Schools Need Principals, But Only If They Are Great

For almost 40 years, my nonprofit has carried out curriculum reform projects in school districts all over the U.S. In addition to working with thousands of teachers, I have worked with hundreds of elementary and secondary principals. I have spent time with them individually, in small groups, and in large groups; I have watched them interact with central office administrators, teachers, students, and parents—for thousands of hours. I can count the number of great principals I have seen on two hands.

Okay, maybe my standards are unrealistic. Maybe finding only 10 great anythings in a population of hundreds is to be expected. Maybe finding only 10 great doctors in a population of hundreds of doctors is just fine for patients. Maybe finding only 10 great chefs in a population of hundreds of chefs is just fine for restaurant-goers. But we are entrusting our children to a principal for something like 1,000 hours a year—every year for 13 years. That is a lot of time for someone not to be great.

A recent article by Matt Collette discussed teacher-led schools and posed the question of whether schools really need principals. I believe that schools really need principals if they are great—otherwise, maybe not.

For decades, education literature has espoused the notion that principals make the difference in schools, that good principals are instructional leaders, and so on. I never really bought it—until I met Claire McIntee, and then I became a believer overnight. Ms. McIntee was my children’s elementary school principal at P.S. 94 in Little Neck, Queens, New York. She was a brilliant and energetic leader. She was tough; she set high standards for the kids and the teachers in everything they did. She did not fool around. And yet, she was loved by all of them—and by all of the parents. She made that school tick like a Swiss watch. Ms. McIntee was promoted (unfortunately, as most great principals are) to become a district superintendent in New York City and then went on to become what I like to think of as a role model for training and supporting principals at New York City’s Leadership Academy. After she left, P.S. 94 was never the same. The kids and the teachers and the parents were pretty much the same, but the school wasn’t. That’s how I know it was all about Ms. McIntee.

7 Things That Make a Great Principal by Regina H. Paul on Policy Studies in Education

I never had the privilege of working as a professional with Ms. McIntee, so I did not learn her secrets. I never got to see exactly how she did it. When the time came years later to choose a principal for a new public high school I was helping to establish in Brooklyn, I was understandably a little wary. Oddly enough, after one interview with Chris Aguirre, I knew he was the right choice. This time, as I worked with Chris over the next five years, I watched him closely to figure out exactly how he did it—that is, exactly what makes a principal great. Here are seven things I know now are true:

  1. A great principal has a vision for the school. Yes, I know that sounds trite and clichéd. But, as it happens, it is true. From the first planning session long before our school opened, Chris had a vision for our school that I thought was crazy. He imagined graduating average New York City high school kids in three years (instead of the traditional four) and helping them earn real college credits on a college campus along the way. It seemed impossible. But we made it work. Without his vision, the rest of us never would have tried it.
  2. A great principal is ridiculously dedicated. Let’s face it: It is almost a 24–7 job. There are late afternoons with troubled kids, concerned parents, anxious or excited teachers, and districtwide administrative meetings; evenings of PTA and advisory board meetings, open houses for interested families, students’ plays and concerts and science fairs and basketball games and so on; weekends of writing up teacher observations and plans for teacher inservice sessions and letters to parents and reports for the central office and grants for new programs. Why so busy? Because none of this gets done during the school day, when the great principal is in the classrooms watching instruction or in the hallways watching the students—but definitely not in the principal’s office.
  3. A great principal is a great teacher. You might think this goes without saying, but it doesn’t. I love that the principal is typically called the “head teacher” in the U.K. If a principal is not a great teacher (any grade or any subject will do), then he or she cannot supervise the teachers in the school. You cannot supervise what you cannot do. Everyone knows that—including every teacher. If a principal cannot write a great lesson, deliver a great lesson, be creative in using all of the technology available, make up an appropriate student assessment, and keep the students engaged throughout, then that principal might as well stay in the office (which we already know means that he or she is not great).
  4. A great principal insulates teachers from central office intrusions. Teachers probably don’t realize how many of those intrusions there are in a week or a month or year, but there are a lot. I have worked with a lot of central office administrators—including really good ones—and I know there are a lot. A great principal wants to keep teachers focused on the students and on the learning; doing that sometimes requires principals to step in front of the teachers and take the heat or the guff or whatever is being handed out. That is a thankless job, but can make a big difference in what gets done in the school.
  5. A great principal goes out on a limb when it is necessary. Playing by the rules is important, but sometimes it is just not enough. Early in our time in Brooklyn, we wanted to hire someone to teach physics. Our best candidate by far was a professor with two doctorates who had taught in colleges both in the U.S. and abroad and in high schools abroad. He made a lot of sense for us because we were an Early College high school. The only problem was that New York City, at that time, would not hire anyone with that background, even though New York State had a route for such a person to get a teaching credential. We appealed New York City’s position all the way up through the personnel bureaucracy until, finally, the Chancellor agreed with us. It was a long haul. I don’t think that many principals would have made that trip. Chris was way out on a limb, but it was all worth it.
  6. A great principal is honest, even when it is not to his or her personal advantage. Quite frankly, this is why we hired Chris. In his interview, he told us a story about an early administrative assignment of his in New York City. He was sent as an interim principal to a school that was failing, that was out of control, that you would not send your child to. He worked as hard as he knew how for some months, but he knew that it would be a long time before he could turn the school around and that, in the meantime, a lot of students would get a less-than-adequate education. When the Chancellor visited and asked him what he thought, Chris said the Chancellor should close the school. He was not willing to sacrifice the education of those students while he figured out how to make the school work. It was not a great career move, but it was the truth. I never saw Chris not tell the truth. Teachers can put a lot of trust in someone who always tells the truth.
  7. A great principal is really smart. When my colleague and I used to conduct workshops across the U.S. for school administrators, we were fond of saying that the principal should be able to pass every test given to students in the building. The statement always woke the people up. Yes, they could imagine that an elementary principal could pass all of the tests given to elementary school children. But could a high school principal? Or even a middle school principal? Should a high school principal have a high school education? Just think about it.

I can see why teachers would not want to be led by principals who are not great. I can see why there are not a lot of great principals. Maybe some people are born to be great principals, and others can never be made into great principals, no matter how hard we try to teach them administrative skills. I wish I knew if that were true.

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