If the job description of a principal was put into writing, it would be of War and Peace proportions. Today’s principal is pulled in hundreds of directions at a moment’s notice—so how does s/he move beyond survival mode and create a successful learning environment? This was Shelly Habegger’s guiding question when she studied principals at three high-performing schools of low socioeconomic status.
Despite the fact that these schools had fewer resources and a disproportionate number of under-qualified teachers, Habegger found that these schools continued to succeed. How and why though? Habegger attributes their success to the power of a positive school culture.
Creating a sense of belonging for students
When Habegger asked the principals about their major goals for their schools, their answers were unanimous: to develop positive relationships, not generate high test scores.
Most of us know that relationships are important to our students’ success, yet we may have underestimated them. Research suggests that when we nurture relationships with students, we actually:
- Contribute to the academic achievement and motivation of our students (Elias, 1997)
- Decrease the likelihood of a student dropping out (Thurlow, Christenson, Sinclair, Evelo, & Thornton, 1995)
- Help prevent and reduce bullying (Olweus, 1999)
- Help prevent substance abuse (Resnick et al., 1997), and violence (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998)
Creating a sense of belonging for teachers
In addition to creating a sense of belonging for students, these three principals also made it a priority to nurture relationships with teachers and support them professionally.
One way the principals achieved this was by facilitating a “common planning time.” Essentially, this was a weekly meeting where the principal and teachers:
- Viewed achievement test data
- Sought assistance for particular students
- Discussed curriculum alignment, instructional strategies, how to enhance student achievement, and other job-embedded issues.
These meetings laid the foundation for a collaborative, professional learning community, but they also benefitted teachers in number of other ways:
- Teachers began to take collective responsibility for student learning
- Increased efficacy
- There was a noticeable reduction in teacher isolation
- Teachers learned from one another and experienced higher morale and greater job satisfaction
- Retention rates increased
Creating a sense of belonging for parents and community
Relationships with parents and the community were also priorities for all three of the principals Harbegger studied. Here’s what she found:
- Each principal referred to the parent’s (and community’s) role as complementary to the school
- Each principal strove to learn parental needs and welcomed and solicited parents’ questions and concerns
- Informally, information was gathered through conversations principals had with parents as they dropped off and picked up their children from school and attended various school events, and in phone calls home.
- More formally, the principals conducted a needs assessment survey of their school’s parents to keep in tune with what and how to best communicate with them concerning their children’s social and academic growth.
- Each school displayed substantial efforts to invite, include, and demonstrate need for parents and various community members.