12/22/2010 12:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Five Principal Parts of Being a Principal

As a football fan, I always love this time of year. The season has progressed to the point where teams begin to distinguish themselves at the top of the heap or the bottom rung, based on performance. The one thing that I find among the best teams in the NFL is they have great leadership on the field in the form of the quarterback. In schools, the principal is the quarterback who leads the team. The principal's job is to take command in the huddle, call the play and get the ball in the hands of the right person to score points and win the game. Look at the bad teams in the NFL; many of those teams suffer from poor leadership from the quarterback. If we looked at some of the poorer performing schools, with some investigation, we would find that they also suffer from poor leadership.

Our schools need strong leadership from its principals. Of course, a principal is only as strong and effective as his or her team. However, in order for any school to grow, that school must have a school leader that wears many hats and can do many things. Here are five fundamental things that a principal must be and why, in my humble opinion (and not in any particular order):

  1. A principal must be a curriculum writer. Curriculum is the foundation; it is at the very core of our mandate to educate. All principals need to have the ability to work with the various district supervisors and school faculty to craft a functional and working curriculum with the ability to translate the curriculum to students and parents, as well to the teachers for execution.
  2. A principal must be a policy maker and policy enforcer. The school can only be as effective as the policies in place. All school policies must be strong and strongly reinforced to ensure compliance and order from the students, faculty, staff, and parents. The principal must not make policies that are counterproductive but rather policies that make the school function better. The principal must not be afraid of a teacher who believes that they are above doing hall duty, lunch duty or giving up a prep-period. The principal must not be afraid of a parent who advocates for a child who violated a school behavioral policy or academic policy. While there is some room for discretion, the principal must hold all people under the reach of school policy accountable.
  3. A principal must be a master manager. The principal must know how to manage people, tasks, and responsibilities. The job of a principal involves a lot of juggling. Day to day, the principal deals with everything from personnel to facilities, budgeting to scheduling. School leaders must know how to juggle, balance and keep the school fully functional at all times. A principal must know how to multitask, how to adjust on the fly and have an answer for any problem in the short-term. When dealing with issues of student behavior, teaching and learning, the principal must know how to both hold individuals accountable and have compassion while being respectful and professional.
  4. A principal must understand, on a high-level, how to perform the staff's jobs, and not micromanage. Sometimes, the principal may have to perform the job of someone on their staff; the secretary, teacher or social worker. Sometimes, the principal will have to get their hands a little dirty, but they must remember that they are the principal and that the hired staff exists to handle the various functions. Principals must not take over the jobs of others, but rather use their knowledge and leadership skills to provide the staff the effective guidance to perform their jobs.
  5. A principal must be a visionary. Many principals are good at maintaining the status quo; there is no growth, no improvement and issues with the school remain issues. In many cases, the old adage, "if it aint broke, don't fix it," applies. However, when you see schools that challenge old ideas and endeavor to new frontiers to achieve results, there is usually a visionary principal leading the charge. It is in the book of Proverbs that we find the proverb, "where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18a). Our schools perish without a vision for growth, innovation and success. Standards and mandates alone will not improve a school. In order for a school to improve and succeed, it will take a leader who is strategic -- one who can see societal and educational trends, someone who can spot a need and address that need in new and effective ways, and someone who spots a potential roadblock and makes a detour rather than a u-turn.

The principal's job is that of a CEO; formulating strategies and making major decisions affecting the functions of the school. Most importantly, a quality principal is the regulator of the school's academic atmosphere. How do you measure the quality of a school? Walk into a school and notice the attitudes of the people -- the students, teachers, administration, secretaries and custodial workers. Attitudes about teaching and learning, student ability and the level commitment to students and families are attributed to the leadership of the principal. Attitude is a reflection of leadership and the right kind of leadership will always exhibit clarity and purpose, not frustration and confusion.