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Successful school leaders know: People come first

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on March 23, 2012)

I’ve written recently about how parents can tell whether their child has a good teacher and about how they can tell if their child is attending a good school. Perhaps it goes without saying that leadership is key to hiring good teachers and running good schools, but let’s take a closer look at principals.

Much of the quality research on school leadership has been sponsored in recent years by the Wallace Foundation. In a January report, The School Principal as Leader, the foundation put forth five key responsibilities for school principals:

Shaping a vision of academic success for all students.

Creating a climate hospitable to learning.

Cultivating leadership in others.

Improving instruction.

Managing people, data and processes.

If that sounds a little technical, we can make it clear in just two words: Relationships matter.

If principals want their students to be academically successful, they need to create a culture in which students are known, cared for and respected as individuals. Principals should also understand that success can mean very different things for different children, who come with their own backgrounds, talents and interests.

Open to people, ideas

To create an environment hospitable to learning, schools should be open to people and their ideas. Principals should see teachers (and themselves) as learners, alongside students. Parents and their concerns should always be welcome. A commitment to hospitality should also be evident in a school’s facilities and grounds.

Cultivating leadership means allowing teachers the opportunity to work as professionals. Great principals develop great teachers and encourage their careers. Students, too, should have plentiful opportunities to passionately pursue the things that interest them, whether in academics or in extracurricular activities.

To improve instruction, a principal should see a school’s curriculum as dynamic, not a fixed set of facts and formulas to be memorized and mastered. Because knowledge is always changing, great principals look for ways to forge relevant connections among students, teachers and the material being studied.

Managing people and processes is all about relationship. Skillful principals understand the roles played by everyone from the office secretary to the master teacher, and they help them grow in their roles. They ensure that every student experiences a rigorous and relevant curriculum. And they have the ability to monitor programs, use data to evaluate their effectiveness, and improve them continuously. Under the guidance of a principal with these skills, a school becomes a successful learning community.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.