Support and Keep Your Best Principals

Learn more about Eva Chiang, Ph.D..
Eva Chiang, Ph.D.
Managing Director, Leadership and Programming
George W. Bush Institute

Eva Myrick Chiang, Deputy Director for Education Reform and Research and Evaluation, offers advice to district leaders on how they can help support their principals, and in turn, support student achievement.

I know that starting a new school year can be exciting and nerve-wracking for students, teachers, and even principals. Since having effective school principals is key to ensuring students get the best possible education, I wanted to offer some advice to district leaders on how they can do just that—spend the school year supporting and keeping their very best principals.

First, I encourage every superintendent to think carefully about who is supervising principals in their district. There are three key qualifications for principal supervisors:

  • Principal supervisors need to know what it takes to be an effective principal. This usually means having previous experience as a successful principal.
  • In addition to being a successful principal, successful supervisors also need the knowledge and skills to coach other adults for improvement.
  • Finally, supervisors need to have time to actually do the coaching. If principal supervisors are responsible for dozens of principals, in addition to taking on other responsibilities in the district, they probably do not have adequate time to spend coaching.

To learn more about how school districts are handling principal supervisors, visit the Wallace report about The Power of Principal Supervisors.  

Once principals have the support they need to do their day-to-day work, district leaders should ensure that every staff member supports the system-wide goals focused on increasing student achievement.  Simply put: everyone in the district should be focused on helping principals support teachers to teach students.

This support starts with having a well-written and highly-communicated strategic plan for the district, but having a plan is not enough. I have seen too many strategic plans get written or updated annually, and then put on the shelf until it’s time to update again. The plan should have ambitious—but few—goals, and it should explicitly align with organizational structures, resources, and district budget.

Next, is the hard part: ensuring that every person and every department in the district is working toward those set goals. I have rarely met anyone working in a school district who doesn’t work hard. However, what I frequently see are people who are working hard in what seems like the opposite direction of the district’s principals. There are also almost daily distractions that pull principals away from their primary job and away from focusing on the goals of the district.

For example, a principal told me she was pulled away from her job to handle a burst pipe and school flooding. She called the maintenance department, was put on hold, and then they transferred her to another department. That department told her to fill out a form, but then sent her the wrong one. Finance called her to discuss the budget to fix the leak. By the end of the school day, nothing had been fixed and her students’ day had been disrupted. A school board member stopped by the next morning, saw the mess, and got the attention of the superintendent. It was only then that the mess was fixed.  Everyone wanted to help this principal, but there simply weren’t the right processes and policies in place to quickly solve the problem so that her students could continue to learn without disruption.    

Talking about processes and policies is not exciting. But, when systems within a complex school district work together seamlessly around a common vision and common goals, real magic begins to happen.  Educators can do their jobs and students learn and succeed. It is not enough to have a department full of people who handle things like “leadership development” and “human resources” and “accountability.” All departments within a district have to truly connect to one another (and providing an update at a monthly district office meeting does not make a true connection). For more on this, see our Principal Talent Management Framework.

Being a principal is challenging. Principals answer to their students, their families, their teachers, their community, and their bosses. That is a tough position to be in. But, the start of the school year offers an opportunity to reflect and make changes.  Doing all we can to help principals stay focused on student learning and success is always worth the investment by district leaders. Effective principals stay where they are valued – we want your district to keep your best talent this year and beyond.