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What Makes a Principal Great?

By Cindi Rigsbee — February 18, 2009 5 min read

I’ve never had the desire to be a school administrator. Not for one second. I’ve always known that my place is in front of a classroom with chalk in my hand. (OK, times have changed, and there are no more chalkboards. Make it an erasable marker—you pick the color.) Even though I’m a confessed non-administrator type, I may have a message for others who see a school principalship in their future.

In my travels as my state’s current teacher of the year, I recently had an amazing opportunity to visit a number of school communities in North Carolina and talk to teachers, support staff, parents, and students about what makes a good school-based administrator. When it comes to defining what makes a principal great, I soon discovered that there are characteristics common across school levels and community demographics.

Here are the results of my unofficial research on the “Principles of Great Principals.”

The school is a family.

There is an air of connectedness that any visitor can sense immediately when walking into a school that is led by a great principal. I’ve heard it referred to as “a community of caring.” Teachers and parents talk about the school leader being accessible and students feel at home in the building, aware that the principal cares about them. One teacher said, “If I needed him right now, I could talk to him right now, no matter what he’s doing.” The sense of teamwork is apparent, and just as good teachers maintain a family atmosphere in a classroom, good principals establish that same feeling in the school as a whole. There are frequent celebrations and the work is fun for everyone in the building.

Teachers are treated as professionals.

Over and over, school after school, I heard these words: “He lets me teach.” Although great principals are instructional leaders who guide the staff in the best interest of student learning, they do not micro-manage their teachers. Instead, teachers are given respect and the flexibility to provide instruction that is meaningful for the students in their classrooms. Similarly, great principals were teachers first. As one teacher described his principal, “He’s never forgotten where he’s been.”

Instruction in the school is data-driven.

Great principals disaggregate data schoolwide so they can give their teachers a “big picture” understanding of instructional needs. They also take that data and determine methods for sharing best practices among the staff as well as for selecting professional development opportunities that correspond with those methods. Teachers are empowered to use data with individual students in their classrooms as they plan lessons that promote student growth. In addition, the academic culture is celebrated as principals reward academic success in ways that motivate students and staff.

They are student-centered.

Great principals know their students. They know their names, their stories, their strengths, and their weaknesses. They know all about their families, their dreams, and their limitations. Walk through a school with a great principal, and you’ll see him or her with an arm around a student, having a conversation about a recent test score or athletic event. Students love good principals; they know when they’re cared about and they know when an administrator makes a difference in a school and in their lives.

They reach out to families.

Great principals make an effort to include families in the community of a school. They offer various opportunities for parents, including parent advisory councils, open house nights, question-and-answer sessions, and frequent communication via phone messages, emails, and publications sent home with the students. One principal I met explained how he visits the home of every rising freshman before he or she begins high school. Now there’s an example of going above and beyond the job description!

They have great reservoirs of energy.

As one teacher explained it, “He squeezes 28 hours into 24.” Great principals are in their schools early in the morning and late at night. They can be seen at sporting events and chorus concerts, and they pick up trash and plant flowers on the campus. They spend their days working with teachers on instruction, dealing with student discipline, and communicating with parents and others in the community while working into the night supervising sporting events and attending band concerts. During their “off” time, they are reading educational research in an effort to find strategies that will enable their teachers to make a difference in their classrooms.

They promote school spirit and teamwork.

There is a palpable spirit in a school that has a good leader. It can be felt when listening to the morning announcements and seen on the hallway walls. Everything is a celebration, and everyone in the school is happy to be there. Academic success is cheered just as athletics are, and teachers and students know they are valued. Visitors who come in the building will think, “This would be a great place to work!” Even though there is a sense of urgency concerning learning and student achievement, everyone from the cafeteria staff and the custodians to the students, teachers, and office staff will announce with pride that they have the best school and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

They develop leaders.

Great principals work diligently to ensure that their teachers are equipped to be leaders in the classroom. Resources and supplies are available, and opportunities for professional development are strongly encouraged. Student leadership is also valued in schools with great principals. Students are given opportunities to excel in areas of interest to them, whether they are athletes or members of the chess club. And school principals serve as important mentors to their assistant principals and interns.

They have good help.

Great principals aren’t expected to do it all alone, and they don’t expect that of themselves. They “distribute” leadership as they work with assistant administrators and teacher leaders to achieve the vision of the school. They take care of themselves and urge others to do the same because they know there’s always another hill to conquer and they need to be in tip-top shape to keep climbing up.

One teacher summed it up well when she told me: “Our principal makes me want to be a better teacher.” A leader of leaders—that’s what a great principal is.

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