By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Every school employee knows that a principal can either create a dynamic learning environment where staff feel valued and fulfilled — or make life extremely difficult for teachers and classified staff.
When visiting CTA members, I am usually greeted first by principals. Some extend warm welcomes, give tours of the school and invite me into their offices to proudly discuss their talented staff. Others, well, are sometimes less welcoming. One principal whom I remember fondly, Sheryl Weaver in Fresno, actually gave me the keys to the enormous campus and suggested I visit all teachers in their respective lunchrooms to ask staff what they think of her leadership! (They love her.)
So what does make a good principal?
At schools I have visited, teachers who like their principal say there is less turnover and fewer teachers leaving the profession. They tell me that having a good principal makes the difference between looking forward to going to work each day — and feeling dread.
Principals, like teachers, deserve to be judged on more than just test scores. Unfortunately, when a school is labeled as “failing,” a principal’s head may roll, even though the school is making steady academic progress. I have visited numerous sites where teachers were devastated because their beloved principal was being replaced by the superintendent for failing to instantly close the achievement gap, even though strong progress was being made in that direction.
So what do CTA members think makes a good principal?
A single e-mail soliciting comments about what makes a good principal brought a torrent of responses.
Martha Snider, Lodi Education Association, social studies teacher
My principal at Christa MacAuliffe Middle School, Randy Malandro, is very collaborative and a good leader. He comes from “within” and was a teacher, so he knows things from a teacher’s perspective. He knows how it sounds to teachers when he asks them to do things. When he disseminates information he gets from the district, he presents it to the entire staff in a way that when he says “Jump!” we want to say “How high?” We have site-based leadership, and there’s a lot of buy-in from teachers. He says all the time that he’s here for the children, and he lives it and breathes it. And this goes from him to the staff and to the kids. When a principal has that kind of relationship with staff and students, it creates an atmosphere where learning just happens.
Maria Smith, president of CTA of Berryessa, teacher adviser
A good principal is an effective communicator and a community builder. Without the two, he/she cannot lead and expect the staff to follow. Good principals know that building trust comes first with their staff; making connections increases rapport. Trust established between the principal and teachers allows for openness and dialogue. High morale in a school setting starts with the principal, so he/she must be inspiring. An instructional leader promotes collaboration by being a good listener and being willing to consider others' ideas. Everyone appreciates a principal who supports them and acknowledges their effort and hard work. Good principals know that it is not what you say that is important, but how you say it. Teachers want to feel comfortable going to their principal and feel safe when they take risks.
Lauren Miller, Butteville Teachers Association, teacher
An excellent principal trusts his or her staff. They encourage us to be creative, while holding us to high professional standards. They support us to exercise our judgment and to feel safe asking questions. They listen. They believe in children. They discipline with love. They set limits when they need to with adults and kids. They take risks when they need to. They are fearless. They care about the profession of education. They embrace the arts. I know what makes an excellent principal because we have him right here at Butteville Elementary School. Our Mr. Clark is all of this and more.
Nick Cheranich, Napa Valley Education Association, teacher
A good principal would have to find the time and effort (at least one day a month) to plan and teach in the classroom. A few districts have this as policy. Sadly, most principals have been delegated to mere bureaucrats, spending most of their time doing what they are told to do by managers above them, and going about policing teachers to see if they are correctly implementing the newest program. What better way to grasp how a new program is or isn't working than by actually doing it? Certainly, the administrator would gain a better respect from his or her staff and students if he or she were to plan and teach in the classroom on a consistent basis. I have yet to work with this kind of principal.
Lynda Barnett, Yreka High School Teachers Association, English/drama teacher
A great principal respects teachers. While board members and administration can be full of platitudes about “being there for the kids,” a true leader realizes that those kids spend their day with the teacher, and that dissatisfied, stressed and disrespected teachers will find it more difficult to bring all they can give to the classroom environment. Teachers know a good principal is there to support them, and there is an atmosphere of trust. This principal will not allow teachers to be bullied and will not listen to gossip or make assumptions, regardless of how powerful a person a parent may be. This principal has “got your back.” When this is the case, it is much easier to accept constructive criticism. Just as students work harder for a teacher they admire, a great principal inspires teachers to do their best.
Bertrand Eckelhoefer, Alvord Educators Association, social studies teacher
I say a good principal is one with integrity, a strong sense of character; one who is secure in his or her identity, so that they don’t constantly look for petty political victories and power games to assert their influence and dominance so that they may feel more secure about themselves. Good principals — effective principals — are often unpopular because they will consistently do what’s right, and what’s right is often what’s difficult and what no one else wants to do or face. This magazine’s look into the role of the principal is well due.
Tyra Weis, president of Associated Pomona Teachers, teacher
- One part educator who is genuinely interested in helping students succeed and fostering the value of lifelong learning.
- One part communicator who sets realistic expectations and provides clear directions after soliciting and listening to staff ideas and opinions.
- One part motivator of students, families and staff.
Mix the above ingredients together with generous helpings of defense of teacher time, fairness, honesty, integrity, kindness, maturity, support and teamwork. Season with collaboration and trust. Serve liberally and enjoy!
