Principles for Principals


Tim Westerberg, a retired High School Principal and author, wrote a great article in Educational Leadership magazine in 2016 titled, The Principal Factor. The article shares six principles for leadership which can be summed up by saying, PUT RELATIONSHIPS FIRST!

So powerful was the article that I wrote down the six principles on a piece of yellow legal paper which I have kept on my desk for the past three years to refer to often, especially on difficult days.

These six principles remind me to put relationships first.

Principle One

Show students respect. No one in the school is invisible. This includes students, teachers, staff, aides, parents and facilities staff. Respect goes a long way in developing relationships which can help later when you may need to have a courageous conversation with someone.

Principle Two

Be Visible. Get out of the office and into classrooms and common areas. Although I don’t get out of my office as much as I want to on a daily basis I try every day. Each morning I greet students outside during morning arrival and again at dismissal. I try to get into the cafeteria at least a few times a week for a lunch shift or two. Better yet, is when I get a chance to cover for a teacher during one of his or her classes. Walking the hallways during class transitions is another great opportunity to see and interact with students.

Principle Three

Be clearly in control. It’s not about power. I try to communicate my role as a leader and demonstrate that I am secure in my ability as a leader. As much as possible I try to give my faculty and staff opportunities to take on leadership roles within the school. This means that I need to listen more than talk. Someone once told me that we were given two eyes, two ears and one mouth for a reason. The best leaders use them in proportion to one another.

Principle Four

Clarify non-negotiables. Relationships are stable when the Principal is clear about non-negotiables. One non-negotiable for me is for everyone in the building to maintain a growth mindset. This goes for not just students but for faculty and staff as well, including me. Another non-negotiable for me is Principle Five

Principle Five

Be Civil. I need to model the values and behaviors that the school is asking students to adopt. The same goes for everyone that works in the school. When the adults in the building are modeling the behavior we wish to see from the students it becomes easier for the students to see and meet those expectations.

Principle Six

Show Affinity. It helps if you genuinely like kids. Students can smell BS and insincerity. So can teachers. As a leader, I need to demonstrate my care for the students and the fact that I love my job as a school leader. It can be difficult on the bad days, but on those tough days, it is even more important that I follow principle six.

I guess that’s why I keep this dog eared, coffee stained piece of paper on my desk. I need the constant reminder.

What’s so bad about conflict?


Recently, I was speaking with a couple of colleagues and one of them half-jokingly mentioned, “You love conflict!” I think that to some degree this comment came from my penchant from asking probing questions in my meetings with faculty and staff.

When I ask questions during meetings, I try to make them probing and seek deeper meaning. I am seeking to find out a person’s deeper intention and core beliefs. I think what often bothers some of my faculty and staff members is that I am exploring why we do the things we do.

When a leader starts to question the status quo, feelings of tension and conflict can arise among the group. But, not all conflict is bad.

Think about peanut butter and jelly, the conflict of salty and sweet is a joy for many. If PB&J isn’t your thing what about French Fries and Ketchup? How about Balsamic Vinegar and Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a salad?

Some people love sports. Why? Because of the conflict and tension. Think about two soccer teams on the pitch, or football teams battling it out. Tennis, baseball, and basketball all are about the conflict of two opposing forces.

One does not have to go far when examining the arts and how conflict plays an important role in discovering deeper meaning. Classical music, jazz, rock and pop music all use conflict, either in lyrics, meter or key signatures, to help create tension and release to create a deeper meaning for the listener.

Painters and other artists use conflict as a medium to engage viewers in order to make meaning from their visual art. Novelist and poets use conflict to create tension and develop story arcs in order to draw the reader in. Television and movies use story arcs for the same reason.

The idea of conflict can have negative connotations because people often see it as unpleasant. However, respectful candor during courageous conversations and using strategic conflict is a powerful tool to change practices which are no longer effective.

Sometimes asking questions in which you already know the answers is important so that others may derive deeper meaning on their own rather than being told the better course of action. Effective teachers use this strategy in the classroom with their students. After all, there is little value in providing students the answers when the learning can be more meaningful and permanent when they arrive at the conclusion themselves.

I think the most vital part of using conflict effectively is to provide a safe environment where people feel safe to share their opinions. Part of my role as a school leader is to create the conditions wherein faculty and staff feel safe to have courageous conversations. In this way, I can continue to have a growth mindset conversations with my faculty.

How do you create a safe environment within your school. classroom or organization?