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What Does an Effective Principal do?

Hear from principals, district and state leaders, and university officials who have thoughts on what makes a good principal.
March 5, 2024 6 Min Read

“It is true that a principal has to do everything under the sun,” says Linda Chen, chief academic officer for the New York City public school system, in episode seven of Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Podcast series. The episodes highlight perspectives from principals, district and state leaders, and university officials who have developed strong principal pipelines, a systematic set of actions to better train, support, manage, and develop principals. 

“But, at the end of the day, the purpose is to advance learning and instruction for every student, and that is what we really focus our efforts on,” Chen says.

So, how can principals work more effectively to help support students, teachers, and everyone else at their school?

According to a 2021 research synthesis, How Principals Affect Students and Schools, organizational, people, and instructional skills are needed to support strong principal performance. And they all come into play when principals carry out four key behaviors. 

1) Focusing their work with teachers on instruction. This covers a range of activities, from coaching and evaluation to smart use of data to inform improvements.

The inaugural episode of The Principal Pipeline Podcast features Carmen Fariña, former chancellor of the New York City school system. 

“The principal sets the tone,” she says. “How they act, what they say, what they choose to do in the classrooms and visiting classrooms and even curriculum choices they make in conjunction with their staff, really makes it a very, very good school or a very, very poor school.” 

Listen to the full episode for more insights from Fariña, including the key components of a principal pipeline, how districts can develop a coherent system of training, hiring, and support, and more.

2) Building a productive school climate. Strategies include building respectful relationships and supporting teacher leadership. Check out episode 10 of the podcast to hear three district leaders discuss how sustaining principal pipelines was feasible, affordable, and effective for their whole school community. “Our district believes that if we have the right principal in every one of our schools, that they will create the right conditions for  teachers to be the best they can be, so that student learning will be at an optimal level, and we will have successful schools,” says Tricia McManus of Hillsborough County Public Schools.

And in episode eight, leaders from Prince George’s County discuss how building a principal pipeline has helped to create stability and networks of support that they believe led to more principals sticking around for the long haul. 

“It's good to just have someone to lean on,” says Jaime Whitfield-Coffen, principal of Tulip Grove Elementary School in Prince George’s County. “I think that that's one of the reasons why I have stayed in Prince George's County, is just because I know that there's a network of people who are there supporting me along this walk, along this journey of being a principal.”

3) Forging collaboration and professional learning among teachers and others. High-quality principals provide teachers time to discuss how to better support students and improve instruction. In episode seven, RAND Corporation’s senior economist Susan Gates and leaders from New York City public schools explore the connections between principal pipelines and student achievement, including developing capacity of teachers.

“I think, as a school principal, we are in charge of leading instructional development across the school but also developing the capacity of our teachers, guidance counselors, paras, and students to lead in a way that is culture responsive and that will support positive student outcomes,” says Wanda Luz Vazquez, principal coach and former principal of El Puente Academy. “As a teacher, we learn that when we teach something is when we really learn it. As a mentor, in the process of mentoring, we're learning and there's a reciprocal relationship that is happening for the person who is mentored and the person who is mentoring.”

4) Managing personnel and resources well. Effective leaders are skilled managers of a school’s facilities, budget, and safety. They know how to hire, place, and keep good teachers. They also manage their own time to focus on instruction. 

“A really important area is that of managing processes, people, and data,” says Glenn Pethel, assistant superintendent of leadership development at Gwinnett County Public Schools during episode four of the podcast. “So knowing what student performance data tells us is important. But you’ve got to make sure kids get off the buses and out of the cars safely. You need to make sure that when we have fire drills that kids are out of the buildings the way they should be. It means that when we have opportunities to employ support staff, that we're doing that extremely well and very effectively.” 

Listen to the full episode to hear Pethel and Vivian Stranahan, leader mentor at Gwinnett County Public Schools, also explain how the district matches mentors and new principals, how mentors support the novice leaders, and the tremendous difference this makes for principals.

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