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September 30, 2010

The Principalship: 101

by Chris Lindholm

in this new ballgame of district office work I am faced with the challenge of helping principals be the best they can be to move schools towards true excellence.  The job of being a principal is about moving teachers and staff to deliver on student achievement.  The job I am now in is about moving principals to move teachers to…  Yup, new ball game.  So – what are the big rocks?  What are the key components to being a successful principal?  This is impossible to capture in one post, but let's start with some of the big pieces:

Air traffic control:

Successful principals run a tight ship.  They can run a team of staff to land and take off 23 buses on a 3 tier schedule moving 1500 students without error.  One mistake is a lost child - no room for error.  Communication is crisp and a staff member or two down doesn't stop the mission.  In fact, successful principals run such a tight ship that they don't have to be there running the flight schedule.  Successful principals delegate and empower others to do this so they are able to focus on the real stuff…

The roads in the sky:

I had the pleasure of hearing the Director of the Mpls/St. Paul Airport speak to a group once, and he shared pictures of the "roads" the airplanes use to take off and land.  It was a print showing the path of several hundred flights – evidence that indeed, airplanes use common pathways through the roadless sky to find their way to an endless list of destinations. 

In similar fashion, successful principals create a few simple pathways, roads, or structures through which rigorous debate and meaningful conversations take place resulting in the destination of improved practice and improved student achievement.  These principals take the directionless sky of a million conversations and channel them into meaningful structures that create disciplined thought and disciplined action.  This structure is more than a group that calls themself a PLC…  It's a structure of PLCs that function in Dufourish style with a pathway for action.  Successful principals create these structures and pathways with purpose and vision. 

The sky is falling:

Successful principals are heard when they speak.  They are heard not because of their title but because of the authentic desire of others to listen to what they have to say.  When a successful principal cries "Wolf!!" everybody reacts in alarm because they believe the cry to be credible.  This ability to communicate with real credibility requires top notch discipline and runs in direct opposition to our popular culture of big news and editorials.  Earning credibility among the masses – and the important stakeholder groups involved in public education - requires a solid mastery of communication and an understanding of how to control the perceptions of others.  The difference between principals who understand this, and those who don't, is a critical gap between greatness and mediocrity…

Vision and the guts to follow through:

Great principals have a clear vision of what the classroom should look and feel like.  They work tirelessly to help their teachers understand this vision, and they get those who can't understand this picture off of the bus.  Yes, they get them off of the bus.  Fire them.  I have never been part of dismissing a staff member who understood the vision and simply chose not to participate.  In every situation, they didn't get it.  They couldn't see it no matter what I did to try and spell it out.  That is a simple lack of understanding, ability, and vision.  Make no mistake, great principals do all they can to assist, support, and help struggling staff members.  The reality of our profession is… we have children who deserve nothing short of the best.  Teaching isn't a job for the average.  If a teacher can't make the cut, they shouldn't be part of the team.  We don't manufacture trinkets….  We raise and educate children – someone's baby…

Intuitive focus on culture:

Finally, great principals have an intuitive focus on organizational culture, model their expecations, and demand results.  Walking into a building run by a great principal, you feel a love for kids, a focus on rigorous academic performance, and a rooted understanding of meaning and purpose.  In great schools, students can tell you their goals and articulate their plans to meet them, staff members seem to breathe reflective practice, and celebration of real results is evident – not surface fundraisers and lolly pop rewards for handing in homework.  In classrooms, objectives are clear and students own the plan to achieve them.  Great principals demand a focus on outcomes… not so much on the doing part.

 

Great principals produce great results.  They change adult behaviors to create a culture that produces outstanding student behaviors and achievement results.  I have only begun to articulate the complexity of the principalship…  What pieces of being a Great principal – ending in student achievement results – am I missing??  Help me fill in the blanks!! 

**The term Great is in reference to Jim Collins' work in Good to Great**

 

 

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