Tim Jamison, president of Inyo County Teachers Association, teacher
A good principal wears a lot of hats. One is finance, which we hear a lot about, but also disciplinarian, community liaison, supervisor and evaluator. So what’s most important? A good principal has to be strong in the areas of curriculum, instruction and assessment. He/she is responsible for supporting teachers in doing what the state, school board and school district require. If they are really good, all the teachers under their leadership are performing up to state standards with students. Yes, all teachers under their leadership. It’s a huge responsibility. Good principals have years of successful experience in the classroom. They are supported by teachers, and they support good teaching. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the measure of which should show up in student performance. So, when the public wonders why some schools produce strong results, it is likely that the relationship between the teachers and the principal is healthy.
Jenna Cestone, Sequoia District Teachers Association, English/ELD teacher
Having worked with all kinds of principals through the years and elicited feedback from staff, students and parents, as well as surrounding members of the community, I have confidence saying that what makes a good principal is strength of character. In these modern times of high test scores equaling more financial support, teen suicide, campus shootings, and teen struggles with drugs, gangs and cheating, it takes a principal of strong moral character to make decisions that will ultimately benefit the school and surrounding community. More and more, we hear about principals across the country who lack the strength of character to make tough decisions and stick to them. It is rare to find a principal who trusts their staff, forgoes ego, and offers a day-in-and-day-out example for others to follow. A community needs a principal they can respect and be proud of, and I’m lucky enough to say I have that at Sequoia High School.
Angela Terrones, Anaheim Elementary Teachers Association
A good principal is visible and accessible to all — students, teachers, families and community members, listening, collaborating and advocating for the site. As an instructional leader, the principal regularly visits classrooms to engage with students, meets with teachers to review practices, provides professional development consistent with student needs, and regularly recognizes the efforts of students or staff with an assembly, award or gesture of gratitude. Able to prioritize a myriad of demands, a good principal knows that relationships are the key to success. Most of all, a good principal knows it is not they alone who make a school great, it is the people and procedures that are established during their tenure that enable the school to continue achieving its mission long after they are no longer a part of the site. A good principal is a leader, someone who takes you where you wouldn’t go on your own.
Rico Abordo, president of Kelseyville Unified Teachers Association, teacher
There are principals whom “you work for” and there are principals whom “you work with.” For the last 13 years, I have been fortunate to work with a good principal, Matt Cockerton. He performs his administrative duties with a dedicated and professional style. Additionally, he has an affable personality and an open-door policy. At Kelseyville High School (enrollment 560), we have been without a vice principal for the last four years. However, Mr. Cockerton’s leadership has held our school together. He is devoted to his staff, and he deals effectively with parents. The good students appreciate Mr. Cockerton for his generosity with his time and spirit. The not-so-good students respect him for his fairness in disciplinary decisions. Mr. Cockerton treats each person as an individual.
Linda Legman, Unified Association of Conejo Teachers
I believe a good principal is one who treats you with dignity and respect. A good principal supports and encourages. A good principal backs you up when there are concerns from a parent. A good principal knows that if you send a child to the office, there’s a good reason for it, because good teachers take care of 99 percent of the problems in the classroom. A good principal acknowledges the hard work you do and will tell you how much she appreciates you. With all that is going on in education today, all the teacher bashing and complaining, a good principal helps make it all worthwhile. A good principal is an ally, a fan, a shoulder to cry on, a resource, wise counsel, a coach and a good boss. A good principal is a treasure.
Dawn Murray-Sibby, Temecula Valley Educators Association, teacher
Since I began teaching in 1995, I have worked with seven principals. Although they all brought different strengths (and weaknesses) to the job, there are some commonalities that bear consideration: intelligence, humor and humility. Intelligence can aid in anticipating rather than merely reacting to problems that arise on a campus. This is critical to preventing a “firefighter culture” from developing, which robs the administrator of her/his time. Humor is essential to creating a positive culture on any campus. It makes the celebrations more fun, and more importantly, having a principal who can make you laugh can help take the edge off the difficult parts of the profession. Humility is most important. A humble principal looks not for opportunities for self-aggrandizement, but for chances to hold up the staff and their efforts in promoting success at the site. Principals who possess these qualities inspire fierce loyalty in the people with whom they work.
Liz Laney, Siskiyou Union High School District Teachers Association, RSP
I have spent 23 years in special education at Happy Camp High School and worked with four principals. Our current principal has proven to be a better administrator than all my former principals by far — and she is in training! She is consistent, honest, listens, responds to requests and questions as quick as she can, and is straightforward. Her motto is “embrace change.” She does this by seeking to expand her — and our — knowledge and abilities as educators. There is no “ol’ boyism,” no shining people on, no favoritism for athletes or preferential treatment for some staff or students, and basically no lying. She puts in a full work day and more, and doesn’t try to palm her work and responsibilities off on others. She is tougher on discipline than any of the other principals, and she doesn’t give in to tears or threats of staff or students. It has been a pleasure to go to work and know that there will be consistency, vision and direction every day, instead of the total and ongoing chaos that our school has functioned under during the reigns of the last three principals. I finally got lucky.
Maggie London, Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association
They have to like students and like teachers. They create an environment of support. They encourage their staff by modeling good practices. They encourage their staff to be involved by being involved themselves. They encourage a collegial atmosphere by building RELATIONSHIPS because it is all about RELATIONSHIPS. Dr. Kay Dorner was one such principal. She set the bar for “how to be.” I would say that there needs to be mention of experience in the article.
James Goran, Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association
Principals with less than five years of teaching experience do not fully understand the teaching profession or know how best to relate to faculty and staff. I’ve found that principals with many years of classroom teaching seem better prepared and make better leaders.