What Amazing Principals Do and You Can Too

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I used to think I would end my days as an administrator, now I laugh at the notion. Nothing against administrators, but being a teacher has proven to me that I have no dreams of being a principal anymore.  So I cannot pretend to write this post as a letter to a future me, instead, I hope it will serve as a small homage to the amazing principals I know and as a guide to those just starting out.

Dear principal,
I offer you a wish list of do’s, some hopes and dreams, some things I have seen amazing principals do, from this single teacher to you.

Do be accountable. When you say you are going to do something, please do it, no matter how big or small.  If the every day gets in the way, please let us know, we understand there are only so many hours in a day. Tell us your plan for getting it done or why you can’t. Don’t make promises you cannot keep.

Do be confidential. It is hard to open up to your boss sometimes so confidentiality is key, and  not just with our personal lives, but also with what happens in our classrooms. If you see areas we need to improve, let us know, but please do not tell other teachers, it only breeds embarrassment, not an urgency to change.

Do trust us.  Part of being a strong leader is allowing yourself to trust others to do their best, even if their idea sounds a little crazy, even if they teach in a different way.  Ask questions, be curious, but do trust our methods when you can.

Do share you stories but keep them short. It is wonderful when a principal has experienced something similar, that tells us this is not a singular event. Acknowledge the similarity and then help us problem solve, time is precious, let’s not waste it.

Do listen well. Part of being a role model is showing teachers how to be effective leaders, and great leaders listen well. So while you may have much to share, wait until the right time to interject, sometimes teachers are only looking for a shoulder rather than a solution.

Do advocate. Sometimes we need you to advocate for us to others, please stand behind us when you can or come to us when you can’t. We should be in this educational journey together, so have our backs.

Do lead by example, but be wary of titles. I see many principals call themselves the lead learner, the lead thinker and so on. While I embrace the notion of setting an example when you take that title it can diminish what all the other staff is doing. If you are the lead thinker then no one else will ever be expected to think as much as you or even think differently than you. As the lead learner I would expect you to learn more than me, learn better than me, and also share more than me. For some principals that is true, for others it is not. I am not sure that a title is either needed or conducive to foster joint responsibility or innovation.

Do draw your own conclusions. Part of being a fair and trusted leader is to make sure you have the full story, so seek people out, do your own research before decisions are made and above all, be fair.

Do be connected.  Some of the best principals I have met have been connected ones. They bring new ideas into their schools, they have a finger on the pulse, and they are the first to share the amazing things happening at their school. So connect in some way with others, not just to promote your school, but to learn from the world.

Do be visible. A principal I worked with knew the names of every single child and parent in the building. This meant something to the people he encountered every day and he did it partly by being out in the school. I know there are mountains of things to do in your office, but take time to be seen. It shows us that the people matter, not just the duties.

Be honest. Being a great leader also means being honest with yourself, with your staff, and with the kids. If I am doing something that needs improvement I would like to know. If I did something amazing, let me know. Don’t sugarcoat it too much, cut to the chase and stay honest.

I am sure there is much I have left out, what else do amazing principals doI am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students” will be released this March from Powerful Learning Press.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

15 thoughts on “What Amazing Principals Do and You Can Too

  1. Thanks for this, Pernille! Leading is not easy, but this can serve as a great reminder to the things that teachers need to be successful educators. I especially agree with getting feedback—many teachers crave it, but I think some leaders fear that critical suggestions would be bad for morale.

    I know I’m not your principal, but I do have a tiny request for you. I’d love to share this with my admin team, but I’m concerned that it will lose some credibility with the grammatical errors and typos, especially coming from a teacher. Could you do a quick edit?

    Thanks again—I look forward to every post from you!

  2. I would add: Be appreciative. A short note or e-mail sharing something positive you’ve noticed goes a long way.
    As always, thanks Pernille!

  3. I would add “be human.” Principals have emotions just like any other person. Just because they are the admins, it doesn’t mean that they have to hide their emotions. Cry when you need to. Swear when you need to. Smile, smile, smile. Hug someone daily. Of course there is a time and a place for all of these expressions of humanity, but use it as an opportunity to model how to be professional and human at the same time.

  4. I wouldn’t add to your list Pernille. You speak and write from the heart and that is what we all wish from others. Thank you for sharing your thoughts & feelings, I can already hear your points echoing in my mind.

  5. I cannot tell you how much I love your post! Each piece of advice you give is timely and deserved. We can all learn from you. (And I must agree with you about the lead learner thing. Not helpful at all. Why can’t it just be learner?)

  6. Great read, Pernille. Your article is a great reminder that all leaders need to take time to connect with people- that includes teachers, parents, students, etc.
    One aspect of school leadership that I think is critically important is being student-centred.

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  9. Wow, as a principal, that’s what I needed to hear. I found your take on the title “lead learner” especially interesting. I’ve used it with the thought that it means I have more to learn than anyone else (this being only my second year at the school), but I’ll take your thoughtful comments to heart.

  10. Includes all children in regular programming with responsible support for an authentic inclusive experience. Inclusion is not about academics. It is the right thing to do. We all want to belong and have natural relationships and opportunity. Stop using the word “special” to seperate and segregate children and people who live with a disAbility. Create a welcoming school for all Families. Have the right values. That is a good principal quality.

  11. Well said Pernille! What a great post and what wonderful replies from your readers. I am fortunate to have a principal that embodies the traits you value. It is my hope that all principals have an opportunity to read and really “hear” your message! Imagine how amazing our schools could become if we all lived by these values!
    I’m so jazzed up that you’ll be presenting at #WGEDD! Your message is one worth spreading! I too will be at #WGEDD but only as an attendee. I hope we get a chance to meet up!
    -Connie
    The Optimistic Educator
    Passionate About People

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