‘This Could Be Me’: Qualities of An Aspiring Principal

Research shows that students excel and schools thrive when they are led by diverse, committed, effective, and resilient leaders. Here are five qualities that drive teachers to become principals.
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Blog date
4/27/23
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Ever wonder if you might make a good school principal? It’s a worthy question to explore and consider. Maybe you dream about your own school, being the voice for students who are often overlooked in our education system. Perhaps you see yourself shaping instruction, mentoring teachers and staff to be the change they want to be. Or you have a mentor who reminds you that you have more leadership in you than you may realize. 

Our nation’s public schools need more good leaders. The impact of a strong school principal cannot be underestimated. Research shows that effective principals can fuel up to three months of additional learning for all students in their care. How do principals do this? We can teach you.

Research shows that effective principals can fuel up to three months of additional learning for all students in their care. How do principals do this? We can teach you.

When New Leaders started over two decades ago, we wanted to know what it took for a school principal to be effective. We examined more than 100 of the highest performing schools in the U.S. Then we zeroed in on the common practices across the schools, regardless of size, location, or student demographic, and pinpointed how top leaders contribute to student success. The result: our Transformational Leadership FrameworkTM that outlines the mindsets and practices that transformational leaders need to develop and cultivate throughout their careers.  

What does that look like for a teacher who aspires to lead a school? Here are five qualities that propel teachers to take the next step into more leadership—plus insights from leaders on how those same qualities are still serving them well in their work as principal coaches, chief academic officers, and superintendents. 

Centered on growth

There is no such thing as a perfect teacher or a perfect school leader. A growth mindset is the belief that your success is determined by the amount of hard work and effort you put into developing your skills. Leaders with a growth mindset approach their role as a learner rather than someone who has all the answers. 

“I practice and model vulnerability,” explains Gina Sudaria, superintendent of Ravenswood City School District in California. “I intentionally share that I have an executive coach from New Leaders because I want to model that everyone needs a thought partner—no matter the level you are at. Everyone needs to continue to reflect. Everyone needs support with problem solving.”

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Adaptive and open to change 

Think about the challenges you face in your classroom. Most likely, they do not have one single solution or a quick fix. Adaptive leadership—the ability to lead and manage change—is how principals pivot their approach by focusing on people and understanding a challenge through multiple lenses. Like you, they consider who is affected, gather varying perspectives and data, and act in a way that honors the unique context of their school community.

“It’s all about having an asset-based growth mindset even when you are pushed to your limits,” advises Keshia B. Warner. A New Leaders alum and former principal, Warner trains teachers to become effective principals. “Focus on the opportunity, not the stress,” she adds, “even when you doubt that something could be successful.”

Self-reflective 

Taking the time to self-reflect is a central part of teaching and an essential part of educational leadership. We look back to move forward. Self-reflection and self-awareness part of personal leadership, which includes your values, beliefs, and attitudes and how they influence your interactions, drive toward equity, or cultivate meaningful relationships. Self-reflection helps leaders to problem-solve more effectively, instill greater accountability, and create a happier and healthier school culture

In his work to advance bilingualism and culturally responsive teaching, Alfredo Nambo explains why he values self-reflection. A New Leaders alum, Nambo serves as the interim chief education officer at Acero Schools in Chicago. “The charge is for us to learn more, to think and reflect, to understand the context of our school communities and of ourselves. People often want to jump into action right away, but I think it’s important to learn as much as we can first. Reflection is often a missing step.”

Focused on what is possible 

A shared vision is what drives lasting change in schools, but it can’t be held by the principal alone. More than a poster or mission statement, a shared vision serves as an anchor for students, staff, families, and community members. Educational leaders who cultivate a shared vision of what is possible in schools also empowers everyone in the school community to do their part. 

New Leaders alum, former principal, and leadership coach Karen Bryan-Chambers led her school to success following the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina. “First, I shared my why,” she explains. “Then I asked every staff member to tell me their why….That’s how we got our collective why, that was living within each of us. Our vision drove our work. It had us look at data with an equity lens, to ensure every one of our students got exactly what they needed. We brought in student voices and our family voices. ‘It’s your school,’ we’d always say.” 

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Resilient

Resilient leaders maintain their focus on high-quality instruction, high expectations, and student achievement and success even amid change, adversity, and unexpected crisis. When school leaders demonstrate resilience, members of the school community often feel more empowered to accept and adapt to situations, move forward, and grow from their collective experiences. 

Dr. Ian Roberts, New Leaders alum and superintendent of Millcreek Township School District in Pennsylvania, explains what this looks like in action. “The question that I always ask my team and every school leader is: What is most important right now? Resilient leaders are signal-senders. Every time we made a decision during the pandemic, we were sending a signal that it was going to be okay. We did this not by adding, adding, and adding on, but by only thinking about what is most important right now.”  

Could this be you?

While each of these qualities of an effective principal is important, this list is not exhaustive. Equally important is your willingness to develop and strengthen these qualities as you move into more leadership roles. Every inspirational and transformational leader—like all five leaders cited above—started out as an aspiring leader, a teacher who thought ‘this could be me’ and then took the next step (and the step after that) on their leadership journey.

At New Leaders, we develop principals who redefine what is possible and remove barriers to student success. If you’re thinking that this might be your moment to lead, consider exploring our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship. It is an investment in yourself, your students, and your community. 

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