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January 9, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 9

Leading with Joy: The Influential Role of a Principal

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LeadershipSchool Culture
The role of the principal has often been compared to "drinking from a fire hose," "wearing many hats," or "putting out fires." While those characteristics may be true at times, we would argue that principals are uniquely poised to nourish a learning climate, gently and consistently, through a "watering can" that enables innovation, collaboration, and growth. We have both served as principals and agree that the principalship is no easy task. In fact, recent data from the National Association of Secondary School Principals indicate that half of principals don't stay more than three years in their school. The demand for principals is projected to grow "6 percent nationwide by the year 2022 due to population increases" (NASSP, 2017).
But there is no other job like it; a principal can transform a school beyond the typical walls of one classroom. There are opportunities to provide transformational feedback, collaborate with families and community organizations, and positively impact a student's academic trajectory. A principal can empower teachers and staff to support students and serve as a catalyst for growth and change. As Bill often reminds aspiring and veteran principals alike, "The best principals never forget they are teachers." They are willing to roll up their sleeves, be lifelong learners, work with the most challenging students and the most frustrated parents, and still enjoy the job.
Here are several strategies principals can leverage to foster collaboration and affirm successes from within the building.

Be Present

Cultivating relationships with students and staff requires constant watering. Principals should have a daily consistent presence as students arrive and depart. Overseeing the bus line each morning is one way to be the first and last staff member students see every day.
Lunch periods or classroom visits are also great ways to engage with students, especially if you choose a specific class or grade level each week. In the classroom, participate in and complete the expectations of the lessons from the "lens" of a student. Be willing to listen to teachers' responses and engage in reflective discussions about teaching and learning. As you participate, sit with other students and follow the teacher's classroom expectations.
In any setting, provide positive affirmations of school-wide expectations to both students and staff to encourage continuous positive behavior. Thank students for modeling the expectations of the school's PBIS matrix, whether you see a student properly stack his recyclable materials or have a collaborative talk with a group during a lesson. Offer encouragement to teachers after a walk-through observation and invite them to share a teaching strategy in the next faculty meeting. Affirming what's going right in a school is just as important as focusing on what needs more work.

Be Intentional with Time

Time is a valuable and limited resource, one that will always be a challenge in public education. We have found that using one combined personal and professional calendar with tasks and events and a daily "to-do" list can help build successes. To be intentional about carving out time for PLC meetings, community events, and classroom visits, principals need to block out spaces on their daily calendar with purpose. Schedule time and reminders for walk-throughs, feedback, working with students, office time, meetings, and non-instructional duties.
As you schedule events, factor in a proportional balance of time to reflect on school improvement goals. Will walk-throughs and feedback optimize positive student achievement outcomes? Will work with students allow additional feedback to teachers, which in turn will ultimately optimize student learning? How will duties (car and bus arrival/dismissal, lunch, cafeteria, or hall monitoring) impact school culture? How will the intentionality with time affect teacher working conditions? Maximizing time will provide increased opportunities for positive outcomes for students, teachers, and the school environment.
It's also helpful to share updates with busy teachers and staff. When Bill was a principal, he sent a daily e-mail that included need-to-know scheduled items and highlights of recent student work to keep staff in the loop. Sabrina creates a weekly staff newsletter. Over a recent holiday, after a community organization provided new signage for the front of the school, Sabrina shared pictures of the process and outcome in the newsletter to give staff a glimpse of what they would see as they returned.

Have Fun

We've shown our fun side in a variety of ways. By modeling a new dance move at homecoming, providing birthday shout-outs and affirmations on the morning announcements, riding the dismissal school bus, or wearing the school mascot outfit, principals can showcase how much they enjoy the job. You could begin each staff meeting with a creative collaborative activity to set the mood for sharing, such as a simple game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, "Teaching Strategy Speed Dating," with a specific set of questions, or improvisation games. Asking staff to prepare an activity also creates participation and builds relationships.

Be Collaborative

Find ways to partner with local universities, churches, and businesses. Be specific about your needs with a "Top Ten" list (whether it's more volunteers, textbooks, or technology). Community volunteers can help brighten the hallways with new paint or freshen up the outdoor learning areas with mulch or planter boxes. Highlight accomplishments made possible by the partnerships and express your appreciation publicly throughout the year. Sharing on social media allows for an immediate, timely response, and creating intentional one-pagers, sharable presentations, and invitations to tour and see the "school in action" can highlight performance and achievements.

Be Resilient

There's a reason turnover is high in principalship. The job description is daunting. There are budget shortfalls, increasing accountability mandates, and unexpected challenges that can alter the plan of even the most organized principal. That's why principals should also remember to step away from work and prioritize self-care while encouraging staff to do the same. It could be as simple as scheduling a lunch break or taking time for enjoyable activities.
During difficult times, it's also important to lean on one another. Sabrina's school faced two significant storms in a year, with Hurricanes Florence and Dorian impacting instructional time. It was important for staff to know and understand that while the physical recovery process was professional and required work, self-care and resiliency were vital to moving forward. Staff members created a group in the texting application GroupMe to check in on each other and send positive thoughts of affirmation.
Through other online apps, teachers were able to inform parents of their location, meet them to do check-ins, or gauge family needs. Many staff members also volunteered at a local relief center near the school. When the center closed unexpectedly, Sabrina and willing staff members staged the school as a place for families to come for hot meals twice a day.
Despite all the storms we weather, there is indeed joy in this work. The successful principal will embrace being a learner, navigating challenges, embracing risk and innovation, and celebrating successes.
References

NASSP (2017). National Association of Secondary School Principals Position Statement: Principal Shortage. Adopted July 11, 2002; revised March 27, 2017. Retrieved on September 12, 2019 from https://www.nassp.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Principal_Shortage.pdf

William Sterrett serves as Professor and Department Chair of Educational Leadership at Baylor University. Previously, as a principal in Virginia, Sterrett received the 2008 Milken National Educator Award. Sterrett earned his B.S. in Middle Grades Education from Asbury College (Kentucky) and his Ph.D. in Educational Administration & Supervision from the University of Virginia.

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