George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

How to Give Your School Leader a Grade

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

When I told my mother some years ago that I was planning on becoming a teacher, she -- a former public school kindergarten teacher -- gave me some of the best advice I've heard yet : She told me I was going to have to become a lot more patient than I'd ever been. (She was definitely right on that one.) She also told me that organization was key and would save me from having to reinvent the wheel each year.

The last jewel my mother gave me that day struck me the most because I was uncertain about it. She told me that if a school didn't have good leadership, leave it, and find one that did. "Wow, that last one's a little harsh, Mom," I thought.

I'm still working on the patience, but all my teaching stuff is housed in a meticulous filing and three ring-binder system I should patent and sell to the government. And after a handful of years teaching in a few schools, I did witness firsthand the power of a single leader to make or break a school. Particularly, it's all about morale.

Today, working as an educational consultant and literacy coach, I continue to see how fundamental leadership is to how well -- or not -- a school runs. While visiting or working at a school site, I have a surefire litmus test that helps me better understand where the school stands: I observe the leaders and see how deeply connected they still are to their teacher hearts.

What does this mean, exactly? Read the following descriptions with your school leaders in mind and see:

Making Connections

Your principal genuinely enjoys and values visiting the classroom. He appears far more often than the once or twice required in order to evaluate you, and stays longer than 15 minutes. He connects with the students, and it's clear that he believes that rolling up his sleeves and working side by side with teachers and students is part of his job description. He understands that he cannot expect from teachers what he does not inspect.

He knows that it takes a staff and students who have strong, trusting relationships to truly propel and maintain a high-functioning school.

Clear, Comprehensible Goals

Your administrator doesn't waver when new educational trends or mandates come down the pipe. Her fundamental philosophy and beliefs about educating children stay the same, and are transparent to all. The choice of road taken for accomplishing tasks may change, but the rationale and purpose do not. Her academic goals for the school in general are crystal clear to other administrators, and to teachers, students, and parents. As we say in this profession, her goals have transparency.

A Colleague, Not a Politician

She listens, makes eye contact, and is fair with the faculty, treating all evenhandedly. Her actions demonstrate that she views teachers and other staff as colleagues. She's a work-with-me professional rather than a work-for-me type. She may have favorites, as teachers often do, but you would never know it.

She's also a leader who isn't so concerned with being popular down at the district office. Nope, she isn't interested in playing politics. She follows through on her word and sticks her neck out for what is right. There are significant, memorable times in your mind when she has quietly put district directives aside for the sake of what's best for students. You think of her as courageous.

Fair Is Fair

When sticky situations come up -- a serious disagreement among faculty, for instance -- your leader calmly listens to all sides, doesn't sidebar with other administrators, and spends some time gathering information before declaring a solution or decision on the matter. If it involves students and parents, he makes sure any and all teachers mentioned are included in talks and mediations. He avoids secret meetings, knowing they hinder more than help a bad situation.

An Instructional Captain

Your principal knows her stuff. She is well versed in various instructional practices, and in current educational research and findings. Because of this, and because of her time in the classroom, she is not fooled by any quick-fix, silver-bullet solutions. She knows slow and steady wins the race.

Instead of being showy with this abundance of educational wisdom, she models it every day -- in her actions toward those she has been chosen to lead.

I know, I know -- this may sound like a really tall order to some of you out there. But, it is out there happening in schools, and those schools don't need to worry about teacher retention and school morale. If you are still having doubts, you might need to listen to my mother. (See point #3 of her advice.)

For those of you who did a lot of nodding while reading this post, what exactly makes your school work so well? How do your leaders contribute to the growth and success of your school? Please share with us.

Was this useful?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor

Comments (20) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle Lyons's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had a wonderful principal my first two years of teaching. She was encompassed all the attributes listed in your post. When she left and the new principal joined our school I was very disappointed with his effectiveness. It was an unfortunate situation. After teaching for two years with him, I decided it was time to leave. On the last day of school, he entered my classroom to wish me well and called me by the wrong name. My principal at my new school is phenomenal! Thanks for your sharing your words. I agree 100%!

