Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hot topic: What makes a good principal?

An SF K Files visitor would like your opinion on the following topic:
Received 0 for 7, assigned to John Muir; can see Alvarado from my house (grrrr!). So I am reading with interest the posts about improving schools and affecting a turn-around, and I see a common thread -- good principal. I would love to hear specifics about what makes a good principal. What metrics do parents use to judge the effectiveness of a school principal? How do I find stats on things like teacher tenure?


  1. It's not so simple. My kids' school's former principal was warm, welcoming, well-loved by all, including the kids. By comparison, the incoming principal seemed distant and a bit prickly.

    But the well-loved former principal had actually let a lot of problems slide without dealing with them, and the new principal has been very pro-active about tackling issues that had been left to fester.

  2. I have heard nothing but good things about Alene Wheaton, Principal at Muir. Nice article about recycling at the school here

  3. Our wonderful principal seems to have both the good cop/bad cop in her. The students love her, but she does not let them get away with bad behavior. The parents adore her, but I think we all have been taken to task by her also if we get out of hand.

  4. If you can find a teacher there to ask, then ASK! Teacher morale and sense of morale/vision in the school matters probably more than anything, and the primary leadership is for the teachers. The teachers know stuff that parents don't.

    That said, a principal's openness to working with parents, for example fundraising or arranging for new programs, without getting all prickly or circling the wagons, is a good thing to look for too.

  5. I agree. Its the relationship, trust and mutual respect between the principal and staff that matters the most. This is what affects what happens in the classroom everyday.

    The relationship with families, is less important, however, shared values and willingness to work collaboratively makes a big difference in fostering a strong sense of community and culture within a school.

  6. Good principals aren't always the most popular principals. They need to be willing to tell parents and teachers what they need to hear, not just the happy talk. Popular principals may be telling people what they want to hear, and glossing over the hard stuff. Also, watch out for principals who bad-mouth anyone - it's a simple rule in life, if they are trash-talking someone else, why wouldn't they do it to you?

  7. This is like asking what makes a good company boss. It depends on the school, the student needs, the parent community, the staff,etc. Many principals run afoul of the struggle between pleasing staff and parents. If he/she can navigate one without alienating the other that shows the necessary diplomacy required for participating in the interests of the varying stakeholders.
    Watch how the prinicpal interacts with kids, that will tell you whether she is dedicated to her what she does. Does she arrive late and leave early? Does she routinely leave her office door closed. Does she actively communicated with the community by walkthroughs, letters, meetings? Does she define her goals and ask for input. Be careful of any principal that adopts an attitude that it is "her" school. If certain teachers are known laggarts, watch to see if she does anything about it. Her choice of staff hiring and firing defines her management skills.

  8. Principals move around alot. Sure, you should have a good sense of them when you are looking at schools, but you can't count on that particular person being around for the next 6 (or more) years. Plus, a great demeanor is important, but we're finding that having a principal who is a good administrator trumps that hands down.

  9. I like a principle who has been a classroom teacher. That way I feel they understand teachers and students from their perspective, and they are an educator as well as an administrator.

  10. Alene Wheaton is NOT a good principal. The school is filthy, kids fair poorly on test scores, and teachers who aren't part of her inner circle are treated atrociously. Good media does not make a good principal!

  11. I second and third many of the posted comments. I am a teacher in SFUSD.

    A good principal does not always equate best friend, or warm and fuzzy. A "good" principal looks out for the best interest of the student, and gets the job done whether or not you agree with how that is executed.

    A good principal knows the ins and outs of the school community, and has LOADS of experience TEACHING in the classroom.

    A good principal is proactive and learned in all facets of school operations-NOTHING should be a mystery to her/him.

    A good principal can evaluate situations from multiple perspectives (custodian, paraprofessional, parent, teacher, student, etc.)

    A good principal is VISIBLE. He or she knows the students, and has a presence with the students.

    DO ask teachers what they think and know b/c you will know even before they respond what kind of principal is leading the school.

  12. The principal at Jose Ortega is excellent. Organized, experienced, caring, fair... parents should be very excited about her.

  13. 1) Earns confidence - from staff and teachers. This could be through communication skills, ideas, experience, visibility, or "je ne sais quoi" but it should be there.
    2) Has and can articulate a strong vision. And, for me, this absolutely should include whole school professional development on areas directly improving instruction for children.
    3) Is focused on teachers - their instruction, their needs, etc. Teachers are the most important and most direct link to the students. We should hear them talk about this a lot and to have clear plans about how to support them more. In my experience, this is always true of a principal who was once a strong & passionate teacher themselves.
    4) Is resourceful. Knows how to build relationships with organizations, write grants, or gather resources in some way to benefit the school community.
    5) Doesn't shy away from a challenge if it's important ... such as working with (or writing up) a teacher with an unsatisfactory performance record.

  14. I am not sure school turnaround is all about the principal. I have been involved, as a professional, in good schools, not-so-good schools and, one school that totally turned around.

    It takes a community of educators to turn a school around (far more important than parents). I was involved in a school-turn around my fourth year of teaching. It was about ALL the teachers getting an enormous burst of energy and, sitting down to reorganize and restructure the program. The principal is just at the helm of it all. But, the energy is really below. In that instance, we often had to fight the principal because he was very old and his ideas were often outdated. But, after a good fight, we often let the teachers have their way. Ideas were organized through a selected (voted) Leadership Committee.

    I actually know all about the old John Muir (pre-Weaton). There was a creative teacher training program, in conjunction with San Francisco State, in the building. It was a first-rate program that did not fit with the newly adopted state programs. It was very progressive/hands-on.

  15. Just posted above Excuse the typos...he not we...and, more...

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