Whether you’re new to the role or you’re a seasoned veteran, serving as a school administrator is challenging. Some of your day-to-day challenges stem from obvious sources — student behavior problems, lack of funding, teacher shortages, etc. — but many of the challenges you face as a school administrator go way beyond that.
How can you face those challenges head-on and develop a reputation as a skilled, yet compassionate leader?
There’s no formula for being a good principal. There’s no checklist of qualities of a good vice-principal. You’re unique. The skills and passions you bring to the table aren’t going to be the same as another administrator at another school. And that’s okay. At the same time, there are some basic qualities of a school administrator that are essential to thriving in your role. Take a look at some of the skills and qualities of a school administrator and learn more about how you can develop these skills.
Characteristics of an Effective School Administrator
1. Problem Solving Skills
One of the qualities of a good vice-principal or principal is the ability to solve problems. The best school administrators mediate conflicts between students, teachers and parents. Depending on the organizational structure of your school, you may be in charge of doling out textbooks or tracking down lost books and audio/visual equipment.
A principal doesn’t just hang out in their office waiting for the big problems to come their way. A good administrator takes a proactive approach to problem-solving. For example, if there are frequent conflicts on the playground during 4th-grade recess, you might head out to the playground to help monitor the students or work one-on-one with the teacher to come up with a solution.
2. Conflict Management and Resolution Skills
A good school administrator actively provides conflict resolution to all members of the school’s community. As a principal, you might step in and mediate when a parent is angry over a teacher’s decision to give their child a failing grade. You might sit with two students who disrupted their math class by fighting. You might lead or arrange a meeting with teachers to allow them to air their concerns and grievances.
Conflict management goes beyond resolving conflicts when they occur. A good principal is so deeply engaged with the school community that they are able to prevent conflicts from developing in many cases. You might help a teacher who is struggling to motivate a student to engage in the classroom or you might listen to your teachers’ concerns and address them before they snowball.
Showing genuine interest in the students at your school goes a long way toward creating a true community of learning. Make a point to visit with students in the lunchroom, greet them in the halls and attend as many functions during and after school as your schedule will allow. Interact with parents during sporting events, PTA meetings and parents’ nights.
3. Dedication to Students
Most of your students probably think that your role as the principal is to call their parents and dole out punishments when their teachers are at their wit’s end. The best school administrators don’t wait to be visible until there’s a problem, though.
Your dedication to your students should be obvious in the way you address them and in your presence in the school. Learn as many names as you possibly can. Walk the halls and attend those sporting events after school. Your dedication should be obvious when you slide into the desk behind students during science and ask what they think about their latest experiment.
Your goal should be to show students that you aren’t just there to make their lives more difficult. When you’re engaged with them and showing up on a regular basis, then the times that you’re called in for discipline will be more effective. You’ll also have a better understanding of how to handle the situation when you know the student involved.
4. Commitment to Faculty
By showing interest in your students, you are also setting an example for the teachers. Great principals champion their teachers. They engage with their teachers to find the best ways to implement learning standards, engage students and troubleshoot problems that arise. Rather than showing up in a classroom once or twice a year for formal observations, a good principal strives to engage with their teachers throughout the year. They have an open-door policy that makes their teachers feel comfortable about asking for help when problems arise.
A good principal actively assists in planning and supports instruction. You might offer advice when a teacher asks for help, provide positive feedback on lesson plans they’ve submitted or lend a hand in the classroom on a day that the teacher is doing an activity that’s out-of-the-ordinary. Some teachers may initially be suspicious of a principal who regularly visits their classroom, but, if you handle it well, they’ll eventually realize that you aren’t there because of a problem and they will begin to view you as a resource.
Commitment to faculty also means that great administrators are good at hiring and retaining high-quality teachers. They spend time finding and recruiting talented teachers. They don’t just wait for talent to walk through the door. A good administrator is actively tapping into the local job pool, as well as opening their classrooms for student teachers, who are learning and preparing for future careers as educators.
5. Distraction Prevention Skills
Along with encouraging and assisting faculty in developing lessons, a good administrator will prevent distractions from getting in the way of high-quality instruction. When students become disruptive, an administrator should be called to quickly remove them from the classroom. When a parent is upset, a teacher should feel comfortable handing them over to the administrator. A good administrator isn’t above running between the classroom and the office to address issues as they come up, even doing something like cleaning a spill in the hallway or putting a “closed” sign on a bathroom that needs repairs.
This doesn’t mean that a good administrator should become bogged down in the minutia of the day. It’s okay to call the janitor to clean a mess or ask a student to come down to the office. You do still have things you need to do each day. However, a good administrator won’t just sit in their office waiting to be needed. A good administrator actively looks for ways to help. They don’t shy away from getting their hands dirty. And they don’t expect their teachers and staff to handle everything on their own. A good rule of thumb is that an administrator should never ask a teacher or staff member to do something they aren’t willing to do themselves.
