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What makes a great principal?

Noted elementary school principals talk about the way they pursue excellence at their schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

The classroom teacher is the most visible person in your child's life at school, but it is the principal who is responsible for providing a high- quality education for all students there.

What makes a great principal?  Principals vary in strategy, temperament, and leadership style, but the great ones have four characteristics in common:

  1. Great principals take responsibility for school success.
  2. Great principals lead teaching and learning.
  3. Great principals hire, develop and retain excellent teachers.
  4. Great principals build a strong school community.

GreatSchools.org talked to several San Francisco public school principals who illustrate these qualities. The principals spoke about leadership and how they meet the real-life challenges of their jobs.

Great principals take responsibility for school success

Great principals believe that the problems of the school are their problems, and they never stop trying to solve them. If a student is having trouble learning, a successful principal knows it is her job to figure out why, whether it is a learning disability, trouble with attendance, or gang involvement. Great principals are also creative in their problem-solving and approach challenges with an entrepreneurial attitude. They find ways to implement good ideas, rather than accepting the status quo.

Questions to ask at your school

  1. Ask your principal: What challenges does the school face?
  2. Ask your principal: What is the plan to meet those challenges?
  3. Ask your child's teacher: How does the principal get involved when a student is having trouble?

For example, most schools today have very limited budgets, making it difficult to pay for innovative new programs. When Margaret Chiu, principal of Galileo High School, finds a new program she thinks will benefit her students, she doesn't waste time lamenting the lack of funding. She gets busy. She immediately begins thinking of who in the community she can ask to help support and pay for the program. She has created partnerships with businesses, local colleges, and health care professionals that help enrich her school's curriculum.

