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Eric Nadelstern
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

A school's influence on a student starts at the very top: with the principal.

Over the course of my 40-year career in New York City public schools, I took on a variety of roles and responsibilities, but in every different position I’ve held as an educator, the quality of leadership has always been one of the top requirements.

My students have grown from high schoolers, to teachers, to principals, and later, to superintendents and network leaders. However, the job that mattered most to me, and most affected the children, was that of principal, a position I held for 18 years. Principal is the highest position you can hold in a school system and still have a direct impact on the lives of children and their families.

Two schools with similar students can have widely disparate student performance outcomes. The critical variable is often the principal. The principal is the chief teacher in a school. Her class is her teachers. Just as the teacher is responsible for ensuring that each of his students moves closer to full potential, the principal’s main responsibility is to facilitate the learning of each teacher.

When I first became a principal, I thought the job was to sit in my office and solve the problems of the many teachers, parents, and students who came to my door each day. It was not until I had more experience under my belt that I understood that the principal is the only person in a school not tied to a rigorous and defined daily schedule. This relative freedom affords the opportunity to explore the school at will, surface problems which exist, and support others on the staff to solve those problems as a major part of their own development.

Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York, was asked by a reporter during his first mayoral election why he believed his private sector leadership experience would apply to the public sector. Bloomberg said that regardless of sector, the job of a leader is to find the best employees, support them, develop them, protect them from outside interference, reward them when they do good work, and, most importantly, hold them accountable for the highest standards of performance. Bloomberg could have been defining the job of an effective principal. Great principals understand the following five principles:

  • The more authority the leader is willing to share, the more influential she will become.
  • Effective leaders awaken the leader inside each member of the organization.
  • The model for adult learning needs to parallel the model for student learning.
  • Leading and teaching is listening; learning is talking.
  • Good leaders absorb pain; they don’t inflict it.

My former boss, Joel Klein, pointed out that parents don’t send their children to a school system because the unit that matters is the school. He also understood that the pivotal position in the school is that of principal. For that reason, he started the New York City Leadership Academy to prepare new principals and help them succeed.

Schools usually have the quality of leadership they are designed to attract. In districts where the superintendent and her staff make all the decisions, don’t be surprised if the school attracts principals who don’t want to make the tough calls. On the other hand, if a district wants smart, innovative, entrepreneurial principals, be prepared to grant that school the maximum degree of autonomy in return for accountability for student achievement.

Unfortunately, we’ve bred generation-after-generation of school superintendents who believe that they have all the answers. That makes the leadership provided by the principal all that more important. Principal leadership, however, is most successful when the authority is shared with teachers, parents, and even with students. It is then that leadership matters most.