What traits do teachers appreciate most in their principals? Our Principal Files principals say they try to cultivate traits that improve communication, demonstrate respect, and inspire vision. They say the key to whether those traits take hold school-wide lies in their modeling of them.
Most school principals were teachers at one time. That means they probably have some ideas about the qualities and skills of their ideal principal. So now that they are in leadership positions and working hard to develop relationships with their staffs -- and push them to be the best they can be -- have their ideals changed?
When we questioned school leaders who are members of our Principal Files team about the qualities, approaches, or abilities they work hard to cultivate -- and that teachers seem to respond to best -- they shared a wide variety of responses. But one common thread was woven among all those responses: a belief in the importance of modeling the behaviors you expect.
"I strive to model for my teachers how to build relationships with children," said Tracey N. Roberts, principal at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. "I do that by listening and learning more about my students' interests and needs. Just as I take time to listen and respond to them and model those same behaviors with parents and guardians, I have seen some teachers take more time to listen and show they care before responding to difficult pupils, parents, or situations."
Making the effort to model listening and respect has had a real impact on the climate at Pulaski, Roberts added.
Principal Kim Cavanaugh agrees that listening is a key quality to a principal's success. "It is very important for me to make everyone -- staff, students, and families -- realize they are valued," Cavanaugh shared. "The answers to my questions and issues that affect our school lie within the people I work with on a daily basis, and it is vital that we have a relationship that allows them to feel as though they can come to me with ideas, solutions, feedback, and concerns. And that I can go to them as well."
"I am constantly working on my listening skills," added Cavanaugh, who is principal at Mentone (California) Elementary School, "because we administrators can often multitask and make people feel like they are interrupting our work. The ability to stop and listen is an important part of my job because it can result in a happier, more positive environment."
Luanne Watson was a teacher for 20 years before she became an administrator. "The most important thing I can give to my teachers is respect for what they do each day," said Watson, who is principal at St. Jude School in New Lenox, Illinois. "I respect that they are dedicated professionals who know what needs to be done, so I try to provide what they need to do their jobs well."
Even the newest and least experienced teachers blossom when they know they have the respect of their principal, said Watson. "It encourages people to continue to work hard and give 110 percent because they want to live up to the expectations of someone who understands and admires their work."
Mutual respect fosters an excellent working relationship. When the time comes that there is a difference of opinion, it is not taken personally, and progress can be made.
Watson often tells her teachers that she became an administrator because teaching is the hardest job in the world and she could no longer do what they do every day.
Although being a principal has it challenges, it is different and not as constantly demanding as teaching young children, she added. "I promote an atmosphere where we all do what we do best -- they do their jobs, I do mine, the secretary does hers. No one's position is more important than another's. Working together is the key to running a successful school."
At Cumberland County (Kentucky) Elementary School, Principal Rodney Schwartz tries to model behaviors that result in a collegial and caring school environment. "If I can be successful at that, we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish," he said.
Schwartz tries to model a positive environment by being calm, professional, and courteous at all times. "I keep an open door so I can listen to issues that arise and support the positive people on my staff as much as humanly possible," said Schwartz.
In addition, Schwartz tries to empower people with leadership positions on committees and initiatives. "Delegating in this way not only helps me out, it puts trust in them," he added. "People appreciate that if they are not overloaded."
Turina Parker is principal of a school where the population largely comprises students with behavioral difficulties. The work is demanding, and at times it can be overwhelming for teachers, said Parker. "For that reason, I make every effort to remain positive and calm at all times, especially as I respond to potential crisis situations. The teachers -- and students -- seem to appreciate that and respond to that approach."
Parker also shared that her mantra -- Make it a great day! -- has had an impact on the climate in the special and alternative programs she leads in Hudson Falls, New York. She even writes that phrase on her weekly staff memos and closes morning announcements with that charge.
"I truly believe that no matter what challenges are placed in our paths, we have the power, through positive thinking, to transform negative energy and thoughts," explained Parker.
She shared another expression she frequently uses -- That's exciting! -- that seems to have caught on, too. "Even problems are exciting," Parker added, "because they give us an opportunity to think creatively and to learn something new about our abilities to make it successfully through tough times."
"I smile as much as possible. My students notice it, and my teachers have commented how, on a rough day, a smile or a positive pep talk was just what they needed.
It's unbelievable how great the power of intention is. I intentionally set out to be positive each day, and it works!"
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Article by Gary Hopkins
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