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Practices of Effective Principals

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The role, responsibilities and expectations of school principals have changed over the years. From the earliest “principal teacher,” when an experienced faculty member stepped up to perform some part-time administrative duties, to the current building principal, the job of a building leader has multiplied many times in both size and complexity.

Present-day principals are responsible for everything from academic success to a balanced school budget. Effective leadership is displayed when a principal carries out five diverse and important practices.

5 Practices of Effective Principals

In an article sponsored by The Wallace Foundation, champion of disadvantaged children and the arts, senior editor Pamela Mendels reports five keys to success for principals. These five practices, regarding vision, climate-building, leadership-building, instruction and management, were compiled by a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto in a 2004 seminal study titled How Leadership Influences Student Learning.

  1. Vision – Teachers and students alike look to school leadership to create a vision for success.
  2. School climate – Teachers and students also want to feel heard and supported. Effective principals encourage collaboration and provide a safe foundation for teachers to not only learn from each other but also make mistakes without repercussion. In an education-hospitable building, teachers and students from all backgrounds are respected, colleagues are trustworthy and trusted, and the building feels genuinely welcoming.
  3. Cultivation of leadership – Successful school principals understand that developing leadership qualities in others is not a zero-sum game. In a follow-up to the 2004 study, researchers report that principals “do not lose influence as others gain it.” They found that when those in leadership understand the power and advantages of nurturing the strengths of every stakeholder, students win and academic achievement follows.
  4. Instruction – Mendels wrote, “Effective leaders focus laser-like on the quality of instruction in their schools.” These principals spend time in classrooms, observing instructional practices and student responses, and then they follow-up with teachers. Instead of scheduled and rigid evaluation-driven observations, these visits are often short and spontaneous, followed by feedback, suggestions and encouragement.
  5. Management – Strong school leaders hire the best teachers they can find and work hard to keep them. According to education policy analyst, Linda Darling-Hammond, “The number one reason for teachers’ decisions about whether to stay in a school is the quality of administrative support — and it is the leader who must develop this organization.”Strong school leaders make the best use of data collected for accountability purposes to ask questions, drive instruction and provide feedback to students. These leaders also make the best use of their time for planning, implementing, communicating and encouraging effectively and efficiently.

Preparing for Principal/Educational Leadership Positions

Experienced teachers interested in entering the field of educational leadership are often drawn to the position of school principal.

The University of Louisiana Monroe offers a Master of Education in Educational Leadership degree program, complete with coursework that addresses each of the key points of the Wallace Foundation research project.

In Organizational Theory & Practice students investigate social systems and how leaders can promote collaborative vision within the school organizational setting.

The teacher leader course Improving School Performance as well as School Community Relations deal with the promotion of communication, learning communities, and response to diverse cultures and languages, promoting a school climate that fosters collaboration and trust.

Graduate students who are selected for positions as school leaders will come to the position prepared to identify and cultivate rising leaders in their buildings, based on what they learned in courses like Instructional Leadership and Leadership Theory and Practice.

Several courses deal with the importance of strong leadership for successful instruction and student achievement. These include Educational Research, Instructional Supervision and Instructional Leadership.

Finally, educational leaders prepared to step into a co-position of school management will know how to prepare budgets and well as maintain secure and safe buildings after completing Managing School and District Resources.

In the overview of The School Principal As Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning, the Wallace Foundation affirms the importance of school principals: “Education research shows that most school variables, considered separately, have at most small effects on learning. The real payoff comes when individual variables combine to reach critical mass. Creating the conditions under which that can occur is the job of the principal.”

Comprehensive preparation for school leadership, like the master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Louisiana Monroe, holds the key to educational success.

Learn more about the ULM online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership program.


The Wallace Foundation: How Leadership Influences Student Learning

The Wallace Foundation: The Effective Principal

The Wallace Foundation: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

The Wallace Foundation: A Bridge to School Reform

The Wallace Foundation: The School Principal As Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning

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