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.

Great principals lead teaching and learning at their schools

Principals at successful schools understand the strengths and needs of their students and they know what is happening in the classrooms at their schools. These principals play an active role in planning and supporting instruction that is appropriate for their students, and they ensure that school time and resources are focused on student achievement.

Questions to ask at your school

  1. Ask your principal: What are our school's main academic goals?
  2. Ask your prinicipal: What steps are being taken to achieve those goals?
  3. Look up your school's achievement data on GreatSchools.org and ask your principal: How is the school addressing weaknesses or gaps in student achievement?

Nearly 60 percent of Moscone Elementary School's students are English language learners, but Principal Patty Martel is determined that all of her students will be proficient in reading in English by the time they move on to middle school. In support of this goal, she allocates money from her limited school budget to pay for an early intervention literacy program as soon as a student begins struggling with reading. She also requires that all programs at her school include an element of literacy. Reading and writing are integrated into art, science, and everything else the students do.

Principals must also understand what test scores and other data say about their students' learning and use the information to help teachers set goals and improve instruction.

When test scores at Alvarado Elementary School showed that some groups of students were not reading and writing as well as others, Principal David Weiner helped teachers develop a new plan. Teachers across the school coordinated their reading and writing instruction, so that struggling students could receive direct instruction from a literacy specialist in addition to the classroom teacher.

Successful principals must constantly evaluate what is working and what is not, and use that information to make improvements.

Great principals hire, develop, and retain excellent teachers

One of a principal's most important roles is ensuring that every student is taught by an excellent teacher. Although it can be time-consuming, principals must actively recruit good teachers to their schools. Principals can visit teacher education classes to find promising new teachers; they can open their schools to student teachers and try to hire the good ones; and they can talk to teachers and other principals to find quality experienced teachers who might be looking for new positions.

Principals must also support and develop the teachers they have. Research shows that principal leadership is a key factor in a teacher's decision to stay at a particular school. Much of a principal's time should be spent in classrooms observing teachers, complimenting their strengths, and offering specific suggestions for improvement. If a teacher is struggling with a particular issue or group of kids, the principal should be in the classroom as often as possible, watching and helping the teacher develop more successful strategies.

Patricia Gray, principal at Balboa High School, says that she spent two to three hours a day observing in classrooms and talking with teachers during her first several years as principal. Principal Weiner notes that many teachers initially objected to the hours he spent observing in classrooms at Alvarado, but he quickly found that the best teachers were eager to work with him to improve their teaching.

Questions to ask at your school

  1. Ask your principal: How do you recruit new teachers when there is an opening?
  2. Ask your child's teacher: How much time does the principal spend oberserving in your classroom?
  3. Ask your principal: How are great teachers at our school recognized or rewarded?

Providing meaningful opportunities for professional development is another way principals can help teachers improve instruction. The principal should make sure that workshops and other development activities are related to the goals of the school and will help teachers better serve their students.

Marcia Parrott, principal at Miraloma Elementary School, pulled her staff out of a time-consuming teacher training program that was not meeting their needs. The techniques taught in the training program were not compatible with the reading program used at the school and the program instructors were not able to help the teachers integrate the two programs. Although she had to defend her decision to the school district, she was adamant that her teachers not spend their time on a program they could not use to help students.

Principals must keep good teachers professionally satisfied by showing them that their efforts are valued and supported by the principal and other teachers. Principal Martel joked that she keeps teachers at Moscone by doing all the yard duty herself. Although her comment was lighthearted, it reflects the respect she has for teachers and her recognition that the teachers at her school work hard.

Providing time to plan with other teachers is another way principals can support their teachers and treat them as professionals. One of the first changes Principal Chiu made at Galileo was to change the school day schedule to allow time each week for teachers to meet and plan together. Adelina Aramburo, former principal at Daniel Webster Elementary School, made sure her school's tight budget included a few hours of extra pay each month for teachers. She believes this showed teachers that the time they spent meeting and planning together outside their official work day was recognized and appreciated.

Great principals build a strong school community

For a school to be successful, the administration, teachers, parents, students and support staff must work as a team. Principals

must work with the staff to make school a welcoming place for all students and their families.

Principal Parrott at Miraloma holds a monthly parent-principal chat, an informal time when parents can come to ask questions and give input. She also schedules meetings and events at times when parents are already at the school picking up their children, for example, when the after-school program closes for the day.

Questions to ask at your school

  1. Ask your child: Do you feel safe at school?
  2. Ask your child: Do you think school rules and consequences are clear?  Are all kids treated fairly?
  3. Ask your principal: How can I get involved at the school?

A great school community is one where students feel safe and know they will be treated fairly. It is the principal's job to create that safe atmosphere where children can learn. The first year she was at Balboa High School, Principal Gray was concerned about a gang presence at the school. Although it meant she had to work many evenings and weekends, she met personally with the parents of every single student who got in trouble that year. Principal Gray believes her action sent a strong message about her commitment to creating a safe learning community at Balboa.