6. A Head for Numbers and Theory
A principal is responsible for interpreting both state and federal education regulations. When used wisely, an understanding of the rules and regulations can inform the way teachers teach, and can influence their interactions with students and parents.
Besides that statistical and regulatory information, a good administrator is well-versed in educational theory and its practical application. They can and should be available to teachers to discuss strategies and ways to improve student engagement and performance. Their teachers should view them as a willing and accessible resource when it comes to problem-solving and learning strategies. Teachers don’t necessarily have to ask for approval on every lesson plan. They should feel comfortable asking for input from their administrators and confident that they will receive high-quality information when they do so.
7. A Desire to Mentor
When an administrator is willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work, they are setting a good example for those around them. A good principal is someone who can take on the role of a mentor within the school where they work. You might mentor teachers, helping them through a problem with a student. You might work with a student who is struggling. If you’ve encountered a student who is missing class or struggling to keep up, it’s important to spend time getting to the bottom of the situation. Is something going on at home? Is there an undiagnosed learning disability that’s causing them to struggle? Are they bored with the material? Sit down with them and get to the bottom of it.
Depending on the students in your school and the area where you’re employed, many students may not have a strong adult figure at home to take interest in them. When a principal takes the time to get to know the students in their school, students can thrive. A child’s feelings of confidence and self-worth are directly tied to the positive, loving interaction they receive from the adults in their lives. As a principal, you have the opportunity to positively influence your students’ for years to come simply by showing an interest in them and modeling what a successful and compassionate, adult looks like.
8. Business Acumen
It’s not unrealistic to compare a school principal to the manager of a large business or service organization. In public school systems, principals are responsible for handling the money allocated to their school by the school board. Depending on the locality and size of the school, it can be a large sum of money to manage. Depending on the structure of their school, the principal may also be in charge of requesting more money or finding ways to raise funds during the school year.
Although you don’t need a business degree to be a good principal, it’s important to have a basic understanding of business and finances. It’s important to understand how money works and how to work with competing interests to determine who should get how much of the available funds. A good administrator also models fiscal responsibility, choosing to spend their school’s money wisely. It doesn’t mean they’re excessively frugal, however, it does mean that they pay careful attention to how money is being spent and are actively finding ways to cut unnecessary spending.
A principal might also have to make tough decisions about where funding should be used. Among the teachers, everyone knows what they need, but it’s not uncommon for those needs to exceed the budget available for the school year. A good principal will assess each need and make decisions regarding spending requests.
9. Planning and Organization Skills
As a principal, it’s important to have your own set of plans for each day, each week and each year. Spend time mapping out your goals and objectives, giving yourself tasks and ways to note when you’ve achieved a milestone. In some cases, your school district’s requirements and standardized test scores may guide some of your goals and objectives, but this doesn’t mean you can’t go beyond that.
But don’t just outline these objectives in your head. Committing your plans to paper will provide the accountability you need to take those goals to heart and work to accomplish them. When you write things down, you’re more likely to remember them later because it makes an abstract idea feel concrete.
It’s not only up to you to decide what your mission and vision should look like. Engage teachers and parents as you strive to determine what needs to happen at your school. Seeking input from those who have a vested interest in what goes on at school each day is key to being a successful principal. Talk to parents about what their children need. Address dropout rates and college acceptance rates in your district. Look at the percentage of your students who have special needs or learning challenges that need to be addressed more effectively.
10. Motivation to Do It All Again
Working in a school can sometimes feel like the movie “Groundhog Day”: Each day feels the same. A good administrator recognizes the value of what’s going on and sees the long-term goal. You know the value of repetition and consistency. You’ve seen what happens when teachers don’t give up on a child. You know that your students will go on to prestigious colleges or vocations that will challenge them and shape them.
On the days when your teachers are struggling to remember the big picture, you are their biggest fan. You provide comfort and encouragement to stay the course. You order donuts and coffee for the teacher’s lounge. You send an email to thank your teachers for their hard work. You help out in a classroom or on the baseball field. But most of all, it means showing up and never giving up.
What Makes a Good Principal?
A good principal is more than their degrees or the educational philosophies they have memorized. A good principal engages with the students, teachers and parents who make up the school community they lead. They’re organized so that they can manage their time efficiently and effectively lead a school.
At Success By Design, our goal is to work closely with administrators and teachers to provide planners and organization tools that will benefit them, as well as their students. Even in this electronic age, studies show that writing down assignments and tasks each day is an important part of brain development and success. As a school administrator, your job is to model and encourage success among your students.