Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Principals, Don’t Try to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

Three strategies to keep you challenged as a leader
By Nick Davies — December 13, 2022 2 min read
Conceptual photo illustration of a professional meeting around a table where each participant's ideas is represented by a variety of visuals representing diverse perspectives.
For The Principal Is In column: We have all heard the advice: Never be the smartest person in the room. What does that mean for principals who, at times, can feel like they work on an island? Here are three strategies to ensure you are not the smartest person in the room even if you are the only leader of the building.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

We have all heard the advice: Never be the smartest person in the room. What does that mean for principals who, at times, can feel like they work on an island? Here are three strategies to ensure you are not the smartest person in the room even if you are the primary leader of the building.

1. Show vulnerability. When I started as an elementary associate principal, I had never spent time at an elementary school. I believe I have a strong understanding of how schools are effectively run and how to work with and motivate teachers. I don’t, however, have a strong understanding of teaching kindergartners the basics of reading. I was honest with the teachers I was evaluating about that part of my background.

I also then offered to co-plan and co-teach with the teachers or run a small group for them. I know that if I can co-plan with a teacher, they will be able to see my understanding of teaching best practices regardless of the age of the student, and, in the process, I can learn more about teaching kindergartners.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

So, be vulnerable with your staff. If there is an area that they can help you grow in, be honest and find a teacher to work with. I now tell staff that it is a pleasure to learn with and from them instead of saying it is a pleasure to work with them.

2. Empower others and distribute leadership. Find opportunities to empower teachers. I believe this does multiple things. First, it gives teachers opportunities to be leaders in the school.

Who is excellent at analyzing data? Ask if they will help you present the state testing data to the staff and what the next steps are. Who has used the new literacy curriculum before? Ask if they will model a short lesson for the staff to see how it can be used effectively in the classroom. Do you have a coach or equity mentor in your building? Ask them to give you feedback on how you are doing.

I lead the equity teams at two schools and I always ask an equity mentor to sit with me and give me feedback before and after meetings to know how I can do better. If I am focused on equitable outcomes for students, then I need perspectives other than my own and to be constantly pushed in my thinking to make our schools more welcoming and inclusive.

3. Rely on your professional networks. Ensure you have relationships with the other principals in your district. If you have a small district or are the only person in a particular role, find people in neighboring districts. There is also the broader educational community that is incredibly open to helping each other.

I always tell the teachers I supervise and the preservice ones I teach, “Don’t go it alone.” That same message is true for principals. Don’t try to do everything on your own. Who in your district can be a thought partner with you? Who can you reach out to for advice? Who are you partnering with to grow as a leader?

If you are thinking about these strategies and none of them is possible for you, then it might be time to think differently: If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room. Maybe it is time to switch from elementary to middle school or from a building to the district office.

Or if you don’t want to leave your current role, maybe it is time to really challenge yourself. It could be pushing to increase student voice and agency in your school or maybe it is encouraging more parent involvement. It could be time for you to find a mentor or executive coach to push you in a new direction. We only grow if we are continually challenged. How do you ensure you are not the smartest person in the room?

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common
A White House summit homed in on chronic absenteeism and strategies to reduce it.
6 min read
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Nationwide, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened after COVID-forced closures. More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year.
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. A White House summit on May 15, 2024, brought attention to elevated chronic absenteeism and strategies districts have used to fight it.
Brittainy Newman/AP
School & District Management From Our Research Center Here's What Superintendents Think They Should Be Paid
A new survey asks school district leaders whether they're paid fairly.
3 min read
Illustration of a ladder on a blue background reaching the shape of a puzzle piece peeled back and revealing a Benjamin Franklin bank note behind it.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Q&A How K-12 Leaders Can Better Manage Divisive Curriculum and Culture War Debates
The leader of an effort to equip K-12 leaders with conflict resolution skills urges relationship-building—and knowing when to disengage.
7 min read
Katy Anthes, Commissioner of Education in Colorado from 2016- 2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024.
Katy Anthes, who served as commissioner of education in Colorado from 2016-2023, participates in a breakout session during the Education Week Leadership Symposium on May 3, 2024. Anthes specializes in helping school district leaders successfully manage politically charged conflicts.
Chris Ferenzi for Education Week