Over the years, I have spoken to large groups of principals both across Canada and internationally. I continue to be amazed at the calibre of people who take on the challenge of becoming school administrators. They demonstrate the highest levels of character and professionalism. For the most part, they are values-driven individuals who possess integrity, courage and optimism and who demonstrate respect for students, staff, parents and members of their community.
In my experience, the principal today has a strong commitment to “whole person” education. They work at improving achievement, developing character, fostering the arts and focusing on science and technology. They include physical activity and a commitment to environmental, social justice and human rights issues. They encourage their students to volunteer, to support those in need and to do their part in contributing to community development.
The centrality of the role of the principal has been clearly established. Seminal researchers such as Ken Leithwood emphasize the principal’s role in the life of the school and student achievement, suggesting that “school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning.” As educational leaders, principals are strategically positioned to shape the direction of their schools, to influence the lives of students and to equip them with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and sensibilities necessary for citizens in the 21st century. They create the conditions for excellence in teaching and for teachers to do their best work.
Good principals have a strong commitment to community engagement. They build alliances to support learning. They know the research on the benefits of parental participation and make sure that they contribute in meaningful ways.
My image of the principal today is that of an ethnographer who delves into learning about the diverse communities in his/her school, using this knowledge as a base for building strong relationships with community leaders. When these relationships are in place, principals can call on community leaders for counsel as they try to ensure that students from diverse communities have a strong sense of connection to the school. Having strong relationships with leaders in their diverse communities can assist school administrators in dealing with potentially explosive issues that may alienate the communities they serve.
The leadership style of successful principals is democratic and collaborative regarding the matters that are negotiable. They recognize that much of what happens in schools is best implemented when a consensus has been forged. At the same time, they are decisive on the matters that are not negotiable and can demonstrate leadership even when the actions that need to be taken may be unpopular. My image of today’s principal is that they have high expectations, are often tough on the issues, but gentle with people.
I am convinced that the principals who are most effective are people-centered, aware of morale issues and sensitive to individual needs. They espouse the notion that humane and respectful work environments increase productivity, commitment and professional self-concept. They take seriously the need to develop trust and commitment by paying attention to the human relations in their organizations. Because of the respectful manner in which they treat people, they create the conditions for teachers and support staff to reach new levels of motivation and achievement.
Society has changed dramatically in recent years. These changes inevitably impose demands on the educational system. The need to respond to constant change has created challenges for all of us as we strive to make our organizations more accountable, more permeable and increasingly responsive to the needs of individuals within our diverse communities. Successful principals seem to take seriously the saying, “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape!”
My image of today’s principal is one who takes responsibility for student learning. They do not blame parents or teachers when students are not successful in school. They take up as a core belief a statement I heard many years ago and endorse strongly – namely, that “parents are sending us the best kids they have – they are not keeping the brighter ones at home.” These principals believe that schools control the conditions for success. This, to my mind, is one of the most fundamental beliefs that principals need to hold onto because it helps create the mindset that determines the systematic and intentional interventions that they will undertake to bring about improvement in their schools.
Principals today are community developers. They recognize that schools exist within communities and that they are leaders within those communities. Peter Drucker (1999), in Leading Beyond the Walls, paints a picture of the expansive role that leaders play within their communities and in society at large:
“Society in all developed countries has become pluralist and is becoming more pluralist day by day…but all early pluralist societies destroyed themselves because no one took care of the common good. If our modern pluralist society is to escape the same fate, the leaders of all institutions will have to learn to be leaders beyond the walls. They will have to learn that it is not enough for them to lead their own institutions, though that is the first requirement. They will also have to learn to become leaders in the community. In fact, they will have to learn to create community.”
I am extremely proud of the principals and vice principals with whom I have worked over the years and those I have met in the countries in which I have worked. They are consummate professionals who chose leadership for the right reasons. They are empathetic, caring and highly motivated individuals who are non-judgmental in working with even the most challenging students. They do all they can to give students the best possible introduction to elementary (primary) schools. They make transition to secondary schools successful. They provide a variety of programs to help students graduate. They address issues of poverty and strive to enhance the life chances of their students. They discipline with dignity and keep their schools safe. They counsel young people with personal problems, pay for lunch for those who cannot afford it and drive students home when they are not picked up on time. They counsel broken hearts and provide guidance for parents who have lost control of their teenagers.
These are the men and women who are in charge of our schools. They build community and contribute to nation building. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to secure a prosperous future for our children and for our communities.
– Dr. Avis Glaze is an international leader in the field of education and one of Canada’s outstanding educators. She is president of Edu-quest International Inc. offering a wide range of educational services and speaking engagements across the globe.