What Makes A Great Principal?
August 4th, 2022
The value of a great school principal cannot be overstated. Good principals make sure that students are supported and test scores are achieved, but great principals work with teachers to give students the skills for lifelong learning and success. While leadership styles can vary greatly, school principals who excel in the role often share a set of characteristics that helps them succeed. Based on both established research and case studies, we’ve outlined seven key characteristics of a great school principal below.
Fostering Environments of Collaborative Leadership
Real, impactful change occurs when school leaders empower teachers and other staff members to autonomously make decisions and contribute to achieving the school vision. In fact, studies by The Wallace Foundation (2013) show that there’s a strong correlation between distributed leadership and higher performance among students.
One way to implement a collaborative leadership model in schools is to develop a professional learning community (PLC) in which teachers share ideas and work collaboratively to improve student outcomes (Grissom et al., 2021). Developing a PLC requires effort and commitment, but a great first step is to dedicate time to collective planning and discussions each week.
Real World Example: Aurelia Ortiz took over the partially accredited Falling Creek Middle School during the 2017-2018 school year. Due to implementing a model of collaborative leadership and establishing a strong PLC with a shared mission of student learning, Aurelia was able to achieve full accreditation within just one year, a status that the school was unable to achieve for five years prior (Barreau & McIntosh, 2020).
Supporting the Academic Success of All Students
Creating an environment in which all students can thrive, regardless of future goals or socioeconomic background, is a key characteristic of an effective principal. Leaders who create real school change seek opportunities to implement innovative instructional practices that close achievement gaps and improve equity while prioritizing student and teacher safety (Grissom et al., 2021).
The Wallace Foundation (2013) also suggests that successful principals set high, yet attainable, expectations to prepare students for further academic studies or career education following graduation.
Real World Example: Strawberry Mansion High School was considered one of the most dangerous schools in the United States when Linda Cliatt-Wayman took over as principal. Knowing that each student had value and potential regardless of socioeconomic status, Linda took the time to build relationships with the students and identify their needs. Her leadership led to higher test scores, higher college acceptance rates, and fewer arrests, and successfully removed the school from the Perpetually Dangerous Schools list (Schoolvoice, 2017).
Prioritizing Teacher Development and Growth
Great principals are hands-on when it comes to professional development for teachers. While many schools utilize the traditional model of conducting planned performance evaluations, research has shown that frequent, short, and unannounced observations have the most impact on teacher performance. Additionally, feedback and coaching are critical to the professional development process.
Beyond observations and coaching, exceptional school leaders encourage and support teachers in continuously pursuing professional development opportunities. Teachers with a broader skill set have a more diverse toolbox for improving student performance and driving success in the classroom (The Wallace Foundation, 2013).
Real World Example: Principal Sonya Mora of Samuel Houston Gates Elementary School prioritized teacher development while leading a successful school turnaround. In addition to providing supportive feedback to teachers, she also frequently demonstrated new strategies and techniques by guest teaching lessons. She ensured that educators possessed the necessary skills to drive student development by encouraging teachers to try various approaches and later engaging in collaborative discussions (McNeel, 2019).
Leveraging Data to Improve Instruction
School principals have a wide array of data available to them, and great principals know how to use it. Data has the ability to uncover opportunities for improvement, demonstrate the effectiveness of new strategies, and optimize school processes. Leveraging school-related data for these purposes, as well as to alter instructional practices and develop new initiatives, can create meaningful impact within the school environment (The Wallace Foundation, 2013).
Real World Example: School Principal Kerry Purcell successfully moved Harvard Park Elementary School off of the state watch list by analyzing school data, among other strategies. Due to data-driven decision-making, she increased reading test scores by an average of 45% and math test scores by an average of 50%, demonstrating the usefulness of data in driving impact and change (POV, 2009).
Committing for the Long-Run
There are few studies that have measured the effects of principal turnover. We do know that nationally, one in five schools lose their principal each year (Harbatkin, 2022). In the same article, the authors conclude that: “We find that principal turnover is associated with lower test scores, school proficiency rates, and teacher retention” (Harbatkin, 2022). Departing principals cause a domino effect upon the success of their staff and students. It’s almost like taking a step back for the school districts. And multiple principal departures within a short amount of time create a compounded impact.
