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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

The Omnipresent Principal


To students in a school, the principal often seems to be everywhere. While we know that is physically impossible, there are things that any principal can do to make it seem that way. A principal's omnipresence sets a tone for a school and gives it a personality.

When I was in college, I worked part-time in the music library. On nights that I worked the late shift, it wasn't uncommon for my classmates to gather at the library entrance around closing time. Sometimes we would even forget our library voices and let our laughter echo through the hallways of the music school. We always tried to catch ourselves before that happened, because we were well aware that our disregard for library rules could bring on the ire of the school director, Dr. Pianissimo. Her mere presence at the library door caused everyone to freeze. As a matter of fact, her presence was not felt only in the library. She seemed to be everywhere in the music school.

When I left college and began my teaching career I saw that, like Dr. Pianissimo, a school principal often seems to be everywhere. His or her presence is found -- or reflected -- in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, the playground, even the boiler room.

In point of fact, however, principals are not superhuman. They cannot be in more than one place at a time, so they must settle for the next best thing: influence.

Just as Dr. Pianissimo did, most principals work to create positive expectations, set a tone for their school, and earn respect from students and adults. Even though they might not always be in their schools physically, their influence can still have a reassuring and positive impact on the school.

To students, principals seem to be capable of being in three or more places at the same time. For staff members, a principals visibility and accessibility represent positive leadership attributes. But how can a principal create a sense of omnipresence? Here are a few of my ideas for how any principal can accomplish that.

Maintain visibility. Greet students and their parents in the morning as they arrive and get out of cars. Greet bus students as they step off the bus. Chat with the parents and bus drivers. Ask good questions, then listen and learn from the responses. Ask about needs, potential problems, or brewing issues. While showing visibility, the multitasking principal at the same time demonstrates concern for others' welfare. That time invested in collecting information can prevent concerns from escalating and trouble from developing. A principal should be visible during lunch and dismissal times too. The principals visibility at special school functions and programs is essential.

Make morning announcements. The sound of the principal's voice creates a sense of authority. Brief daily messages and announcements are made for the benefit of both students and adults. Multitasking principals recognize accomplishments, celebrate successes, catch people being good, provide necessary information, and establish expectations. For children, the principal's voice conveys security, stability, and reassurance. Some will assume you will be present all day, even if you have to leave soon to be at an all-day meeting with the superintendent.

Conduct walk-throughs. Walk-throughs are a great way to show presence. They keep teachers and students on their toes. Multitasking principals also use them as opportunities to reinforce professionalism and pride. When it infuses a school, pride is more important than money.

Teach classes. Give teachers a break. Better yet, encourage them to observe as you teach their classes. Use that time to model instructional practices: to teach the teacher and the kids. Later, reflect with the teacher on how the lesson worked and how the students learned. Observe the teacher's depth and understanding of the pedagogy.

Eat lunch at different times and places. Negotiated agreements often stipulate that lunch periods are uninterrupted for certified and classified staff. But there is no such luxury for principals -- some are lucky to even eat lunch! But those who do eat often multitask while nourishing their bodies. They use the time to interact with children and adults. While they munch healthy food, they listen, learn, and get a pulse for what is happening in the school. Many conduct business during lunch, inviting key community members to join them for an enlightening school lunch with the students -- with results that often pay huge rewards.

Principals influence everything that happens in their schools. Their omnipresence inspires people while it provides opportunities to inspect, direct, or correct.

Serve food in the cafeteria. Want to observe students from a common vantage point? Help serve food or pass out milk during lunch. Observe kids behavior in a less structured environment. Reinforce your expectations of manners and cooperation. Practice your mastery of associating names and faces; greet students by name when they receive their lunch. They'll develop a special connection when they know you know them by name.

Frequent the playground. When multitasking principals visit their schools playground, they use their eyes, ears, and sense of smell. They use all their senses to assure the safety and security of the play area. They observe how students occupy time and socialize with one another. They assess the effectiveness of the adults' supervision techniques. All the while, they walk, talk, and enjoy the exercise. Some even play games and share a different side of themselves with students -- and adults.

Help the custodians clean. There shouldn't be any job in a school that a principal can't or won't do. Earn the respect of your custodial staff by picking up a paint brush, sweeping a floor, dumping trash, cleaning tables, or operating a floor buffing machine. Not only do those actions demonstrate your willingness to get dirty, they create opportunities to establish the standards for cleaning.

Answer the phone. Surprise the public by answering the phone. That practice enables a multitasking principal to experience the realities of the administrative assistant's job and also set an example and establish standards by which all office personnel should perform when greeting the public.

Be involved in the community. Principals' time invested in civic organizations can earn valuable benefits. It allows community residents the opportunity to get to know and hear their school leaders. It's also a time when principals can promote and market their schools. Multitasking principals are always prepared to be the school's cheerleader -- even when shopping at the convenience market.

Speak at school programs. Speaking briefly at school programs provides an opportunity to establish expectations or reinforce audience etiquette; share important information; publicly praise students, staff, and parents; and advocate for the school. Never pass up the opportunity to do so much in so few minutes at such an important time.

Principals influence everything that happens in their schools. Their omnipresence inspires people while it provides opportunities to inspect, direct, or correct. Omnipresence helps principals build strong connections with their school communities. Most of all, the omnipresent principal earns respect.

Article by Paul Young
Copyright © 2007 Education World®