Three Traits of the Best Principals.

Let me start with a simple statement of truth:  I am JUST a classroom teacher.  

I’ve never worked as a building principal — and my knowledge of the principalship is limited to tons of reading, tons of conversations, and my first-hand experience working with tons of different principals and assistant principals during my 20+ years of teaching.

What I DO know is that regardless of their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses, the best principals that I’ve ever worked for shared three traits:

They made me feel hopeful:  Whether pundits, politicians or policymakers are willing to admit it or not, education has been gutted in the past fifteen years.  Teachers are constantly asked to “do more with less” even as the students in our classrooms become more socially, economically and academically diverse.  Making matters worse, we live in an era when the competence of classroom teachers is openly questioned at every turn.  Criticism of educators — and public education — is now the norm, rather than the exception to the rule in our country and in our communities.

All of this leaves me completely overwhelmed — and I often catch myself questioning my own ability and the ability of my colleagues to tackle what appear to be insurmountable challenges.  In those moments, the best principals have always stepped in with confidence and reminded me of the different ways that our school HAS made a difference.  By consistently pointing out our victories — rather than continually fueling the narrative of our failures — they build my confidence in our organization’s capacity.

The result: I’m willing to be hopeful, too.  And that hope might just convince me to move forward no matter how difficult our task appears.

They were knowledgable and reflective:  As unfair as the constant criticism of public education can be, the truth is that our schools really DO have to change.  The students in our classrooms — regardless of their academic or economic standing — need us now more than ever simply because they are entering an increasingly competitive world where the skills that define success remain poorly defined.

Arguments about just HOW schools need to change are everywhere — and the best principals I’ve ever worked for read them all.  They were voracious consumers of ideas — with stacks of books on the corners of their desks, feed readers full of blogs written by practitioners actively reimagining teaching and learning, and social streams loaded with provoctive thinkers.  Better yet, the best principals I’ve ever worked for were always ready to start a conversation with ME about something that they had read.

The result: I was willing to believe in the direction that my principal was setting for our school because I knew that there was clear and current thinking behind every decision.  It is just easier to believe in someone who has spent a ton of time reading and reflecting on the changing nature of education.

Finally, they created conditions that made my work doable:  While I’ve always loved principals that instilled hope in me and who were knowledgeable and reflective, I’ve also worked for principals who talked a good game about just what our school was capable of but did little to make my work more doable.  They were heavy on inspiration and information, but light on action — and they lost credibility with me in no time.

There’s nothing worse than cheerful optimism as a reform strategy.

The best principals paired their enthusiasm and awareness with a commitment to using their organizational authority to create the kinds of practical structures and opportunities that facilitated learning.  Whether that meant simple things like freeing teachers from supervisory duties so they could spend more time working with struggling students or more complicated things like finding extra money for tools and technologies that made it possible to quickly and easily track student progress, every action served as tangible proof that I had a powerful ally on my side.

The result: I was willing to push my own practice because I knew that there was a good chance that my principal would find a way to make new actions and behaviors possible.

Does any of this make sense?  More importantly, what traits do YOU look for in the best principals?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Three Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from Sherpas


2 thoughts on “Three Traits of the Best Principals.

  1. Greg Geer

    Bill- As a former principal and superintendent and now as a professor of educational leadership, I think you have discussed some very important traits of great building leaders. I would also add a highly developed emotional and social sense of the individuals within the school. They also do what they say they are going to do, and never, ever lie to people. They need to be great negotiators. I often use the metaphor of the principal as a drawbridge. Sometimes the bridge is down letting things into the school and other times it is up, keeping the “noise” away. By the way, every teacher is way more than, “just a teacher.” They are the heart and soul of the enterprise, bedazzling jewels, sometimes needing polishing and the principals job is to find them and polish them.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks for stopping by, Greg — and for the analogy.

      You know, I added the “just a teacher” line largely because I am oftentimes buried in shade anytime that I write about school leadership. It drives me more than a little nuts, but there are principals that are fiercely protective of position and fiercely skeptical of teachers who write pieces that may challenge/question/push against that position.

      There’s another blog post in there, I think!

      Rock on,

Comments are closed.