Special Report
School & District Management

6 Tips for Principals to Survive—and Thrive

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 18, 2018 3 min read
Natasha Harris, principal of Lynn Hale Elementary School in Arlington, Tex., is an alum of the Holdsworth program for school leaders.
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Principals, we asked you to tell us what your biggest challenges are. Dozens of you—from all kinds of schools in a diverse array of communities—responded with candor and detail. With six clear, commonly shared issues that emerged, our reporters set out to find school leaders and other experts actively working to address the challenges that are prevalent across the profession. The result is a new special report, Principals Under Pressure, that offers strategies for mastering the toughest job in schools.

Here are 6 key takeaways from our report:

No. 1: The most effective principals don’t work all the time.

Principals who’ve figured out how to keep a healthy work-life balance adhere to a few core tenets. The first? Turning their schedules over to an assistant who keeps impromptu meetings and demands at bay so principals spend a significant part of their time supporting teachers and students in classrooms. Another is delegating authority to the experts in their schools to handle parent concerns, building maintenance, and other matters, so they can focus on instructional leadership. Oh, and don’t let email run—or ruin—your day. Read more.

No. 2: Tending to students’ mental health needs—even if resources to do so are limited—is essential.

The rising numbers of children with anxiety, depression, and other mental-health conditions are having a real impact on many students’ ability to be successful in school. But many schools don’t have mental-health professionals on staff to identify students who need help, much less provide treatment and support. Still, there are several steps all principals can take to bring much-needed attention to student mental health, including banding together with other school leaders to lobby for school psychologists, community mental-health partners, and other experts. Read more.

No. 3: Principals can—and must—do something about the toxic employees in their schools. (But first, they have to make sure they aren’t the problem.)

Nearly all workplaces have slackers, complainers, and backstabbers. Schools are no exception. Principals, especially those who are new to the job, need to address the counterproductive behaviors of such staff members right away. Education Week talked to five experts—four of them former principals—who have sound strategies on how to banish toxic behavior and clean up the culture in schools. One key piece of advice comes from Jayne Ellspermann, the 2015 national principal of the year: “Take the opportunity to listen to [the problem employee’s] perspective. Somewhere in there, there’s a grain of truth that needs to be heard.” Read more.

No. 4: Don’t be intimidated by special education. Principals need a dose of legal knowledge and lot of empathy for students and families.

Effectively supporting special education services can be daunting for principals who have little to no experience with the legal and regulatory complexities. But even for leaders with limited experience, there are several proven strategies for becoming effective at managing special education. One that every expert agreed on? Building relationships with the families of special education students. Read more.

No. 5: Principals have the power—and creativity—to keep their best teachers from leaving.

The research is indisputable: One of the most important factors for holding onto good teachers is having strong leadership at the helm of the school. But even the most effective principals can struggle with hanging onto their best staff if they are working in remote communities or in schools with high-needs. Fostering a healthy work environment is essential and some principals have found creative ways to build rapport and community with their teachers, including working out with them, regularly teaching a class for them, or validating the skills of new teachers by asking them to lead professional development for more veteran teachers. Read more.

No. 6: Communicating openly about school safety protocols is one of the most effective ways principals can instill confidence in parents, staff, and students about security.

So many decisions about school safety and security are made well above the principal’s head, especially when it comes to installing new security features like metal detectors and shatterproof glass or hiring school resource officers. But principals are closest to the fears and anxieties that students, staff, and parents have over violence in schools, especially after a school shooting. Creating a safe environment is squarely the purview of principals, who can build confidence by inviting parents and the community to provide ideas and feedback on how to make schools safer, and making sure all school staff members are prepared to respond to a wide range of emergencies. Read more.

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