The Role of the Principal

Recently I was asked about the role of the public school principal, and rather then rattle off a list of responsibilities and duties, we had more of a  philosophical discussion.  Here is some of my thoughts on the question.

The Education Commission of the States, as reported in the July 16, 2003 USA Today, suggests that one of the most important factors in student success is having a teacher who is not only trained in their subject area (Art, History, Math, etc.) but also in the pedagogy of the grade levels they teach. A 2004 study by the Wallace Foundation sites that with regard to student impact; highly effective administrators are second only to teachers. Other studies concur that Middle School Principals who are familiar with the best practices of middle level education, the developmental nature of middle level students, and have researched leadership strategies that work, can be significant factors in student success; and it is all about student success.

The role of the Principal, much like the role of public education, has changed significantly over the years. Interacting with the staff and students we work with is a vital part of how we need to do business. No longer can the Principal be confined to office work and formal classroom observations. They must be out in the school community interacting with staff and students, and fostering relationships that encourage trust and caring. Developing mutual respect and teamwork amongst the staff and the students is a high priority; students who do not believe that teachers and administrators respect and care about them, will not care about learning.

Building effective relationships takes time. Some administrators come in as change agents, who can sweep through a school making abrupt and immediate changes with little to no shared decision making. While this style can at times move a school along quickly, often times it leads to discontent and entrenched staff, students, and community members who succumb to self-preservation rather than teamwork. It is the more challenging course of moving slowly, solicitously, and deliberately to build a culture of respect, caring, and excellence within a school that motivates students, staff, and community to strive to be the best they can be. This is the role of the Principal.

There are many factors for a principal to consider when examining and shaping school culture; mission and core values, beliefs and learning expectations, instruction and assessment procedures, home and school relations, staff and student evaluation, etc., and while they have been the subject of many books, workshops, and college courses, the amount of movement is dependent on their starting point. Principal’s need to assess where a school is in order to better understand how those factors may be addressed. Gathering input from a school’s constituencies; students, staff, and community, is a practice that will assist administrators in making good decisions and will strengthen relationships and increase motivation.

The role of the principal is a hard one to define in the narrow space of a blog post. Ultimately it has to be defined by the school and the community served. When an administrator listens to those who are vested in the educational community’s success, and couples that vision and understanding with courage, collaboration, communication, and compassion, you’ll have a better idea of the role of the Principal.

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