Leadership Qualities that Keep Great Principals in Their Roles
Teacher burnout, and the shortages that come with it, have been making headlines for months now. As a school leader, you’ve most likely been dealing with them first-hand. But, what about you? How are you doing?
According to a recent report by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a staggering four out of 10 principals surveyed expect to leave the profession in the next three years, driven by the stress of the pandemic and increased political tensions.
This bit of news isn’t new, either. In the many conversations we’ve had with leaders across the country in the past two and a half years, we know a job that isn't easy to begin with has seemed downright impossible at times. And yet, many of you have stayed resilient—and stayed in your roles.
In honor of National Principals Month, we’ve outlined the leadership qualities of a school principal that are imperative to staying—and thriving—in your role. We also take a moment to celebrate each one of those characteristics individually. Day after day, you continue to show up for the students and adults in your care, and we want to remind you of why you’re so needed.
You see your work as something worthy and full of purpose
Many leaders, like New Leaders alum and District of Columbia Schools Deputy Chancellor Dr. Melissa Kim, see their work as the chance to be part of something bigger. “Being on the cusp of meaningful change, and having your values amplified by your district, is a motivator to stay,” she says.
For you, the principalship is a calling, and it’s a role that's aligned with your purpose and core values. That means even on the most challenging days, you go home feeling like you made a difference.
Meaningful change might come in the form of intentionally bringing voices to the table that have previously been untapped or unheard. Or by creating spaces where your faculty and staff can be actively engaged in defining how your school is run and who gets an opportunity to be a leader. For you, the principalship is a calling, and it’s a role that’s aligned with your purpose and core values. That means on even the most challenging days, you go home feeling like you made a difference.
You believe that school leaders are change agents
With challenges comes the opportunity to innovate, and this is where great principals shine. The pandemic is a great example of the many positive changes that were put into place by you and your peers—changes that continue to endure in our schools and classrooms.
Whether it’s implementing new instructional practices as a result of widening achievement gaps like New Leaders alum and principal Felipe Jackson, instituting more flexibility in hiring and retaining staff, scaling the use of technology, or building partnerships with community organizations to strengthen student and teacher supports, you’ve consistently stepped up and gotten creative with the resources you have.
You want your students to see themselves in the educators around them
When a school principal is a leader of color, research shows higher student achievement and better school outcomes specifically for teachers and children of color. Tamara Littlejohn, a New Leaders alum and Chicago Public Schools principal, could count on one hand the Black teachers she had as a child, even though she lived in a large urban center with a large Black population.
As she did the work to become an educator herself—first a teacher, then an assistant principal and principal—Littlejohn knew it was important for the children at her school to “see someone who looks like them striving for excellence and leading the work with their teachers. Someone who shows them that they, too, can go on to be a leader in their hometown school district.”
You know that representation matters, and one of the leadership qualities of an effective principal is creating spaces where students get to see their role models in action as they build inclusive, high-performing, and respectful learning environments. Doing so will have an impact on them for years to come.
You have high expectations for students because you know that with an environment that allows them to feel safe, cared for, valued, and seen, they’ll meet them.
You believe all students deserve access to a high-quality education
Equity-focused leaders believe all children can learn at high levels, and they instill this belief in every adult in the school building. You have high expectations for students because you know that with an environment that allows them to feel safe, cared for, valued, and seen, they’ll meet them.
And, it’s not just the environment. Because you’re instructional leaders by nature, you’re also committed to providing all students with access to effective, high-quality, and culturally-relevant curricula that are personalized for them, the community in which you teach, and the local issues and events that might be affecting your community. In addition, you’re always looking for ways to create or repair systems to distribute resources equally to your students and their families, especially when it comes to marginalized groups.
You’re committed to identifying and supporting other future leaders
Just as a mentor saw potential in you, we know one thing that lights you up is being able to spot those leadership traits in someone else, whether it’s an aspiring teacher leader in your own school or an aspiring principal you’ve met through a networking group or other setting.
You understand that every teacher on your team brings leadership qualities to the table—from expertise and experience to innovation and vision—and it’s up to you to leverage these strengths for the benefit of your students.
In some cases, opportunities for future leaders can be developed through distributed leadership, where you’re spreading the decision-making to teachers and members of your staff and encouraging them to do, as New Leaders alum and former principal Beulah McLoyd says, “bigger and better.”
Like McLoyd, you understand that every teacher on your team brings leadership qualities to the table—from expertise and experience to innovation and vision—and it’s up to you to leverage these strengths for the benefit of your students. And, if you do indeed decide to leave your role someday, you’ll take comfort in the fact that your teachers will continue to thrive because you’ve invited them to use their strengths for maximum impact.
You’re focused on creating a positive, care-focused school culture
A strong sense of empathy and care is one of the most effective leadership qualities of a great principal. And as school leaders just settling into a new year, we know you’re acutely aware that many of your faculty and staff are still dealing with residual exhaustion and burnout. Not to mention your students and families who might also be working through challenges of their own.
It’s because of this knowledge that you’re focused on building strong relationships and cultivating trust with the adults and students in your building that creates a positive school culture. Through small actions, like an impromptu conversation in the hallway with a parent, to the important and often hard conversations, like those around equity, you’re able to demonstrate your values and your commitment to making your school a place where everyone thrives.
You know that resiliency is the key to being a leader
Through every challenge—pandemic and otherwise—you’ve managed to remain focused on high-quality instruction and improved outcomes for your students. We know that hasn’t come without a healthy dose of resiliency on your part.
When great school leaders demonstrate resilience, it’s more likely their entire school community will feel more empowered to accept and adapt to situations, move forward, and grow from their collective experiences.
Your mental toughness and ability to recover quickly from difficulties are the key to your school’s resiliency. When great school leaders demonstrate resilience, it’s more likely their entire school community will feel more empowered to accept and adapt to situations, move forward, and grow from their collective experiences. It’s this resilience that has helped many of you hang on during an incredibly demanding time—and has helped you find those pockets of joy, too.
School principals, thank you
In case you haven’t heard it lately: thank you for your incredible leadership. We sincerely hope you take time this month—and regularly throughout the year—to step back and acknowledge how much you’re appreciated and needed as school principals.