Leadership is a word that has been bandied about so much it has lost its true essence. The proliferation of “leaders” on book covers, political halls and sports fields, has diluted the power of actual leadership. In my decade of teaching, I have encountered many who would profess to lead, many who point the way and even more who point out the problems without providing solutions.
As educators, perhaps one of the most important decisions of our careers is choosing a principal to whom we hitch our stars. But how is one to identify a successful principal? If one knows what to look for, it is actually quite simple.
In 2009, I was three years into my teaching career and about to meet my third principal. I was attending the welcome meeting to kick off the school year when our new leader gathered us together in a circle. He called us first-round draft picks, the talented team that was hand-selected to fight systemic educational inequality. He told us we changed lives, changed neighborhoods and were a part of the national conversation regarding urban education.
But I was wary. Too often, I had heard the words of sugared-tongued folk who spouted poetry only to never be seen again when the students arrived.
One year earlier, I was at a similar beginning-of-the-year meeting, a cafeteria filled with jaded professionals, listening to the promises of a new principal, perfectly worded intimations, phrases taken out of leadership journals, spoken just so. The principal got a standing ovation. Hearts had been won, allegiances garnered. And yet, not even a month later, that principal had earned a new nickname, Charlie, for his ubiquitous presence via intercom, though rarely, if ever, in person.
I was learning valuable lessons as a novice educator. When it comes to principals, words are lovely; but actions are what count, chief among them being visibility.
From the teacher’s perspective, the principal that leads is the principal that is seen. She needs to be seen on the front steps greeting students. She needs to be seen in the hallways during class transitions. She needs to be seen in classrooms engaging with students. Of course, there are innumerable habits of successful principals that are not seen, but through the eyes of the teacher, particularly those early in our careers, for whom the classroom can too easily become a vacuum of solitude and isolation, simply seeing one’s leader engaged in the work of serving young people provides a tangible connection, an uplift, that creates camaraderie, loyalty and teamwork.
A few short weeks after the welcome meeting that had left me wary as to whether this new principal would be any different from my previous one, I stood on the front steps of the school alongside him. He knew every student’s name. He greeted their parents. He reminded students to fix their uniforms. I watched him and saw the full iteration of a leader; one that does not simply say the right thing, but demonstrates those words in action.
He was, and has been for the past eight years, a visible reminder of the culture and mission of our building. For teachers, a strong principal is just that, a visible reminder of our larger purpose. How do we find them? Walk into the school and look around. The strong principal will be easy to spot.