Stepping Up: Advice & Insights For Aspiring Principals

Considering starting on the path to principalship? With the help of a few New Leaders alumni, we’ve put together some insights to consider as you’re thinking about your next step.
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5/10/22
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It’s a big decision to become a school principal, and there are many reasons why you, as an educator, might consider taking this next step. Many of you are strategic thinkers, longing to put your strengths to use by leading schoolwide instruction, facilitating community partnerships, or implementing more equitable school policies. Perhaps you’re simply looking to impact students and families on a broader scale than your current role will allow. Or, maybe you’ve been a teacher leader for some time, and you know you’re ready for the next challenge in your career. But you might be asking yourself, “Am I ready?” 

If you’re considering a move like this, chances are you are ready, and you already have the prerequisite passion for leadership and education—and the desire to make a difference in the lives of students—that being a school principal depends on. 

As important as passion is, there are many other skills and experiences—along with state licensure and principal certification requirements—that are crucial to begin your school leadership journey. However, there are plenty of insights into being a principal that only come with time and experience in the role. How do you uncover those to get a more complete picture of what a principalship has in store for you before you take the plunge?

There are plenty of insights into being a principal that only come with time and experience in the role. How do you uncover those to get a more complete picture of what a principalship has in store for you before you take the plunge?

Having trained thousands of leaders through our Aspiring Principals program, we have some insights to share. We also asked a few New Leaders alumni for their thoughts on what aspiring principals need to consider as they ponder a step up.

First, a reminder: Principal leadership matters

A recent Wallace Foundation study confirmed what many of us know to be true: principals are incredibly important. According to the study, principals in the 75th percentile of effectiveness yield an increase in student learning in reading and math of about three months—nearly as much as four months of increased learning generated by a teacher of the same percentile, but across an entire school

While the role of a school administrator had to adapt significantly during the pandemic, the impact of effective leadership shows up in a myriad of ways. Principals influence teacher hiring and development and empower staff to make decisions. They make the conditions for rigorous and equitable learning possible. They set a bold vision for their school and ensure everyone in their school community knows they play a part in shaping and strengthening that vision. “Principals really matter,” says the authors of the Wallace Foundation study in their conclusion. “Indeed, it is difficult to envision an investment in K-12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership.”

And with that, here are some considerations and questions you’ll want to ask yourself:

Can you cultivate a strong vision for the future?

New Leaders alum and school leader Rena Cruz shares this advice with you: “It’s important to be a keen listener and observer. Know and understand the work you are asking others to do and always remain STUDENT-CENTERED.”

Knowing and understanding the work you’re asking of others is part of having a strong vision: a plan and anchor for how students, staff, families, and community members experience a school’s environment. Developing this vision requires a bit of introspection, as you’ll need to understand your own ideals and beliefs and how you’ll connect those beliefs to the actions you’ll take as a school leader.

While it might be a leader’s responsibility to lead the charge and put a plan in place for realizing it, it’s important to remember that a school’s vision needs to be shared among all of its stakeholders. This is where the other piece of Rena’s advice is well-taken: principals need to take time and solicit feedback from, listen to, and observe their school community and learn about what they need. Great principals know that no one person—themselves included!—has all the answers when it comes to their school’s success, and a strong vision for the future requires everyone in the school’s orbit to be heard. 

Great principals know that no one person—themselves included—has all the answers when it comes to their school’s success, and a strong vision for the future requires everyone in the school’s orbit to be heard. 

Are you willing to grow as a leader—and help others grow as well? 

“The principalship is more than a solo experience,” Paul Barnhardt advises. As a New Leaders alum and school leader, he offers this key learning: “The principalship is about building a team, distributing leadership, and empowering others to embrace their own leadership journey.” 

Being a school principal is challenging in a different way from being a teacher. Instead of empowering individual students on a daily—or hourly—basis, you now play a primary role in empowering the educators and staff that drive school improvement and accelerate student achievement. Being a principal requires a multi-faceted approach to leadership; a combination of several different leadership styles and approaches to drive success. For that reason, you’ll need to pay attention to which kind of leadership style comes naturally to you and which presents an opportunity for growth. 

For example, in the distributed leadership Paul references above, your goal is to create a high-performing team where the decision-making is shared among educators and staff. You’ll also need to lean into instructional leadership, where you’re responsible for setting a vision for effective instruction and high expectations around student learning. To create positive and necessary change, you’ll also want to prioritize equity-focused leadership, where you seek to continuously disrupt inequitable and exclusionary practices and create inclusive environments. And the pandemic taught us the importance of adaptive leadership, where you seek to be as nimble as possible, ready for inevitable change. As a principal, you’ll find yourself practicing many of these simultaneously. 

Principals, like all leaders, have to make tough decisions—which is another form of growth. As New Leaders alum and school leader Alison Welcher says, “As a principal, you must inspire your team in ways that will benefit students—and if there are those who are unwilling to change in service of students, you have a responsibility to manage their performance.” This is where your values, beliefs, and vision come into play. If you’re putting students at the center of every decision, it becomes easier to make the decisions that are necessary for their success. 

If you’re putting students at the center of every decision, it becomes easier to make the decisions that are necessary for their success. 

Can you hold others to high expectations, too?

You most likely already have a culture of high expectations for the students in your classroom, and it’s important to continue to hold on to those standards when you become a principal. Senior Executive Director at New Leaders and a New Leaders alum, Anne Thomas agrees with this insight. “Ensure all kids have a voice and vision for a robust future and create a culture of high expectations that embodies this in words and actions by all stakeholders,” she imparts. “Never turn your head away from the child who is behind…think about what you would want a school to do for your own struggling child, and make that a reality for every single child you serve.” 

When principals and school leaders have high expectations of educators, staff, and students, there’s tangible confidence and a sense of agency. The entire school community feels they can accomplish great things—and in turn, they strive for higher levels of performance. 

One last reminder: Be the leader you want to see 

In her advice to you, New Leaders alum and school leader Ashley Ferguson keeps it simple. “Your school is a direct reflection of you,” she says. “If you are calm, empathetic, and planned, your team and school family will follow.” 

We need transformational and aspiring school leaders like you to take up the mantle. This is your moment to step forward. Not only are we here to help, but we’re also rooting for you.

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