ARCHIVED—The Perfect Principal
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Students go to school to study. Teachers go to school to teach.
Principals go to school to… ?
As teachers are the leaders in their classrooms, principals are the leaders in the school. It's a complex and demanding job, requiring a tug-of-war balance between administrative and managerial skills with even more responsibility than teaching.
"A good principal is learned, well acquainted with educational philosophy and management," says Barry Lindahl of West Vancouver Secondary School in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
"The principal has a vision for the school," says Claire Frankel-Salama of Bishops College in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador (whose principal and school have an impressive record of Prime Minister's Award recipients), "and knows how to get the most out of the staff to achieve that vision."
Marlene Walther of Westgate Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Thunder Bay, Ontario, adds that "the principal gives the teachers leeway and unconditional support, both encourages and protects the staff."
This vision and support includes arguing in favour of a new program, promoting a teacher's initiatives to the school board, or encouraging a teacher's professional development. It can also include correcting a teacher. "When necessary, the principal will discuss a problem with the teacher," says Carmie MacLean, a teacher at Tusarvik School in Repulse Bay, Nunavut. This is difficult to do, but the teacher, the students and the school benefit, she comments.
A principal develops a vision for the school and gets to know the staff and students by spending at least as much time in the classrooms and hallways as in the office. Teachers agree that this is the only way a principal can become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the various departments and see what needs to be done to make the school better.
Effective leadership involves contact "at least a few times each term," says Lindahl. And feedback. "A good principal gives lots of feedback to the teachers, says thank you for a job well done," says MacLean, commenting that this kind of endorsement from a peer can be just the boost a teacher needs at the end of a long day.
The leadership style of the principal goes a long way towards determining the atmosphere of the school. "A good principal uses a lateral model rather than a hierarchical model of leadership," says Frankel-Salama, "treating the staff with respect, giving them responsibilities within the school, encouraging learning from each other."
"And making assignments in consultation with the teachers," adds Lola Major from Lethbridge Collegiate Institute in Lethbridge, Alberta, explaining that when teachers have some input into their teaching assignments, not only is there a better match between their strengths and the class assignments, but teachers are happier (and more productive) with the unavoidable incompatible assignments.
While there's no one adjective to describe what principals do at school, it's clear that they are essential. Overseeing the complex bustle of school activities, the principal leads the school to excellence the way teachers lead their students to academic success.