Although it’s not always possible to remain in a position for a long period of time due to a myriad of reasons, effective principals stick it out when they’re able. According to The Wallace Foundation (2013), principals should stay in a role for 5-7 years in order to see the effects of their leadership. Remember — real change takes time!
Real World Example: In Columbia, SC, Dr. Kappy Steck served as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal. When awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in July 2022, school officials had this to say about her impact: “There are many commendable factors in Forest Lake Elementary’s long-term success, but the common denominator is Dr. Kappy Steck. During her tenure at Forest Lake Elementary, Dr. Steck established an extraordinary culture where students and families from different backgrounds were embraced and challenged academically, and where teachers and staff members were supported with innumerable opportunities to build capacity” (WIS News 10 Staff, 2022).
Establishing and Spearheading Goals
Regardless of whether a principal has a more hands-on or hands-off leadership style, establishing tangible, yet ambitious goals is key when it comes to creating a positive and effective school climate. Not only does it require collaboration among teachers and leaders, but it provides a common goal to work toward and a central topic to return to during meetings (The Wallace Foundation, 2013).
Real World Example: Betty Pelletier, School Principal of Southdown Elementary School, wanted to improve technology use within the classroom and among school staff members. In order to reach this goal, she implemented actionable steps, including providing technology workshops for teachers. By the end of the year, the school made measurable progress due to collaboration and the presence of a common mission (Education World, n.d.).
Leveraging and effectively managing resources, such as time, personnel, and monetary assets, to support teachers and students is a key sign of a great principal. Additionally, ensuring that hiring practices lead to high-quality teachers and school staff is an excellent way to optimize available resources within the school. When teachers and staff are high performers, goal-oriented, and ambitious, it becomes that much easier to further and achieve the mission and vision of the school (Grissom et al., 2021).
Going from Good to Great
Great school principals create supportive and collaborative environments that are conducive to equity, data-driven improvement, and goal achievement. The Wallace Foundation (2013) also highlights the importance of developing and exercising these leadership qualities in tandem, rather than implementing some and leaving others. Above all else, a tell-tale sign of a great principal is one who cares for and supports the future success of their students as if it were their own.
Barreau, Pascal P. & McIntosh, Michael L. (2020). Change Starts With School Culture. Principal
Leadership Issue, National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). https://www.nassp.org/publication/principal-leadership/volume-20/principal-leadership-january-2020/a-success-story-january-2020/
Education World. (n.d.). Success Stories: Principals Reflect on the Year’s Achievements.
Education World: Connecting Educators to What Works. https://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin273.shtml
Grissom, Jason A., Egalite, Anna J., & Lindsay, Constance A. (2021). What Great Principals
Really Do. ASCD, 78(7). https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/what-great-principals-really-do
Harbatkin, E., & Henry, G. T. (2022, March 9). The cascading effects of principal turnover on students and Schools. Brookings. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2019/10/21/the-cascading-effects-of-principal-turnover-on-students-and-schools/
Jarl, Maria, Andersson, Klas, & Blossing, Ulf. (2021). Organizational characteristics of
successful and failing schools: a theoretical framework for explaining variation in student achievement. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 32(3), 448-464. https://doi.org/10.1080/09243453.2021.1903941
McNeel, Bekah. (2019). Portrait of a Turnaround Principal. Edutopia, George Lucas Educational
POV. (2009). The Principal Story: Meet the Principals. PBS.
Schoolvoice. (2017). Struggle to Success: Story of an Inspirational School Principal.
Schoolvoice Blog. https://www.schoolvoice.com/blog/struggle-to-success-story-of-an-inspirational-school-principal/
The Wallace Foundation. (2013). The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better
Teaching and Learning. The Wallace Perspective, Expanded Edition. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning-2nd-Ed.pdf
WIS News 10 Staff. (2022, July 1). Two Midlands School Leaders Get Lifetime Achievement Awards. https://www.wistv.com. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.wistv.com/2022/07/01/two-midlands-school-leaders-get-lifetime-achievement-awards/