What Effective Principals Do

What Effective Principals Do

by Ian Lancaster

ed note: this has been updated and republished from a previous post

1.  Balance management with leadership.

School administration involves both management duties and leadership opportunities.

The management side tends to be the stuff that one has to do. Leadership is the stuff that one chooses to do. It’s very important as an educational administrator (especially a rookie) to remember these two things i) to be a leader you need followers and ii) to gain followers one must complete management duties in a timely and efficient manner. Teachers will not care what you have to say about educational leadership if you don’t manage effectively.

2.  Envision the ideal, but focus on the doable.

Effective school leaders have a vision of what their “ultimate” school looks like.

This vision helps create the culture and atmosphere of the schools in which they work. But a clear path directly to this goal is rarely, if ever, discernible. Leaders must pick their way toward this goal one small step at a time, focusing on ideas and changes that can be implemented now, ones that may take a year or two and ones that may take 5 years. The ideal is never achieved because it always evolves, but it’s the incremental changes made working toward the ideal that improve learning for students.

3.  Act as a representative for the missing voice.

A big part of being an administrator is helping sort out other people’s conflicts.

Parents will come to complain about teachers, teachers about kids, kids about teachers etc. With interpersonal issues, getting one side of the story never suffices in shedding enough light on the situation, of course it’s imperative to get views from all possible sides in these matters.

In the interim however, while listening to the initial report of any conflict, effective leaders try to understand the missing person’s point of view, and keep that in their mind as the discussion progresses. Adopting and, where necessary, representing the missing person’s point of view helps in keeping the discussion focused and moving toward settlement.

Too readily accepting the initial complaint at face value often leads to more awkward situations later on.

4.  Listen and interpret.

People will usually say what they mean, but often mean more than what has actually been said.

Often they’re simply shy about “sharing everything.’ A student who admits to going to bed too late can be expressing numerous things, from anxiety issues to more esoteric ailments like “screen addiction”. A teacher complaining about too much marking may be asking for help in planning or looking for ways to work more efficiently.

Effective administrators pick up on this and, using communication techniques such as paraphrasing, try to elicit the full meaning of what is being communicated. It’s only after frank discussions with all necessary information available that effective feedback, and help where necessary, can be provided.

5.  Reflect constantly.

After every action, interaction and decision, the best administrators will always ask “How could that have been done better?” Whether something has gone extremely well, or the flaws in planning and/or execution were evident for all to see, a cycle of constant reflection upon their work allows these administrators to improve their practice every day.

6.  Plan for your own departure.

It’s nice to think of one’s self as indispensable, but the aim of an effective administrator should be the opposite. After all, the essence of true leadership is building capacity within an organization.

If there’s a process or procedure that’s important to the running of a school, strong administrators will ensure that they are not the only people within the building capable of completing the task.

Whether it’s something as mundane as turning off the bells for a holiday or as complex as building a timetable, building redundancy into the system is a critical part of creating a robust and sustainable leadership structure.

7. Improving student learning is our sole guiding principle.

This may seem like a truism, but nevertheless we often find ourselves asking “What’s best for ________?”.

I’ve seen this simple question work miracles, from diffusing extremely tense conversations with both teachers and parents, to kick-starting what seems like a stalled professional development conversation.

Everyone in the field of education works from the premise that we’re here to help students, we all just need to be reminded once in a while.

Image attribution flickeringbrad; What Effective Principals Do; Adapted image attribution flickr user usdepartmentofeducation

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Greg Schnagl

Effective leadership requires vision, as you state “2. Envision the ideal, but focus on the doable.” 

This maxim applies to teacher-leaders, as well. Teachers should establish a vision for their classroom, strategies aligned toward that ideal, and tactical plans to achieve the related goals. 

 Leadership, in all its varied forms, should couple the ideal with the real.

In its entirety, I do not agree with proposition #7 (Improving student learning is our sole guiding principle.)
Yes, the envisioned outcome for every educational institution is a class of well-educated students. However, I disagree that effective principals deem student learning as their “sole… Read more »


Ultimately parents and students come and go, many teachers can stay years or even decades in a school. A good principal knows the value of happy and effective teachers but happy and effective teachers serve the students and community well.