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September 1, 2016

The Principal Factor

Six principles of leadership will ensure that your school and your teachers put relationships first.
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Credit: ©2013 Susie Fitzhugh
We know it through common sense, and research confirms it: Of those factors over which schools have control, teachers have the greatest impact on both student achievement and student well-being. But if classroom teachers play a leading role in establishing relationships that help students demonstrate their personal bests, principals play a lead in establishing relationships among adults within the school. In fact, if we consider both the direct impact of the school principal and his or her indirect influence over selecting and developing teachers, building leadership may be the most important factor in establishing a stable, warm, and trusting environment for teachers and students.
Creating such a climate isn't that hard. During my 26 years as a high school principal, I experienced the value of six basic principles—six aspects of a leader's daily presence that help establish schoolwide relationships that foster the whole child.

1. Show Students Respect

Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect. School principals can communicate to students that they respect them in many ways, modeling this principle for teachers in the process.
The first rule of respect is that no one in the school is invisible. I visit dozens of schools every year as a consultant. All too often, I observe adults pass by students (and other adults) with eyes straight ahead as if they are alone in the world. Eye contact and a smile during casual contacts throughout the school day—in classrooms, hallways, or common areas—and at evening events communicates to individual students that they exist, that they have a personal identity within the school, and that they are respected members of the school community.
Recognizing a person's existence makes a statement about how much you respect that person's worth. Remember, however, that although eye contact builds positive relationships, staring a student down is an act of dominance that doesn't contribute to healthy relationships.
Respect should carry over to discipline. Principals often find themselves in the position of correcting inappropriate student behavior. Sometimes they must do so in a public setting, for example when public safety is in immediate jeopardy or when inappropriate behavior spreads schoolwide. However, correcting the inappropriate behavior of individual students, or even small groups of students, is best done privately.
Chastising individual students in front of their peers often results in embarrassment and resentment, and may make students respect you less. Public rebukes come across as public challenges, especially to high school students, and challenges call up aggressive responses. Better to ask Anthony to step into a nearby empty classroom or hallway corner for a discussion than to challenge him in front of his friends.
In a similar vein, public putdowns and sarcasm, even when done in a "just-kidding" manner, seldom enhance respect. Such behaviors can hurt. They often result in a similar response from the student. Now we're off to the races, with all parties losing in an escalating battle of mutual disrespect.
Respecting students translates into assuming that students are doing the right thing unless evidence clearly suggests otherwise. Interrogating a student in a hallway with "Why aren't you in class!" may not be the best way to build a relationship. At Littleton High School, I greeted students in the hallway during class time with eye contact, a smile, and a hearty "good morning" unless there was evidence that further conversation was warranted.

2. Be Visible

This principle is self-explanatory. The more students engage in positive interactions with the principal, the more comfortable they feel with the relationship.
The most important arena for visibility is the classroom. Seeing the school principal in their classrooms communicates to both teachers and students that the principal's primary interest lies in the primary purpose of schooling—academic achievement. If it doesn't disrupt instruction, ask students what they're working on, how what they're working on relates to lesson or unit learning targets, and what indicators of success would look like. This sends students the message that the principal is focused on learning and reinforces for teachers what the principal considers essential elements of effective instruction.
Such interactions help kids see the principal as more than just a boss, rule enforcer, and athletic booster. A principal's focus on instruction during a visit confirms his or her legitimacy as the school's leader—and legitimacy builds relationships.
Being visible in common areas and at school events also contributes to developing good relationships. As a principal, instead of sequestering myself in my office, I often took work to the school cafeteria, where I could occasionally interact with students and teachers as they passed through. I got some work done, and students and teachers saw me as an integral part of their school lives.
When you attend a cross section of school events and interact in friendly ways with students and parents, you build relationships. Eventually, students will ask if you're coming to their event—and thank you for showing up. Parents interpret attendance at events as showing interest in their child. They respect that immensely.

3. Be Clearly In Control

Appropriate relationships won't blossom in a school environment unless students, faculty, and staff know that the school principal—and the principal alone—is in charge. Communicating control doesn't mean being on a power trip. Principals who effectively communicate their role as the person in charge of the school are those who are secure in their legitimacy and capability as the school's leader. They don't need to pull rank.
When I was principal of Littleton High School, a young man came to my office wishing to enroll in our high school from outside the district. He had been, by his own admission, a member of the gang called the Bloods in a nearby urban area. He wanted to get out of that scene and graduate from high school. I sensed sincerity in the young man's request, so in a private conversation I made it clear to him that he could enroll in the school, but that if there were any evidence of his previous gang associations spilling onto campus, he would be gone. In other words, I would be in charge of the school, not the Bloods.
This future graduate and contributor to campus life had no problem with those conditions. Together, with a clear understanding of these ground rules of engagement, we established a relationship of mutual respect and trust.
Control based on relationships can pay off when you need it most. After an emotional victory over a cross-town football rival, several hundred Littleton High students stormed the stadium fence with the intention of climbing over it to join the celebration on the field. The previous year, we had had a student injured in a similar situation when the fence collapsed. I stood in front of the crowd and demanded that they stop—and they did! The students accepted my authority to control the situation because our relationship was built on more than just position power and because of a clear understanding of who was in charge.