Sonia Shirran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for reminding me about the characteristics that a good leader should exhibit. I have recently transferred to a new school because of the lack of leadership at the previous school. This was a huge change for me becasue I had taught at the middle school for 10 years and was going to the elementary. I was surronded by low school morale and negativity which is very sad because I worked with so many outstanding teachers. Now, it is like a breath of fresh air. I have a principal that isn't concerned about playing the political game and involves everyone in the school with the decison making process. Your mother was correct when saying that you should leave if there isn't positive leadership.

Jeannie MM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Your Mom's wisdom really made me think. I think teachers must face leadership "issues" all the time: principal leadership, superintendent leadership, Board of Ed leadership and of course, our own leadership. Are we doing everything we can to maximize student learning? Are we impacting and improving education inside and outside our classroom? Are we elevating our profession? Sometimes it can get overwhelming. That is when it is essential to have a true leader moving your school forward. Being on a team that is passionate about transforming schools, must be thrilling and inspiring! Thanks for giving me something to think about!


Elaine Ledlow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your insight and the list of attributes! I agree that the morale and leadership are linked at the hip. If you and your leadership team are not communicating morale goes down significantly. I have been at the same site for 11 years and our district has seen fit to place 5 different principals at our site. Our current principal can be tough but he is willing to work with and for his staff and school site. That is not to say that he is an easy person to work with all the time but it is obvious in what and how he does his work that he truly believes in his staff and school. Now if we could just get the districts to believe in leadership and staff, wow the sky would be the limit!

Sheena Ridel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that a principal makes a difference in the school. During my first year teaching, it was my principal's first year as well. Although I haven't had much experience with other principals, she showed many of the characteristics that were listed in the blog. Still today, she is fair, goes into the classrooms, is a leader, and sets goals for the school to make it the best for the students. I hope to continue to have a principal like her!

Sherry Ainslie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I appreciate your mothers advice and your observations of what leadership qualities create a great atmosphere for teachers and students. I am new to teaching and while I have a lot of life experience under my belt, I found myself accepting the lack of team building and the lack of support/supervision of a new teacher in my principal. You have reminded me that as a teaching professional, I have the right to expect the qualities you mentioned and the right to challenge.

Elizabeth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This post makes a lot of sense to me. I teach middle school in a rural area with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students. None of the leaders that I have seen in my building hold the traits listed above. I have had some awful leaders and a few that I would consider great. My second year teaching, we had a total of 8 principals during one school year for one reason or another. It was an awful year, I almost quit teaching. Having a capable and intelligent leader in the building makes a big difference! I would agree, do not settle in a building that does not have a good leader.

Kathy Grover's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What would your mother advise regarding the "other" administrators...central office folks. You mention a principal who will set aside district requirements to better meet his or her building's needs. Any thoughts on what the district level administrators can or should do to be better leaders?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

What would your mother advise regarding the "other" administrators...central office folks. You mention a principal who will set aside district requirements to better meet his or her building's needs. Any thoughts on what the district level administrators can or should do to be better leaders?[/quote]

Hi Kathy,
You ask a great question. Here's what I suggest for those administrators working at district offices and not at a school site: visit classrooms. That advice to roll up their sleeves and work side by side with teachers -- and students -- is amplified in this case. These folks are making big decisions about how money, materials, and other resources are being used, so it's that much more important that they have their finger on the the pulse so to speak of the daily happenings in classrooms and schools.
Rebecca Alber

Sue Pappas's picture

I couldn't agree more that leadership, organizational skills and having lots patience are keys to success for any teacher. Teaching is one of the most rewarding careers anyone could have and those of you who are currently teaching in the environment with a strong leader are extremely lucky and will have many wonderful teaching years to come.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.