Whatever challenges they face, great principals don't make excuses for why their schools can't succeed. Instead they make it their top priority to figure out how their schools can excel, and do everything they can to make that happen.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/22/2012:
"The article on great principals is great. "
02/15/2012:
"your site is good .keep it up "
12/1/2011:
"more info needed "
11/21/2011:
"When I was in middle schools, Mrs.bloom who was my principal helped me with school emotionally. I will never forget her. I fought seven times within the same year and she helped me evaluate why and where the emotional problems came from psychologically. Since then, I became a better student, and for sure will be a better parent when it comes to dealing with school violence. I can remove my child from whatever school has high level gang rates. "
09/26/2011:
"A great principal can make all the difference in the success of a school. I've seen it first hand, having worked with 9 different principals in my career. David Stegall and Jim Thompson were both amazing principals that I worked for who turned the respective schools around in a short period of time because of their leadership. Unfortunately, in both cases, the principals who replaced them felt the need to tear it all apart trying to make a name for themseleves. "
09/19/2011:
""I liked the article but on the page above under Questions to Ask Your School question #3 the word TROUBLE is misspelled." :) Ed. Note: Thank you for catching this typo; it has been fixed. "
09/20/2010:
"It is also important that the principal include teachers in the planning and decision making. So many principals and their core administrative team make all the decisions without consulting the teachers who will carry out the plan. It takes a village. Teachers resent being dictated to and ordered to do something against their will or personalities or style."
09/22/2009:
"i'm realy very happy with your article,it si true that poor performence in schools are contributed by the principl.so i'm going to apply this article to my home district because there is poor performence."
09/18/2009:
"Great and cahllenging . I hope that nest time more features comes out and as to how it is rpoven to become a great principal. I would also ask about the quality and the best ways and means to achieve that certain kind of honor to become great principal. Thank you very much ! More Power to all! "
06/2/2009:
"Great insight and information for future administrators."
05/4/2009:
"School Districts throughout this nation have, what many term as 'Outsiders', true leaders within their ranks of administrators. Faculty and Staff at these schools tend to stay for as long as that administrator stays. Administrators at these fine schools tend to practice what Loeb and Kindel ('99)illustrated as, 'Transformational Leaders tend to function with the use of their ability to show empathy, in understanding the emotional makeup and using skillful measures in treating people according to their emotional reaction (p 22).' When vacancies occur at these schools, leaders of this type tend to find themselves with many resumes to choice from in filling the vacancy. Other school leaders find themselves recruiting for their vacancies, and if not, these positions are filled with faculty and staff who have a plan on moving on to the next best leader available. "
03/5/2009:
"i am in total agreement with what you have said aout what makes a good principal. I will take this to my school district and share it with my principals. "
01/30/2009:
"Very good. I liked the principal who said she does all the yard duty herself. She sounds like a grounded teacher supporter."
01/15/2009:
"This is a great article; however, we need an article that discusses what great school boards and superintendents do! Many times it is they who abuse their power by undermining school level administrators and teachers. Most school board members have agendas and are not concerned with the common good!"
01/12/2009:
"This is truly a wonderful article. Keep up the great work and continue to be a good example. "
11/6/2008:
"Very timely find for me of this valuable information. Tomorrow I meet w/principal of my son's high school for the first time. We will discuss issues about a teacher's poor communication & student support actions. This info gives me support for meeting"
09/25/2008:
"I am a parent I am also along with my wife very involved at school PTO, daily talks with the teacher and doing job at home this is great for parents who are trying to understand there school system. I really don't like the politics in education and no child left behind is a joke it has made public school districts. nothing but lobbyist for funding. we do have a great principal. "
09/16/2008:
"It's great! I really appreciate this article. Now I have known my great website to search."
09/16/2008:
"These articles are very stimulating, filled with lots of inspirational aspects, i am sure the existing school teacher, will surely make their plans to lead their schools as the next principals, it also gives clues and the way to overcome the obstacle."
09/15/2008:
"All of that is very important, but how are we classroom teachers supposed to cope with 45 students in each kindergarten? How do we find desks and fit them into widowless classrooms where the temperature varies from 90 in the pring /summer/fall to 59 in the fall/winter/spring? How do we all remain healthy when thi ventilation system is clogged with thick, black dust?"
08/25/2008:
"This article is 100% on. I became the principal described above. I put my heart into it. But other admin. feared me because I set the bar too high. The supt. thought I would eclipse him. The system 'removed' me. There is no hope for our failing public schools. I am in a private school now where this sort of leadership is appreciated and rewarded."
08/7/2008:
"Excellent article I have read ever on principal. it is thaught provoking as it provides lot of insight as to what makes you a great principal. useful for existing as well as would be principles"
07/30/2008:
"This is the greatest educational article I have read for a long time.I am a classroom teacher but I would like to post some of these questions on my notice board."
07/30/2008:
"i just read your article. it is very useful to me to become a successfull principal. i wish to have more and more articles like this. please continue."
07/3/2008:
"I'm pleased to understand the herculean task of a Principal. and how I wish I could do those great jobs of an educational leader. Thanks for this opportunity"
07/3/2008:
"I'm really pleased to read information on school leadership and how I wish I would be one someday."
06/9/2008:
"I read the article from the hightly skilled teacher and I want to say 'You go girl!' The problem in our school besides the fact that the principle is never there, doesn't come to any PTO meetings,didn't attend graduation or awards ceremonies etc. is that there are about 8 to 10 parents that you can count on to help with the fall festival, work on Field day, etc. The parents either don't take the time or won't make the time to be involved at the school. They don't know their childs teacher, they don't know the principle, they don't go to board meetings, etc. Some of these parents have jobs that don't allow them to volunteer, but many just don't care, school is a babysitter and they will be the first to join a bandwagon saying what a terrible teacher someone might be. I know someone who's child hung themselves and that parent, blames the school system for not warning the parents. It's time the parents start stepping up and taking some responsability for the failures of you! r children. If my child got in trouble at school he or she would be in more trouble at home. This is not the case in many households these days. The people that are elected to the school board should be held responsible and accountable for things that happen or don't happen in the schools. They hire the superentendent, he or she evaluates the principles and these principles evaluate the teachers. If there is a problem in school administration then the school board members should be at the school, they should know the teachers names and what classes they teach, they should know who the volunteers at the school are and when there is a serious problem with a principle not doing there job teachers and parents expect the superentendent to do their job and take care of problems. Because every decision that is made is supposed to be about teaching the students and helping them to succeed. Being on the school board should be a position that is taken VERY Seriously because ever! y decision every vote concerning funds, positions, ect affects! the stu dents, all the tax payers etc. It is not supposed to be about politics and who knows who or who sucks up the most etc. In case you're wondering I live in a small district where the school district is the largest employer in the county. "
