The School Principal as Leader

Andrew Robbin
Andrew Robbin
Primary school principal; 6th Year Certificate of Advanced Studies in Administration
Gentleman in a suit smiling while standing in a library.

Any strong organization needs a point person that maintains, manages, and inspires everyone to meet the vision and mission of the group. In schools, the principal is the leader vested to make sure a student-centered, healthy learning environment exists. While there are many ways to meet this goal, here are several suggestions of how best for a principal to be a leader of students, staff, and the community.

Foster Positive School Culture and Vision

Schools are judged immediately by children, parents, and staff when entering the building or any following encounter. The principal is vital to ensuring there is a culture that supports students so they feel safe and are able to grow and learn. From the beginning, having clear expectations of all constituents is vital. People need to know what is expected of them while in a school and also what to expect of each other. Having predictable behavior, norms, and routines allows people to know what is available to them and what to expect of all people in the school.

The expectations need to develop from the purpose of a school – to help build positive community members. Having a shared vision that everyone is working towards reminds people of the purpose to develop a community of support. The principal’s role is to clearly articulate the expectations and shared vision through a variety of platforms.

While curricula, communication, and resources are important, the greatest way for a principal to foster a positive atmosphere is by leading by example. The principal needs to help students, staff, and families see how the central vision is part of our everyday work while behaving in a manner that reflects the personality of the school.

Be Visible

To model the positive behavior and lead by example, the principal needs to be actively involved in the school by being visible in person, online, and through communications. The principal needs to be in classrooms, hallways, bus lanes, and events. When present, the principal needs to interact with the students, express interest in their lives, their learning, and comment on the great things happening in the school connecting it to the school’s mission. This reinforces the notion of our shared purpose to help students.

In addition, especially with many schools closed off from parents and caregivers due to COVID, this interest and investment needs to come through in other ways. Whether it’s a weekly newsletter, Twitter, or another social media outlet, the principal needs to bring the school into the larger world by promoting the learning and development occurring. Being visible, the principal models and promotes the school’s success and connectivity with the public at large. This way, the actions of the principals are being seen while proving their leadership capabilities.

Develop Relationships

An effective leader needs to work effectively with others. By developing relationships, constituents are willing to do their best to support one another. Consequently, the principal needs to show they care in order to make sustained, meaningful connections with students, staff and families.

A trusting bond exists when a principal authentically takes interest in the work being accomplished and learning about each individual is as a person. However, a true relationship goes beyond just getting to know each other. A leader needs to demonstrate empathy – being willing to help and understand the other person’s motivations and views. This is often the “test” that solidifies the trusting bonds. Strong relationships allow people to be better collaborators, as they are able to support each other to grow.

Support Staff Growth

As previously mentioned, a strong relationship will exponentially help with the growth and development of staff. Being visible in the classroom allows the principal to see what is happening on a day-to-day basis and also allows the staff to see the principal has a genuine interest in what is occurring in the classrooms. Every time a principal is in a classroom, whether it be an observation, modeling an instructional technique, or coaching a strategy, it is an opportunity for growth. The principal can complement teaching that can be replicated and give feedback for an area of growth.

Information learned from classroom visits also extends beyond the classroom, as the principal can develop targeted professional development based on what has been viewed. Teachers will see the connection between the professional development and their own growth, allowing for things to be applied with more fidelity.

If the professional development is deliberately connected and explained by using classroom data, teachers are more likely to enact school- and district-wide initiatives. This allows for opportunities for shared decision-making that augments the learning for students and the notion that each person’s voice matters and can influence the greater good.

Another benefit to being in the classroom to support staff growth is it allows principals to best support teachers with their own learning community. Discipline issues will be handled more effectively as knowing a teacher’s approach to classroom management will allow for the reinforcement of expectations along with appropriate restorative actions when needed.

In addition, the support allows the principal to make sure that the expectations for staff are being followed. Staff is well aware of other members that may not be putting in the efforts needed on a day-to-day basis. While not always enjoyable, the principal needs to be the leader in holding all people accountable for making sure that everyone is invested in the school.

Clear Communication

The principal needs to be a voice for the school. Communication should be consistent, timely, and developed for the appropriate audience. Correspondences should explain what is occurring in the school and why it is relevant, and it should allow people to see the inner workings of the school.

With the number of social media platforms available today, using video and/or pictures also helps convey the message intended. There should be an expected time and method as well so the community knows when and how to access information being sent out by the school. General weekly correspondences should be sent out the same day each week so families know what to expect and when to expect it.

While the message is important, it is also vital to know the best methods to communicate for the situation. Emails are easy to send out yet there are times when a phone call is the better avenue. In addition, with staff, judging whether the message needs to be individual, small group, face to face, etc. is key. Just as vital as putting out information is remembering that the communication is only valuable if the recipient needs to be able to understand what is being shared.


There is always variability in schools. Anything planned out will often have a nuance that changes the intended plan. The principal needs to understand that change is inevitable and be ready, willing, and prepared to adjust plans as events are occurring. Circumstances may also dictate the need to be flexible with any decision-making or actions.

In addition, with shared leadership, taking input from students, staff, and the community are likely to modify any idea. Being able to listen and adjust as needed is essential in being a good leader.

Each day in a school presents opportunities for success. The principal role varies depending on each situation. However, the principal is always the leader, and the actions and behaviors as a principal establish the best opportunities for success for all.

*Updated March 2021
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