Friday, May 25, 2012
Become a More Visible Principal, or Prepare to be One!
Anyone who aspires to be a K-12 principal knows that the responsibilities are numerous, stress is demanding, and the thank-yous often non-existent. To become a visible principal, one has to understand his or her school community, truly get to know students, and demonstrate to teachers that he or she shares responsibility and ownership over students' success.
How can you improve your connections with students, faculty, staff, and parents to enhance and support student learning? Award-winning principals and education experts share their tips and offer advice.
"Years ago, principals sat in their office," says former principal Charles Bonnici, an educational consultant at the Executive Leadership Institute of New York City's Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. "Now they're the visible face of the school and set its instructional and moral tone."
Gone are the days when principals could hide in their offices, administrating behind closed doors. Effective school leaders interact daily with students, teachers, staff, and parents, and make themselves accessible both inside the building and out in the community. Committing to being more visible requires time and effort. So, how can you make accessibility a priority?
Principals need to be everywhere in school—greeting buses, walking the halls, visiting classrooms, and dropping in during lunch time in the cafeteria.
"A pat on the back—whatever your age—a nice note, names on the wall, a ceremony, just showing up" all improve morale and establish a connection, says Bonnici, author of Remembering What's Important: Priorities of School Leadership and Creating a Successful Leadership Style: Principles of Personal Strategic Planning.
Bob Wagner, principal of Solley Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Md., makes a point of recognizing two dozen of his 670 students every week. Teachers choose students—based on their effort and drive to excel—to eat and play games with the principal. Also, every month, 75 students recognized for following rules such as "be prepared" and "be respectful" gather for a treat and receive a certificate. Wagner reads the students' names to the entire school over closed-circuit TV.
"Part of my job is to provide an environment that's positive and nurturing but structured," says Wagner, who was named 2011 National Distinguished Principal by the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals. He says making personal connections helps him to recognize students and also reinforce areas where students need to improve.
"When students believe you care about them, and they have a relationship with you, they try harder. It helps their self-esteem," says Joelle McConnaha, who is principal of Helen Lemme Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa. "They need to see it from every level—not just from teachers." So, says McConnaha, she actually gets down on the students' level, sitting on the floor to play and talk with them.
"Feedback is so critical," Wagner says. "It's the top way to increase performance."
Principals can convey their values explicitly through formal supervisory conversations, teacher evaluations, and faculty meetings, but walkthroughs also provide important opportunities for giving teachers feedback, Cathy Toll writes in her June 2010 JSD article, "6 Steps to Learning Leadership."
"Teachers see you care about what they do, and that makes it easier when you have discussions [with them]," Wagner says. When he observes something special, Wagner writes a note. For example, he might tell a teacher, "I saw that you asked '15 + 8' and had them whisper all together '23,' and that's a wonderful way to keep students engaged and motivated."
Visiting classrooms also helps principals to see the whole picture. "You have context," says Wagner. "It's difficult to know your teachers if you're in your office a lot."
Effective principals model learning behavior. Bonnici cites a New York City principal he observed recently who has a daily routine of using a vocabulary word during the morning announcements. Teachers then use the word throughout the day.
"Research shows that if children use a word four or five times, it becomes part of their vocabulary," Bonnici says. By modeling learning for both students and teachers, this principal "shows he is the instructional leader of the school," says Bonnici.
Studies show that almost all communications between parents and the school are negative, says Bonnici; therefore, principals should try to communicate the positives also. Let parents know both formally and informally when their children are doing good work, making improvements, and demonstrating positive behavior.
Wagner started an annual meet-and-greet and math challenge at a popular supermarket so parents and kids could interact outside of school with the principals of four elementary schools and the middle and high schools they feed into. Parents who participate get an apple from the principal and are entered in a drawing. The event shows that principals care and that math has real-world applications. Also, Wagner says, "parents appreciate the effort [principals make] to meet them."
Sometimes gaining appreciation takes longer. McConnaha has worked in some of Iowa's most economically and demographically diverse schools. In 30 to 40 home visits a year at a previous assignment, including at homeless and family-violence shelters, she got pushback from parents who didn't want to hear about poor attendance or lack of progress. Eventually, though, her persistence and determined demonstrations of caring bore fruit: "In three years, we went from one of the worst-performing schools in our region [of Iowa] to a Blue Ribbon School, one of only five in the state, based on test scores and attendance," says McConnaha. In addition, McConnaha was named a 2011 National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
McConnaha's efforts with Hispanic parents have paid off as well. In the beginning, her parent meetings attracted perhaps one Hispanic parent out of 15 to 20 parents. Then McConnaha started a meeting aimed at Hispanic parents specifically. A staff member called parents and invited them in Spanish, and McConnaha enlisted the ESL teacher to translate the whole meeting—which she says increased the comfort level for Spanish-speaking parents. The result: Hispanic parental involvement, student attendance, and test scores all rose.
"By the third year, Hispanic students started outperforming our white students," says McConnaha. "Naturally, that's not all due to monthly meetings in Spanish, but they helped, and the effort helped."
"It's important for principals to bring the building perspective to the table," says Joan Franks, principal of Armatage Montessori School in Minneapolis, and another 2011 National Distinguished Principal award winner.
Over the past three decades, Franks has served on 20 to 30 district and state committees. These have included the Minneapolis Principals' Forum, where she spent two years as president. Every two weeks, the group met with the superintendent "to make sure our issues and concerns were heard," she says. "I understood better how the district worked and vice versa and advocated better because of [this knowledge]."
Sending in a budget or even a detailed e-mail goes only so far, explains Franks, who also sat on the district budgeting committee. Testifying, lobbying, and participating in the discussions allow her to "answer questions and clarify misperceptions and elaborate as necessary. E-mail took twice as long for that as a conversation did," she adds.
Serving on committees can be time-consuming, Franks says, so she advises, "Spend time and energy building a strong program, then broaden your horizons after five or more years."
Several principals mentioned being "on" (for better or worse) every time they stop around town for gas or groceries. Casual chats can be useful, but formal associations particularly pay off.
Take Michael Foran, for example. Foran, the 2012 MetLife/NASSP National High School Principal of the Year, is the principal of New Britain High School in New Britain, Conn. A graduate of nearby Central Connecticut State University, he has cultivated relationships to his school's benefit: "I've gone to speak at the university, gotten students to tutor and mentor at the high school, and had all our students visit the university as freshmen." Being cotaught by professors and their own teachers at CCSU every five weeks has impressed the teens, and school surveys show that significantly more students now aspire to attend college.
Foran is also a Chamber of Commerce member. In the two years since he launched the New Britain Academy for Health Professions—a school within the school to prepare students for the area's biggest industry—he has found field-trip and internship sponsors not only by visiting employers, but also by chatting up chiropractors and podiatrists at events. Such connections have brought in scholarships as well.
Likewise, Heidi Kegley, principal of Willis Intermediate School in Delaware, Ohio, contacted the local Big Brothers Big Sisters for help in starting a mentoring program. The agency has done background checks on more than 100 volunteers from neighboring Ohio Wesleyan University. When the Literacy Coalition of Delaware County and William Street United Methodist Church connected with Willis, they set up the WS2 program, through which 40 children now receive homework help, snacks, and family meals.
Whether their most notable connections are in school or beyond, these principals demonstrate why leadership means accessibility. Kegley, who was named the 2011 Distinguished Middle School Principal by the Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators, says, "being out and connected is key to establishing relationships like these. If it's important and useful to students, it's important to me."
Copyright © 2012 by ASCD