President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk, “The buck stops here.”
The same can be said, although with less serious consequences, with school principals. I have been a headmaster (principal) for 27 years. While I can count at least as many failures as successes, I have learned from my experience and, more important, the experience of others, that there are a few principles (pun intended) which lead to success in school leadership.
The successful principal must be able to differentiate what is important from what is just plain silly. While everyone in a school (especially private schools) has their say, not everyone can have their way. Uncomfortable situations will arise; teachers will receive less than stellar performance reviews, parents will complain about inconsequential matters (lunch) and not pay enough attention to the serious stuff (LEARNING!). Students who score well on achievement tests may not see the importance of hard work. Those children who work hard may never do very well on achievement tests. These issues are just part of the job. But knowing what to do in case of a fire, tornado or school intruder is serious. Bullying is serious. Teacher morale is serious. Fostering an atmosphere which values learning where children love school is important.
The successful principal doesn’t underestimate the power of the irrational to determine events. Educators believe in logic and rationality. Facts are important to us because we must try to help children lead their lives based on a basic understanding of reality. This is more and more difficult in our time as more and more of the information coming at us has no connection with reality…and yet more and more people believe everything they read. Principals must empower their teachers to focus on what is real, help children wend their way through the maze of “news” to find kernels of truth, and protect children from anything or anyone which takes their attention away from seeking knowledge.
The successful principal works hard and smart. Being good at anything is dependent more on using time effectively rather than spending lots of time accomplishing little. Spending more than eight or nine hours a day at a job has been proven to be counter-productive, especially in labor intensive institutions like schools. Vacations are good. Weekends should be spent doing what one likes to do. Just as children need time to play during the day because it provides their brains time to refresh, principals need to do the same.
The successful principal surrounds herself with the best teammates. This skill, probably above all others, is the key to success at any organization. Mastering this proficiency can take a long time. When principals first start out they are most interested in making an impression. They want to be successful and believe (wrongly) that the weight of success rests solely on their shoulders. They quite often are reluctant to ask others’ opinions in the belief that they will be judged harshly if mistakes are made. Those principals who are the most successful are able to attract others to them with a compelling vision. Their colleagues feel valued for their ideas and opinion. They feel they have a part in making the school successful. They aren’t afraid to try new things because they know their principal will back them up if things go wrong.
Finally, the successful principals spend more time establishing relationships than designing programs. After they retire or go on to another field, a lot of what principals achieved will wash away like a line in the sand. Their accomplishments will not mean as much as their influence on others. It is more important that principals are remembered for what they stood for and not what new curriculum they brought to the school. They will be remembered not for the soccer field they raised money for but for the number of successful teachers they helped along the way. The successful principals probably won’t be remembered at all – but their teachers will be. That is the most significant accomplishment a principal could wish for.