Professional Development Opinion

Advice for Educators Wanting to be Principals -- Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 15, 2013 10 min read
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(This is Part One in a multi-part series)

Last week’s question was:

What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a principal?

This is Part One in a multi-part series. I’ve received many reader contributions, which I’ll be including in a post next week. However, there is always room for more!

This week’s guest responses come from Lyn Hilt, Joe Mazza, and Cheryl James-Ward. I’ll be posting answers from others on Thursday.

But before we get to the thoughts of today’s three guests, I’d like to share a few comments of my own. Though I have never been the principal of a school, I have been a teacher for ten years and was a community organizer during the previous nineteen years. I think there are many similarities between being a successful principal and being a successful organizer, and here is the advice I would offer to both:

* Recognize the importance and value of relational power (power “with”) instead of unilateral power (power “over”). Power is not a finite pie -- being committed to sharing leadership with teachers, classified staff, students and parents doesn’t mean you will have less power. Instead, it means that the whole pie will get bigger and more opportunities and possibilities will be created for everybody. Yes, have a vision, but invite others to modify it and make it their own.

* Be relationship-focused, rather than being task-focused.
Emphasizing relationships means we listen more than we talk; we invite people to think through things with us instead of just selling what we believe is best; we think long-term rather than short-term.

* Be an agitator instead of an irritator. Agitators challenge others to act on what they say they want and believe. Irritators challenge people to act on what the irritators say they want and believe.

* Be a “talent scout” -- a developer and generator of leaders -- and don’t just create a “cult of personality” around yourself. This doesn’t mean “dumping” tasks that you don’t want to do on others. It does mean learning the interests, hopes and dreams of teachers, staff, parents and others; taking them seriously; and thinking through how you can be a mentor to help them be successful.

* Emphasize conversation instead of communication.
The word “conversation” comes from Latin root of “to keep company with, to live with” -- In other words, it’s a reciprocal relationship. The word “communication” comes from Latin root meaning “to inform.” -- it’s one way.

And now it’s time for today’s guests:

Response From Lyn Hilt

Lyn Hilt is an elementary instructional technology integrator and former elementary school principal. You can read more about Lyn’s thoughts on leadership, connected learning, and more by visiting her blog, Learning In Technicolor:

Our schools need great principals. Our children deserve great principals.

Research indicates that quality principals matter: a successful principal has the ability to lead school improvement efforts, cultivate a positive school climate, and help design and ensure quality learning opportunities for children. Principals are second only to teachers as the school factor that most impacts student learning. The principal can be the heart and soul of the learning organization.

So, you want to be a principal? Good for you.

Before taking the leap, (to the “dark side,” some teachers might say - don’t listen to them), I ask you to seriously consider the following.

Do you love working with kids? Is the reason you’re entering administration because you want to broaden the reach of your leadership efforts and touch the lives of more children? Are you willing to make children’s needs a priority above the needs of adults? Do you envision the most enjoyable parts of a principal’s day lunches in the cafeteria, supervising recesses, conversing with students, and joining in activities in the classroom? If so, then you’re going to be a great principal.

Do you love being a teacher?
Principals are teachers, first and foremost. While some principals have the privilege of maintaining an official teaching course load, others have to make a concerted effort to immerse themselves daily in teaching and learning. Teachers will want you to walk the walk. Don’t just describe what good teaching looks like. Show them what good teaching looks like.

Do you wish to inspire and develop greatness in others?
Teachers, staff, students, and the community are going to look to you for inspiration. They’re going to ask you to share the school’s collective vision and help everyone achieve greatness. They want you to acknowledge the strengths of the team and help build capacity among all stakeholders to help the school shine.

Do you love learning?
The principal is the lead learner in the school. You will need to demonstrate to your stakeholders that you don’t have all of the answers, but you’re willing to work hard to learn everything you can to be the best principal you can be. Develop a personal learning network. Engage daily with other educators who can nurture your leadership efforts. Share what you know!

Do you know the difference between leadership and management?
As a principal, you will need to manage. Often. It’s sometimes a drag. But more importantly, you will need to lead. The more effective you are as the leader, the more manageable your role will be.

Have you developed strategies for dealing with conflict?
The principalship isn’t all roses and rainbows. There will be conflict. There will be difficult people. Emotions will run high. How will you intercede? How will you support, encourage, heal, and problem solve?

Are you a skilled communicator?
Principals communicate 100% of their days. There will be meetings. Emails. Phone calls. More meetings. Social media posts. Conversations with children. Conversations with adults. Conversations with adults who act like children. Public speaking and presentations, both formal and informal. Written communication, digital communication, verbal and nonverbal communication. Own your message and take pride in your communications.

