Three Traits of the Best Principals.

Let me start with a simple statement of truth:  I am JUST a classroom teacher.  

I’ve never worked as a building principal — and my knowledge of the principalship is limited to tons of reading, tons of conversations, and my first-hand experience working with tons of different principals and assistant principals during my 20+ years of teaching.

What I DO know is that regardless of their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses, the best principals that I’ve ever worked for shared three traits:

They made me feel hopeful:  Whether pundits, politicians or policymakers are willing to admit it or not, education has been gutted in the past fifteen years.  Teachers are constantly asked to “do more with less” even as the students in our classrooms become more socially, economically and academically diverse.  Making matters worse, we live in an era when the competence of classroom teachers is openly questioned at every turn.  Criticism of educators — and public education — is now the norm, rather than the exception to the rule in our country and in our communities.

All of this leaves me completely overwhelmed — and I often catch myself questioning my own ability and the ability of my colleagues to tackle what appear to be insurmountable challenges.  In those moments, the best principals have always stepped in with confidence and reminded me of the different ways that our school HAS made a difference.  By consistently pointing out our victories — rather than continually fueling the narrative of our failures — they build my confidence in our organization’s capacity.

The result: I’m willing to be hopeful, too.  And that hope might just convince me to move forward no matter how difficult our task appears.

They were knowledgable and reflective:  As unfair as the constant criticism of public education can be, the truth is that our schools really DO have to change.  The students in our classrooms — regardless of their academic or economic standing — need us now more than ever simply because they are entering an increasingly competitive world where the skills that define success remain poorly defined.

Arguments about just HOW schools need to change are everywhere — and the best principals I’ve ever worked for read them all.  They were voracious consumers of ideas — with stacks of books on the corners of their desks, feed readers full of blogs written by practitioners actively reimagining teaching and learning, and social streams loaded with provoctive thinkers.  Better yet, the best principals I’ve ever worked for were always ready to start a conversation with ME about something that they had read.

The result: I was willing to believe in the direction that my principal was setting for our school because I knew that there was clear and current thinking behind every decision.  It is just easier to believe in someone who has spent a ton of time reading and reflecting on the changing nature of education.

Finally, they created conditions that made my work doable:  While I’ve always loved principals that instilled hope in me and who were knowledgeable and reflective, I’ve also worked for principals who talked a good game about just what our school was capable of but did little to make my work more doable.  They were heavy on inspiration and information, but light on action — and they lost credibility with me in no time.

There’s nothing worse than cheerful optimism as a reform strategy.

The best principals paired their enthusiasm and awareness with a commitment to using their organizational authority to create the kinds of practical structures and opportunities that facilitated learning.  Whether that meant simple things like freeing teachers from supervisory duties so they could spend more time working with struggling students or more complicated things like finding extra money for tools and technologies that made it possible to quickly and easily track student progress, every action served as tangible proof that I had a powerful ally on my side.

The result: I was willing to push my own practice because I knew that there was a good chance that my principal would find a way to make new actions and behaviors possible.

Does any of this make sense?  More importantly, what traits do YOU look for in the best principals?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Three Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from Sherpas

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  • Vaughan Johnson


    For me it's all about the difference between being an educational leader (a teacher) and a building manager (a principal).  More and more it seems that principals are trying to take on the role of educational leader.  I think it's important that they keep up with educational trends and practices but I'm not looking to them to teach me how to be a better teacher.  

    I want my principal to keep the building running so that I can focus on doing my job and not worry about the little things.  I want them to create a specials schedule that works for the whole building. I want them handle discipline with students who need more intervention than I have time for in the classroom. I want them to back me up when I have a tough parent to deal with. I want them to organize inservices so that we can get together and learn from each other rather than sit for 6 hours listening to them give a presentation they spent weeks planning.

    The principal is a hugely important role in any school but I think they need to understand that they're not teachers any more.  They've chosen to leave the classroom for more money and better hours and the longer they're in that position, the less connected they are to what it's like to be in a classroom.  I want them to understand that and focus on what we need from them to do our jobs, trusting that we know how to do them.

  • Matt Townsley

    3 traits in principals

    Hey Bill,

    I couldn't agree more with the second trait in your list: "they were knowledgable and reflective."  My simple statement of truth is I've never been a principal and have only worked alongside four (total) in my eleven year career as a teacher turned central office guy. 

    I'll add two traits I've observed:

    They captivated a common vision for the building.  I've had the privilege of working with several principals who keep their staff focused on a common goal.  In today's era of accountability and initiatives from on high, it could be easy to be caught up in the "flavor of the month."  Not these guys and gals.  They whittle down the "to-do" list to a manageable few and spend multiple years supporting their staff in working towards these goals.

    They balanced culture with accountability.  The teachers in these buildings knew the specific high expectations to hold each other accountable and the leader lived up to it, too.  At the same time, staff (and more importantly student) successes were often celebrated.  These buildings aren't only fun to work in, they are doing top notch things for kids as well.  

    • billferriter

      Hey Matt, 

      Hey Matt, 

      These additions are amazing!  Thanks for sharing them.  They are definitely worthwhile additions to the list.

      Rock right on, 




  • Marlene bartlett


    Principals need to empower teachers to be the best they can be even at the risk of them moving on to better in  their own profession.


  • Cale Birk


    A very reflective and thought-provoking post, my friend.  

    I feel like I have to work hard on your third trait–there are times that I forget about how frenetic the day-to-day things can be for a teacher.  While teachers and administrators both spend a great deal of time on their jobs, as a Principal, I feel as though I have a bit more freedom with my time.  I can do many things at home later at night if I need to spend more time on certain things during the day at the school, where teachers have to be 'on' with the kids virtually every second of the day.  I have to remember that while something may be important for me to get accomplished, often times teachers don't have those moments or flexibility during the day to do it.  

    Thanks for helping me to reflect on this!


    • billferriter

      Cale wrote:

      Cale wrote:

      I have to remember that while something may be important for me to get accomplished, often times teachers don’t have those moments or flexibility during the day to do it.  


      This is huge, Cale.  You are right:  Teachers and principals both work the same number of hours — but you have more flexibility in how your hours are spent.  That shades conversations about what’s doable and what’s not sometimes.  Nothing comes across as more out of touch than school leaders who send emails about time sensitive tasks and then get cranky when teachers haven’t handled the task even though those teachers were with students the whole day!  

      Anyway…hope you are well.



  • Art Scrivener


    The single most important issue is communication downward.  Let your teachers know what is going on even if it is the fact that you don't know what is going on right now.  Be up front is an isssue is confidential.  Communication is the best way to stop gossip and rumour.  It's hard to over communicate.  A staff that doesn't know what happening is prone to drifting.


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