06/2/2008:
"I am a teacher. I never realized the politics involved in education. I am disgruntled to say the least because I can not go to my assistant principal or principal with a dilemma. I am severely perplexed because I feel fear is a tactic used to retain teachers since our school has a high turn over rate. I am told how I can not feel by my principal when I say I feel threatened by the administrators. 'This is a nurturing enviornent', she says, but I don't think so. But it doesn't matter because I am then told to look up insubordinate and learn what it means to have a superior. Will my voice be heard? Does my voice matter? Why do I feel like the poor defenseless powerless teacher when I speak to the almighty, superior, powerful principals at my school. Even worse, others express the same thoughts I have and are afraid to speak out. I've learned to say what they want to hear and smile as if I'm okay and (KIM) keep it moving. I think better relationships should be formed between te! achers and administrators because its a us against them type of thing. The article was great."
07/6/2007:
"I am a middle school assistant principal. The suggestions, ideas and plans are incredible. The data usage is so critical to the support of student achievement and performance. Data drives the classroom lessons and is the stop light focus to reteaching and reassessing. However, it is important that the faculty, staff and administration comprehends the vital importance of data and how to use it. So often we take for granted that everyone understands data. Student data is critical to the success and performance of each child. Collection of data is a measurable method for teacher improvement. Thanks for allowing me to comment. "
04/23/2007:
"I feel this article is good, but it is missing one very vital aspect to the success of education and that is Great Parents and Great Students. Somehow educators are expected to do what God himself cannot do. Make people do the right thing. Many parents and student believe that all they have to do is show up and education will simply flow from the fountain of the teacher classroom into the students brains. I like that the article reads that a quality education comes from highly qualified teachers. There are many highly qualified teachers in the classroom, but very few highly qualified parents in the home resulting in poor quality learners. We are living in a time where many of the students in our classroom are raised by parents who themselves are not very educated and dropped out perhaps to raise them, or by a grandmother who had to work or was unable to really deal with the task of parenting at a late age. They have also had the overexposure of television, cell phones, Ipods! , cd players etc. to the point that when you mention a book to them they look at you and cringe. Education and the value of it begins at home and should also be instilled by our society, but far too often parents want them to learn but cannot or will not do anything to facilitate that effort, and although our society sends out a public service message every so often from some celebrity chiming that students should stay in school, every reality television program, or video preaches that you can make it the easy way--just believe in yourself(American Idol!!) Many students will tell you they are not worried about the future because they have it all figured out. What they may not come out and say is that plan has a great deal to do with living with mom and dad or the governemnt until they do. I'm not saying this is all of the kids by a long shot but it is most. I know because I am a highly qualified teacher, and when I'm in the classroom, I often wonder what our future will bec! ome. When you have tenth grade students writing at the fourth ! grade le vel-that is a problem that my one semester with them cannot remedy. Often times we as teachers are made to pass kids because parents cannot accept that their child has not mastered the skills to pass-and instead of insisting that they be held back until they do, they will fight the teacher to the end, and blame the teacher for the childs failure. The principal, wanting to keep the peace with the community, will often bend to the parents wishes --besides it looks bad on them when the failure record is so low so they will even go as far as telling the teacher if she doesn't have her grades up she may not have a job the following year! I wish they would do a reality show on American Education and follow a teacher, her students, the principal and the school board around for a season-now that would tell a story the whole world should see-and the rating woul be sky high!! The next article should be What makes a great parent and What makes a great student? Now that would be interesting."
07/3/2006:
"This piece of advice is very good and refreshing. This should be continued and more information put here for starters like me. I have a school for age 2-9 kids and i find it very good to read this page. Kindly send me more information if possible. Meyah Preparatory School, Medie - Amasaman. Ghana - West Africa."
06/5/2006:
"Nowhere in this article do you discuss the involvement of teachers in the principal's decision making processes. Too often principals lose their schools faculty because they become dictatorial in their methods. Your article describes one of these principals. Until teachers are brought in as experts to the school communities, a principal is just the person in charge."
05/1/2006:
"Really enjoyed the article; am presently a principal(small island state in the caribbean) aas a rural secondary school in a developing country there are many challenges one faces on a daily basis. Socio-economic conditions of students play a great part on learning and this in itself is a challenge "
04/20/2006:
"I thought this was a very good article. The impact alone shows the totality of what a Principal should do and strive to be. I am in a very tiny town that practices discrimination all of the time, especially in the school system. It is accepted here and I hate it. JUst the other day the principal said she had the right to wave the Confederate Flag if she wanted to. But when question by her superior she then changed her story.It was students that turned her in as they overheard the conversation.In the same school the other day, a teacher misplaced his stapler and blamed 3 students one of which was my son. He then told them that if anyone ever touched anything of his he would kill them and they would not live to see next year. This is really teaching our children isn't it? But this article really aims at what should be. Thank you for putting this up. Sincerely Patsy Hudspeth"
04/17/2006:
">From Michigan: Everything in this article is all noble, well and good. However, schools need the financial support from state legislators to get the jobs done. We need personal counselors, social workers, liaison officers, and dedicated parent volunteers. Everyones' role has significance and is important. Send kids to our schools whose baskets are full and we will get it all done--and then some. Otherwise, principals will need the help of trained professionals to indeed be 'great.' "
04/14/2006:
"this is an eye opener. it has given me a tool for analyzing my own credibility as a principal."
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