Editor’s Note: This new monthly column, Matters of Principal, will address key issues that school leaders will confront over the next ten months. The focus of these monthly columns will parallel the school year, as timely and pertinent topics will be explored. September’s focus will be about successfully laying the foundation for a productive school year.
Impactful school leaders are committed to working with staff members and parents to help ensure students have the best possible overall school experience. Before any sustainable initiatives in the school can come to fruition, however, some key cornerstones, or pillars, must be firmly established. The start of the new school year is clearly the time to begin prioritizing these pivotal pillars.
Pillar #1 - Establish Presence
Principals must focus on establishing a positive and respected presence across both the school and surrounding community. This presence, or reputation, will be a by-product of your many daily interactions with various stakeholders. You will most definitely acquire a reputation very quickly, regardless of what you do or don’t do, so it’s important to ensure that you are seen as approachable, compassionate, fair and trustworthy. By far the most important “seen” is literally to be seen on a regular basis in classrooms, hallways, bus loops and school yards.
Pillar #2 – Be Visible and Accessible
Prioritizing a principal’s visibility and accessibility is essential for impactful school leadership. The vast majority of paperwork can, and should, be done before and after school, as a principal can’t get a feel for the true pulse of the school solely from behind his/her desk. This pulse is not about how things should be or hopefully are, but rather a true measure of how the overall school and individual classrooms are functioning on a daily basis.
Routinely circulating throughout the building also provides natural opportunities for principals to informally interact with lots of different students and staff members in a variety of situations. It opens up lines of communication; provides opportunities for feedback; and, helps principals gradually make social deposits with the many different stakeholders. Over time, trust is developed, which becomes invaluable when the inevitable challenging situations arise.
Pillar #3 - Build and Nurture Relationships
Visibility facilitates accessibility and accessibility facilitates accountability. Today’s school leaders should be guided by the principles of servant leadership, and principals need to make a conscious, and ongoing, effort to reach out to those they serve. Building and nurturing relationships with all stakeholders is at the very essence of the principalship.
Particularly with all of the covid-related upheaval of the past few school years, this relationship building, or strengthening, is even more important than ever. It is essential for all stakeholders to feel most welcome and genuinely appreciated in their return to ever increasing levels of educational normalcy.
Pillar #4 - Initiate Interactions
Relationships don’t just evolve by happenstance, and administrators must reach out to all staff members within the first few weeks of school. Principals should offer time for a private chat with each staff member at some point during September. These chats are strictly voluntary and only last about twenty minutes. The focus should be on family and hobbies etc., rather than on educational issues. These interactions provide an informal opportunity to get to know each other better; allow staff to have a voice; and, help the principal get a real sense of what makes each staff member “tick.”
While conversing with staff members, principals must always recognize that any and all seemingly “private” conversations can very easily become public. Over time, administrators will learn the relative confidentiality capacity of each adult in the building. Principals can then use the staffroom networking “grapevine” to their advantage, as they better understand the social dynamics of the staff. There will definitely be a similar grapevine within the parental community, which principals also need to recognize and effectively utilize.
Pillar #5 – Be Reliable
One key aspect of meaningful relationship building is consistency, as people have to know what they’re going to “get” from the principal each and every day. Principals can’t routinely project good and bad moods, as this volatility will send the school on an endless, and very stressful, emotional roller coaster ride.
All parties deserve a school leader who is calm, consistent and compassionate. The main office is clearly the most high-profile location in the building and its tone sets the tone for the rest of the building. As such, there can’t be any raised voices or shouting matches among any combination of stakeholders in the office. Here, the principal needs to consistently model fair, yet firm, leadership.
Pillar #6 - Be Inclusive
When working with staff, there can’t be an “in crowd” and an “out crowd.” Principals are obviously going to find it easier to work with certain staff members, but the key is that there cannot be concurrent rings of inclusivity. There must be one inclusive ring for all, within which everyone must feel truly valued and heard.
In terms of facilitating this staff cohesion, there is a very important line that can never be crossed. The principal must treat all staff members as valued professional acquaintances, but none can be personal friends. Any social gathering with staff that the principal attends must have been offered to all staff, as weekend golf outings with a few select staff members are strictly out of bounds!
Pillar #7- Convey Positivity
Most importantly, the principal conveys the tone of positivity, as all of their actions and comments make it abundantly clear that they love their job and they consider themselves very fortunate to be working at this particular school with these particular stakeholders. Working at the school must be seen as a passion, but the school can never be seen as a possession. In other words, any references the principal makes about the school must mention “our” school, not “my” school.
As school leaders, principals need to be optimistic realists. However, being optimistic certainly does not mean being naive to the challenges of daily school life, as administrators must enter all situations with their eyes wide open. Working through significant issues must always be done in a deliberate manner, guided by rational thoughts rather than by emotional triggers.
About the authors
Jamie Bricker and Jack Barclay are retired school principals who live just outside of Toronto, Ontario. They co-host the Matters of Principal podcast.