With all of the priorities in schools and education today, what are the most important things that principals (new and veteran) should focus on? Reflecting upon my experience, and also drawing upon the work of Dr. Todd Whitaker, I have created a “short list” of focal points that will pay off in the short, and long, run. You may already have a short list, which are the things that need the most immediate and/or most intense attention. You might also have a long list, which are things that need to be addressed in the near future. For this blog, I will focus on the short list, which are items that are of increased importance. It is important to note that ‘short list’ items do not infer that these things are short in terms of time invested, nor that they are easy to do. However, I believe that these five things are somewhat like “power standards” for Common Core… they will continue to pay off in years to come. Some of these things are grounded in Dr. Whitaker’s book “What Great Principals Do Differently”, but they are mostly based on my own experiences as well.
1) Hire Great Teachers and Develop the Ones You’ve Got
This is so critically important. Dr. Whitaker says “what if every teacher in your building was like the best teacher in your building?” Schools would be destined to succeed. The best HR advice I could give new Principals is: Do not ‘settle’ for a mediocre candidate just to fill a vacancy. You will spend more time documenting a poor teacher than you will be interviewing to get a great one.
As for the teachers already in your building, develop their skills, delegate leadership tasks to them and depend on them to do great things, while you hold them accountable. Developing leadership capacity in the school is something that will pay dividends in many aspects, and for a long time. We excel at what we lead… it’s just another way of saying we learn what we teach.
2) Monitor the Alignment of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
This is time-consuming, and not all principals come with a background in teaching. Fortunately, I do have that background in both teaching and curriculum leadership, and it is very useful to know how to observe that in the classroom. If you do not have a teaching background, attend a workshop or an institute or take a graduate level class in curriculum supervision. Great teachers teach specific curricular objectives in the way that is most instructionally relevant and then assess in a variety of ways to make sure learning can be transferred. Take the curriculum with you during walkthroughs, require lesson plans and view assessments.
3) Connect with your Parent Community
When parents see you as a welcoming and calming force, you are sure to see benefits long-term. When difficult decisions have to be made that parents are unhappy about, it is easier to swallow if they already perceive you to be open, caring and rational.
4) Identify Your Best Teachers and Utilize Their Strengths
Putting the right people in the right seat on the bus (we are talking adults here) is very important. Facilitate some professional development as in-house, teacher-led PD. As I do walkthroughs or observations, I take note of certain strengths. Then I use those as needed to impact instruction school-wide. Some teachers may be asked to lead a professional development activity with staff…teachers have buy-in with their colleagues and it gives them praise in front of their colleagues. Last year, I asked teachers with strengths in a subject to help tutor struggling students not assigned to them. Although some of the receiving teachers felt uncomfortable accepting the assistance, in the long-run, it paid off. Students received the interventions needed, and it highlighted professionals in our own building who can offer new ways to make an impact. It will also push others to work up to that level.
5) Provide Timely and Specific Feedback
This is true for our communications with teachers, parents, central office staff and all stakeholders. If people feel like you are ignoring them, they lose both respect and direction. Nothing is more frustrating that the stereotype that principals do not return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion. It is our job to ensure that we are providing both timely and constructive communications. This applies to the specificity of feedback given to teachers and the quality of information given to parents. Have ‘Crucial Conversations’ when needed (there is a great book on this, entitled “Crucial Conversations).” The message you communicate is determined mostly by, your tone and nonverbal cues, what you say, and when and how often you say it. Refining your communications skills is one of the most important things you will do as a leader of a large organization.
For more information or to collaborate around improving school culture, contact Jessica Bohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jessicabohn.com. Jessica Bohn is currently an Independent Consultant & Contractor and ASCD Faculty, who was a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader, has been published in Educational Leadership and previously led ASCD committees. Jessica has served as an award-winning Principal, District Director & Coordinator, Associate Director, Assistant Principal and Teacher in North Carolina.