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The Principal As Instructional Leader

Principal roundtable

The Principal As Instructional Leader

Award-winning leaders share how they navigate today’s top three challenges in schools.

By Caralee Adams

Being a principal today is about more than managing a building. It’s about being an instructional leader at a time when education is rapidly changing and pressures are increasing.

At a roundtable discussion hosted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Washington, D.C., in late October, four principals shared their thoughts with Scholastic Administrator on effective leadership, teacher support, and what challenges are ahead for their schools.

The participants, all National Distinguished Principals, included:

Hands-On Leaders

Whether it’s parents, policymakers, or staff, everyone has an opinion about education today, and these principals have learned to listen. They know the importance of building relationships and being responsive.

“The past five years have been a roller coaster,” says Carafa. “Even though I’m the principal or boss, you have to shift that a bit or you won’t have the trust or understanding you need to move education forward.”

There is a lack of confidence in public education that has put principals on the defensive, says King. This means battling misperceptions and, when issues arise, responding with greater urgency. Within her building, too, fostering trust is critical. “We can never forget we were teachers and what it was like to be a teacher,” says King. “I worry about principals who don’t trust teachers to make decisions.”

For French, being a principal has evolved from making sure all the systems were running smoothly—arrival, dismissal, lunch, and recess—to connecting more with students and teachers. “I used to think I should stay out of the classroom because I didn’t want to disrupt the lesson,” he says. “Now my priority is to get in there—to listen and learn.”

Johnson, too, has seen the benefits of being more open with staff and students. “Once I let my guard down, to let them know who I was—my upbringing, my vision—then I saw a shift,” she says.

Johnson often has “in but out days”—when she’s in the building but not in her office. Making applesauce with kids or helping them in small math groups has strengthened her ties with students and helped her better understand the needs of teachers.

Teacher Support

Great principals know to share the credit for their success and have perfected the art of nurturing their staff members. They recognize time is tight and demands intense, so they do all they can to creatively support teachers.

Creating a caring climate is the foundation, says Carafa. When there are big changes in curriculum, Carafa invites teachers in on the planning from the beginning to get their buy-in. He also tends to the small gestures, such as writing thank-you notes to them and putting candy in their mailboxes on Halloween.

It’s also important for teachers to know their own families come first, says King. Supporting teachers when their children are sick or their aging parents need care can build loyalty among staff, she says.

At his school, French recently hired a digital learning coach, a behavior intervention teacher, and a counselor. “If you have [high] expectations for your teachers, you have to give them the resources,” says French. “I think about what I can take off their plates so they can focus on their students and instruction.”

Johnson agrees. “I tell staff, ‘If we are going to ask you to do it, it’s my job to make sure you have the things to do it well.’”

Always New Challenges

Even the top principals acknowledge ongoing struggles. These leaders expressed concerns about coping with mental health issues facing their students, the challenge of motivating staff, and the importance of working as a team through uncertain times in education.

At Johnson’s school, where most families are low income and many parents have not gone to college, the push is to promote college knowledge and engage parents. “I want to bring parents in and get them to understand that their children can do bigger and better things than they can, but we have to work together,” she says. It’s not always easy to get parents who work all day—sometimes juggling several jobs—to turn out for school events, so that is an ongoing challenge for many principals.

Knowing how to motivate teachers and staff is also an important issue for French. “Being a teacher and a principal, I’d always expected to work with students and parents,” says French. “It’s [working] with the staff that I was never really trained in. I didn’t take courses on managing adult behavior.”

King says although her school feels like a family, it can still be tough to get some teachers moving. “It’s the push and pull with faculty—how to push but not stress them out,” she says. “That balance is difficult for me.”

Carafa has his ear to the ground in the transition to Common Core. He says principals must “walk the walk” with teachers for the new standards to take hold. But meeting other principals from across the country, he is encouraged by the conversations that have been triggered by the Common Core. “It’s a transition of learning that is going on,” says Carafa. “You look at what works, what doesn’t work, and build on it. [Common Core] has made the education community more national—that’s positive.”


Great ideas...being a hands on leader is what we need.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.