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Good Principals:
What Traits Do They Share?

Do you want to be a better principal? Maybe you're thinking about becoming a principal and wondering if you have what it takes. This week, Education World's Principal Files principals tell about the "principal qualities" that are most important to being a successful school leader. Included: Links to other resources that provide further insight.

Do you want to be a better principal? Maybe you're thinking about becoming a principal and wondering if you have what it takes.

A few weeks ago, Education World asked our Principal Files principals, What, do you think, are the most important traits of a good principal, a strong school leader?

This is what Ed World's P-Files principals had to say.


"Listening and understanding what you have heard is one of the most important traits of a strong principal," said Steven Podd, principal at Islip (New York) Middle School. "By listening to others, I can find ways to solve problems, help kids and parents, and support teachers."

A simple answer, it seems, added Podd. "But look around you. Notice how many people really listen to you when you speak. It's a critical skill!"

"Being a good listener is an important trait for administrators to possess," added Bonita Henderson, assistant principal at Pleasant Ridge School, a K-8 school in Cincinnati. "Children and teachers have important things to say, and a lot can be learned and gained from listening well to them."

Principal Bill Meyers agrees. "People do not always expect a principal to solve their problems," said Meyers, principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Sterling, Illinois. "Many times, they just need someone who will listen to their concerns. An effective administrator knows when it is appropriate to shut up and just listen."

Being "able to listen objectively with sincere eye contact" is essential, said Lucie Boyadjian, principal at Glen Oaks School in Hickory Hills, Illinois. "Listening conveys a caring attitude, and caring is a building block for trust," added Boyadjian. "The ability to build trust is an essential human relations skill that greatly facilitates interpersonal communications."

Mary Ellen Imbo, principal at Westwood Elementary School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, has been part of several committees charged with hiring administrators for Broken Arrow's 14 elementary schools. "As I've sat in on administrative interviews," said Imbo, "I've learned that listening skills are of utmost importance."

"We have put aside the authoritarian leader," added Imbo. "Today's principal needs to develop teacher leadership, promote parent involvement, facilitate site-based decision making, and make decisions in the best interest of all children. In order to accomplish all those things, a strong principal must be a good listener and flexible."


Ah, yes, flexibility, a most important quality according to Gary Cardwell, principal at Crockett Elementary School in Wichita Falls, Texas. "Principals must be flexible in their thought processes," he said, "for they will be asked to consider new ideas that might enhance the school's educational environment."

Flexibility is of utmost importance for other reasons too, added Cardwell. "A principal must be flexible in working with people. He or she must remember that teachers have problems, feelings, and sick kids at homeand a principal must be flexible to be able to handle the variety of situations that can develop instantaneously. Perhaps that means dealing with an angry parent or counseling a student who has just lost his mother."

The ability to work as a member of a team is an important leadership skill too. "In my school, there are four assistant principals," said Jesse Ballenger, assistant principal at Danbury (Connecticut) High School. "Therefore, camaraderie is key. We share ideas, we seek assistance from one another, we support one another, and we respect one another. Professional respect is important because [we are all] part of a team."


Keeping kids as the focus of every decision! "That's the one trait that makes a stand-out principal," said Jan Fortmann, principal at Holmen (Wisconsin) Middle School. "That might sound trite," added Fortmann, "but I have used this statement as my guiding force for years and it has never steered me wrong. I coach my teachers with this strategy, and they tell me that it keeps them focused on what their job is really all about."

Fortmann pointed to the work her school's scheduling committee recently took on. They needed to find a way to adjust the current schedule to include keyboarding instruction in grades 6 to 8. "It would have been easy just to say 'We need a keyboarding teacher and it's not my responsibility,'" said Fortmann. "When the committee realized that there would be no additional staff members allocated to the building, people rolled up their sleeves and figured out a way to make it happen."

When teachers always keep kids -- and the impact of their decisions on kids -- as their focus, the ultimate answers to many problems become more obvious.

"I know it has helped the kids I work with!" added Fortmann.

Making decisions based on the best interests of children can also help prolong a principal's career, according to Alan Rummel. "Not taking things personally" is one of the most important traits of a strong principal, said Rummel, principal at Delahunty Middle School in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. "Whether your decision rests well with others or not, you don't have to internalize the results -- even though we sometimes do -- if you make decisions based on the best interests of the children."

Maria Sells, the special education director for the Indiana Department of Correction, concurs. "A strong leader will stand up for what he or she believes is good and right for children and families," said Sells. "How can we expect teachers to make the best choices in educating our students if we, as administrators, do not model the dedication and passion for education that we want to see in them?"

For Sells, integrity is the key word. "Principals need to exhibit a strong sense of integrity," she said. "As a strong leader, you must 'say what you mean and mean what you say,' and then stand behind what you say."


The desire to be a "learner" is one of the most important traits of a good principal, said Helene Dykes, principal at Marian Bergeson Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, California. Principals don't know it all, according to Dykes. They don't have all the answers. But a principal who is always learning, a principal who is constantly growing, is likely to be a strong principal.

"I think if you view yourself as a learner, you are freed from being the sole dispenser of knowledge and wisdom," said Dykes. "You are also freed from feeling that you have to provide all the answers."

A principal who is always learning models what he or she hopes the whole school staff will become -- a learning community, said Dykes. She added, "Hopefully, that engenders a spirit of 'I'm not sure about that, let's work on it together.'" That kind of spirit benefits the entire school.


"A strong leader is one who never loses sight of the main educational vision and goal," said Sylvia Hooker, principal at Fairmount Alternative School in Newnan, Georgia.

Strong leaders never waiver from their quest to educate students and all who have contact with them, added Hooker. "They don't just facilitate, they design and implement, and they find appropriate resources to carry out and fund student-centered instructional programs to achieve those goals."

"A good leader offers all staff people the opportunity to improve," Hooker concluded. "They [have the ability to] bring out the best in the entire faculty by making marginal teachers better and better teachers the best. They bring reformation, restoration, and rejuvenation to the school and its staff."

"I believe the best principals can get teachers to do their personal best for children," concurred Dr. Lolli Haws, principal at Avery Elementary School in Webster Groves, Missouri. "One principal -- no matter how skilled, how child-focused, how positive -- cannot possibly create an excellent educational environment for every child in the school without the teachers.

"By demonstrating that I trust their judgment, have confidence in them, will acquire whatever resources they need, and will support them in their work, teachers will do their best and kids will benefit," added Haws. "I believe the best principals are able to instill confidence and autonomy and personal ownership of the teaching task in the staff so everyone is working for the same goal -- the quality education of every child."


Principal Matters
A joke making the rounds lately among Texas teachers begins "What does it take to be a high-school principal?" The answer: "A graduate degree and a winning football team." It may be funny, but it's no longer true. The days of principals' resting on gridiron victories is gone -- especially in Texas. So begins an Education Week article exploring a new generation of research on the importance of principals and what makes a good one.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 05/03/1999
Last updated 01/22/2010