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 is 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.