What makes an effective principal? This question used to have a fairly standard answer: an individual who serves as a mentor and inspiration to educational staff and students, and addresses the concerns of the parents in his/her educational community. While all of the above still holds true, there are incredibly complex dynamics which have been woven into those components—meeting the needs of diverse student populations, implementing ever-increasing special education requirements, and facing the public's growing dissatisfaction with the public school paradigm, to name a few.
In her article, What New (Young) Principals Need to Know, Joanne Rooney discusses the challenges facing new principals and how they can rise above them.
5 Steps to Becoming an Effective Principal
- Recognize the power of relationships
By working to build successful relationships at all levels of the educational pyramid, principals achieve two key things: a support network and a deep understanding of the needs and perspectives of those they work with. There’s no doubt about it: paperwork has increased ten-fold in past decades, which makes it easy for a new principal to become a title and a face behind a desk. But it's important to get out there and meet the teachers, fellow administrators, students, parents, and staff. Be able to address them on a first name basis as much as possible and make sure they know who you are and what you stand for.
- Learn how to listen
In most cases, principals were former teachers—and teachers like to talk. We're used to handing out the rules, the lessons, explaining, helping others understand. This well-intentioned habit isn't all that effective at the principal level. Effective principals learn how to truly listen to others' words and the emotional intent behind them. Ask questions of teachers and students and then work to understand their answers and viewpoints, even if you don't always agree or aren't able to offer them their first-choice solutions. Never forget to listen to your secretary. S/he is often the most in tune with the energetic pulse of your school and its community.
- "Let me think about it"
The phrase, "let me think about it and get back to you," is not only a legitimate response, it is often the wisest course of action. We all know the squeaky wheel gets the oil, but what if your actions are actually just "knee-jerk-reactions" to the complaints, opinions, and input of the few? An effective principal knows that data and informational input—both informal and formal—needs to be objectively reviewed before a final judgment can be made.
- Find your mentor(s)
If you don't have one already, it's important for new principals to find a mentor with whom they can confide and whose wise input they trust. The best mentor is often another effective principal - whether current or former - who understands the demands of the job and has "been there.” Equally valuable is to select a group of principal peers who understand where you're coming from and can help to legitimize your feelings, experiences, and frustrations.
- Be willing to de-prioritize "The Standards"
This is not to say standards and bureaucratic protocol aren't important or valuable, but rather that they will be difficult to implement if you don't have a general foundation of understanding, familiarity and respect amongst your colleagues. Effective leadership requires a mutual respect and willingness to cooperate from the ones you are leading. By focusing on the first four tips, policies and procedures will fall into place more naturally.
At the end of the school day, cultivating mutual understanding and trust will allow your leadership strategies to be successful - making you a more effective principal.