Another great presenter is Todd Whitaker, who has also written a book called "What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most."

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  2. Great post Eric, I needed to read this! "In terms of evaluations, we can’t keep telling teachers that they are doing good work when they are not." We all agree great teachers make great schools. Principals must become "courageous" and be honest not just during evaluations, but throughout the school year. Most important, we need to provide specific, meaningful feedback and set-up opportunities for them to visit other outstanding teachers so they know what great teaching looks like. I believe most teachers do the best they know how. This is why leading a learning community is so important so that teachers and principals can grow their repertoire. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Eric,

    Good one here...for me one of the biggest things you listed was the "managing by walking around". Too often students and even teachers rarely see their administrator. Just a few minutes a day wandering the halls and interacting with students and staff goes a long way. It's so easy and yet pays off big time in creating relationships and staying in tune with your own building.

  4. I also agree with you Josh It is better for the administrator to be on the site of learning rather than spend their entire working hours on their desk.

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  5. Great post, Pal.

    For me, what I want in a principal is someone who can protect me from initiative fatigue or who can effectively maintain organizational focus.

    I've been reading Doug Reeves's newest book on leadership focus and one stat blew me away: In all of Reeves's research, he's discovered that .57 percent of schools have fewer than six major initiatives going on at once.

    That means 99.43 percent of all schools are doomed to fail. You just can't successfully focus on more than six different initiatives at one time and ever hope to get any of them right.

    Want to be an effective eduleader? Introduce focus to your school and guard against distractions.

    Rock right on,

  6. Thank you! I loved the post and it made me wonder where I could find concrete examples of each of these. I want to be all these things! I want to do them right and well! Bill says to "introduce focus" and I love that. I have five major initiatives going on now, plus others that we adopted that are more ingrained... PLC, RtI, data driven instruction, and comprehensive literacy are all on our plates. I see them as interrelated. (BTW, elementary principal here). I will follow Bill's suggestions to maintain organizational focus but I sure could use some concrete guidelines for doing so!

  7. Bill, I agree that being able to focus is key. Terry, you should check out Mike Schmoker's book entitled,"Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning." I found it helpful.

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  9. As teachers, we need to be reminded that we are doing things well. This is because we are often isolated in our classroom and very busy so we don't get the opportunity to get feedback that shows that we are doing it 'right'. Attending Professional Development courses and sharing our experiences with other teachers reminds us we are more on track than we thought.

  10. thanx everybody 4 sharing your views on educational leadership! what i would like 2 add is being fair to all n thinking of d welfare of all stake holders would lead d leader on d right way, rules or practices aside,if we treat all children as our own , we will never flounder!

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