4. Clarify Non-Negotiables

Unpredictability—not knowing where the principal is coming from or what might set him or her off—makes establishing productive adult-student relationships and trust more difficult. Relationships are more stable when the principal is clear about his or her non-negotiables. But that list of iron-clad rules should be short; long lists of do's and don'ts lose their meaning in the clutter and invite some students to take up the challenge of beating the system.
A non-negotiable for me as principal was fighting. I deplored fighting because I felt it violated much of what made our school special—an environment that was accepting, inclusive, and safe. Fighting, whether on campus or down the street, always resulted in significant negative consequences for those directly involved as well as for those whom credible evidence suggested had egged on the confrontation. Students got the message. During my 20 years leading Littleton High, we averaged fewer than five fights per year.
Clarity regarding non-negotiables doesn't imply taking a cookie-cutter approach to discipline. To the contrary, basing disciplinary decisions on the merits of each individual case personalizes the experience for students and builds relationships. A three-day suspension for both students involved in a fight when evidence suggests one student was clearly the instigator doesn't demonstrate a regard for students as individuals and, predictably, weakens trust. Although dispensing discipline by the book ("it's just a school policy") is easier for administrators, this approach doesn't engender respect or build bonds.

5. Respect Civility and Civil Rights

School principals have an obligation to model the values and behaviors that the school asks students to adopt, and doing so helps build positive relationships.
One of the more important—and difficult—behaviors a school leader must model is consistently demonstrating respect for students' constitutional rights, particularly the First Amendment rights of speech, press, and assembly and Fourth Amendment rights regarding search and seizure.
I realized the power of respecting these while leading Littleton High School. Students noticed when our assistant principal—in the face of objections from vocal students, parents, and talk-show hosts—defended a student's right to wear a United States flag upside down on her posterior to protest the invasion of Iraq. Students noticed when I coached them on how to best approach a planned sit-in at the school board office to protest proposed teacher lay-offs, and when I refused to exercise prior restraint (preventing material that some might find objectionable from being published) with regard to articles in the school newspaper. Students noticed when school officials provided evidence of "reasonable suspicion" before searching their lockers or personal effects.
Today's student rights issues also involve religious questions, such as challenges involving Muslim students and school dress codes. In cases such as these, principals are wise to remember the U.S. Supreme Court's admonition in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision—students don't leave their privacy rights at the schoolhouse door. Guarding those rights models what it means to be an American.
Leaders also need to model both civility in human interactions and discourse and intellectual curiosity. Students notice how adults in the building treat others—other students, teachers, and parents in particular. They take special interest in whether or not the principal treats fellow students with respect and in ways that honor personal dignity. We've all witnessed cases in which the way an adult treated a student had a chilling effect on the relationship between that adult and students who were merely bystanders to the episode. And don't think for a minute that students don't notice when their favorite teacher or their parent has been treated in a way they view as bullying.
Finally, if students are expected to demonstrate intellectual curiosity, then we should expect the school's leader to do so as well. Ask yourself these questions (particularly if you are the principal): Does the principal at your school communicate and model a growth mindset about his or her own learning? An openness to taking risks? Is he or she on top of recent research on effective teaching and learning? Do teachers view the principal as the lead teacher?

6. Show Affinity

Here's a blinding flash of the obvious—it helps if the principal genuinely likes kids, thinks they're funny, and feeds on their creativity and energy. Too often, I see principals act as if they're threatened by, or even afraid of, their students. Affinity contributes to healthy relationships. Fear does not.
The principal who's most likely to foster positive relationships with and among teachers and students is the principal who can't wait to get out of the office and into classrooms and common areas for a "kid fix."
And what treatise on relationships would be complete without paying homage to the power of humor? People invest in relationships that bring them joy, make them laugh, and ease their burdens. The leadership journey in schools has its serious moments, to be sure, but those who enjoy the ride are those most likely to survive the trip.
When principals commit to the principles of respect, visibility, control, clarity, civility, and affinity, they nurture a healthy environment. The importance of the principal's role in promoting productive relationships between adults and students on campus is second to none.
End Notes

1 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

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