So, you want to be a principal? Thank you! Wishing you all the success in the world as you embark on this bold, important journey.

Response From Joe Mazza
Dr. Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza) is in his seventh year as lead learner at Knapp Elementary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Aside from his duties at Knapp, Joe is the Innovation Coach for the University of Pennsylvania’s GSE and co-hosts the weekly Parent-Teacher Chat (#ptchat) on Twitter, Wednesday nights at 9PM:

There are many educators who would love to someday become school principals. Like teachers, there are many more candidates than positions available. Once a school leader completes the interview process and is successfully hired at his or her new new school, every move counts in guiding the learning community toward to fruitful year ahead.

Here are five pieces of advice I’d share with principals as they begin a new tenure.

1. Listen most.
Too often school principals are hired and feel a sense of urgency from upper administration, the school board, community and/or the teaching staff that kindles a fire from within to make change and immediately show that “we can do the job” as the new principal. The fire should certainly burn as the new leader, but channel this energy into listening to your stakeholders, take good notes and learn the history, culture and present state of the school and community. By investing in a “learner-first” mentality, you will in fact role model a reflective approach to teaching, learning and leadership.

2. Attend school board and Home & School / PTA / PTO Meetings.
To fully understand the state of the home-school partnership you are entering, you must put your toe in the water. Attend, participate, share stories, read past minutes and accomplishments. Ask honest questions such as " What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced over the years and how did you approach them?” Look for the percentage of community diversity represented across parent leadership groups.

3. Set up your long range calendar for home and school.
When you take on the principalship, it is one of those jobs that has the immediate ability to consume both you and your family. If your school district expects you to be at every evening function like mine, share your calendar and find events that you can include your own family. Share your family with school families helps build the important relationships you will leverage throughout the year.

4. See through staff lens of school culture. When talking to staff, ask them to capture the school culture in their own words. Speak with teachers from all levels of experiences across all departments. Taking the time to research your new school meeting face to face with stakeholders will evidence your commitment to understanding the good in place, as opposed to ignoring the hard work of those presenting working in the school.

5. Understand how staff and families like to communicate.
There has never been more ways to communicate. Aside from face to face, many school principals are texting, emailing, snail-mailing, using newsletters and more. Set some communication guidelines as a proactive measure (hours available, return correspondence, etc) but commit to face to face as the number one and most effective means of communication between you and anyone. Set up multiple nights, days where parents can come and meet with you. Consider starting a blog and using social media to transparently share your vision, progress and brand your school as a student-centered organization that is constantly learning and recognizing the work of those inside it.

Response From Cheryl James-Ward

Cheryl James-Ward is an associate professor at San Diego State University and a leadership coach. She is author of Using Data to Focus Instructional Improvement (ASCD, 2013).

The first thing I would say to someone wishing to become a principal is be sure you understand the demands and responsibility of the job. The fundamental responsibility of a principal is to prepare the students entrusted to you to be productive, contributing global citizens. This requires understanding the world that we are preparing students for, and having the stamina and courage to work with the entire school community: students, teachers, parents, district administrators, and larger school community to this end. Be prepared to be an instructional leader, a politician of sorts, a visible and active member of the school community, to oversee school budgets, engage in group dynamics, champion the school vision and be the number one advocate for every child entrusted to you.

As an instructional leader, the principal needs to have a solid understanding of hard and soft data; how to analyze each, compare against existing data, share meaningful findings with staff and be prepared to lead the staff in a cyclical instructional improvement process no matter how well students are doing. As a visible member of the school community, you must be prepared to meet often with community members, parents, and school partners. You must be culturally proficient; understanding, respecting and celebrating the tapestry of their diverse school community and prepared to develop or nurture a celebratory multicultural school environment.

To ensure that the school mission, goals and objectives can be met and to stay out of trouble, you must have a minimum foundational understanding of school finance; what are the school budgets, purpose of each, guidelines and restrictions associated with each, alignment to the school instructional plan, and at the secondary level understand and have an oversight plan for the associated student body budgets. An aspiring principal needs to be comfortable with managing group dynamics as building an instructional driven school and working with budgets requires one to be astute at dealing with various group interest, agendas and personalities.

Thanks to Lyn, Joe and Cheryl for contributing their responses!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including readers’ comments in a post next week.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and am starting off with Corwin.

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And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here.

Look for Part Two in this series on Thursday.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.