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What Great Principals
Do Differently


You can tell great principals by what they do, what they say, and who works for them, according to educator, author, and speaker Dr. Todd Whitaker. They are the people who lead by example and recruit other effective people. Included: Some characteristics of great principals.

About Todd Whitaker

Todd Whitaker is a former principal and a professor at Indiana State University. He is the author of numerous books for educators, including What Great Principals Do Differently, What Great Teachers Do Differently, Dealing With Difficult Teachers, and Dealing With Difficult Parents.

Read more about Whitaker in these Education World articles:

Motivating Teachers: A Wire Side Chat with Todd Whitaker
"Outstanding principals know that if they have great teachers, they have a great school," Todd Whitaker told Education World. So what can you do to motivate great teaching? Included: Techniques for keeping teachers motivated.
Dealing With Difficult Parents
In their new book, Dealing With Difficult Parents, Doug Fiore and Todd Whitaker offer strategies and techniques that make it easier to deal with seemingly difficult parents and with the difficult situations in which they find themselves.

Great principals set themselves apart by leading by example, setting clear and high expectations, and surrounding themselves with great people, according to Dr. Todd Whitaker, an educator, author, and speaker.

"People are the problem and people are the solution," Whitaker told an audience last month at the convention of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "If teachers don't know a behavior is wrong, tell them at the first faculty meeting of the year. Once you make clear what is right or wrong, most people will try to do what's right."


One characteristic that sets apart great principals is the ability to know how they come across, Whitaker noted. Rarely do teacher assessments of a principal and the principal's self-assessment match, he said. "Almost all principals think they're good."

Principals should strive to hire great teachers, or teachers with the potential to be great, by investigating their training, Whitaker continued. "If a student teacher trains with exemplary people, the chance of that student teacher being an exemplary teacher increases exponentially."

Besides hiring great teachers, another way a principal can cultivate an effective staff is by modeling effective behavior. "You can't learn from ineffective people," said Whitaker.

"The most valuable gift a principal can give teachers is confidence," he said. Modeling appropriate behavior can include never arguing with a teacher and never arguing with a student. "And never yell," Whitaker added. "It's ineffective."

Great principals should never use sarcasm, and should instruct their staff members never to use it either, he said. Ten days out of ten, great principals need to treat every student with dignity. "You don't even have to like kids," Whitaker added. "Just act like you like them."

Then in making decisions, principals should base their actions on their best teachers. As part of the decision-making process, great principals should ask themselves:

  • What is the purpose of this?
  • Will this actually accomplish the purpose?
  • How will the most positive and productive people feel about this?


Great principals also are visible, and are able to look at the big picture, according to Whitaker.

"Principals should be in classes every day," Whitaker said. When it comes to problem behavior, quickly zero in on the problem and save your energy for everyone else. "By addressing negative behavior to a group, you let the guilty people off," he said. "The least important kid is the one in your office. You have to worry about all the others.

"You also never want a kid to leave the office mad. You want him to leave different."

Problem staff members can drain resources as well. Often when a school has a difficult teacher, an assistant principal or another administrator has to spend time and effort running interference for that teacher, Whitaker said.

Educators also need to remember that they work in a field where the potential for change always is present. "We start undefeated every year."

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 05/17/2005
Last updated 07/23/2009