In our previous column, The Pillars of Principalship, we stressed the importance of establishing foundational pieces that will provide the underlying support and structure for all stakeholders and all day-to-day school operations.
Administrators must now focus on both establishing new and enhancing existing working relationships with all staff members. Regardless of how long an administrator has been at a given school, everyone needs to feel supported, inspired and accountable. After all, servant leadership is all about focusing on the support and growth of others.
There are three major areas in which this support must be routinely seen and heard: student matters, parental matters and personal matters. In addition, principals must continually facilitate staff growth and ensure accountability for all.
#1 - Student Matters
Staff members need to know that inappropriate student conduct will be properly addressed by the principal in a thorough and timely manner. Early in the school year, it is imperative for the principal to set a consistently high bar for student behavior, while at the same time appreciating the unique particulars of each situation.
While investigating any student-related issue, the principal must always make it clear that staff aren’t simply offering a “version of events,” but rather they are sharing the facts. Falling into the trap of creating a “he said/she said” scenario between staff and students is a sure way to lose the buy-in of staff.
If staff members do not feel supported, then inevitably they will choose either to address student concerns as they see fit or ignore them altogether. Either way the only constant across the school will be the complete lack of trust and respect staff members have towards the principal.
#2 - Parental Matters
Student misbehavior often triggers parental concerns, which can quickly get very emotionally charged. There is no question that school administrators frequently get stuck walking the credibility tightrope when they meet with an agitated, accusatory parent and the affected staff member. All parties must see the principal as fair, open-minded and decisive, while at the same time, the teacher needs to feel very much supported.
By far the most challenging parent meetings for an administrator involve situations in which the teacher clearly exhibited poor judgment. The day after this difficult meeting, the principal needs to make a point of connecting with the staff member to review the key points from the meeting and, most importantly, to discuss measures that will be taken to help ensure there will not be a repeat of this contentious situation.
#3 – Personal Matters
“Family comes first” is a quaint expression that sounds wonderful, but it must be actively supported. Principals’ most salient opportunities to gain professional support are when staff members are seeking genuine personal support in their time of need. The range of potential issues among staff members will clearly be vast, but the one constant must be the principal’s response.
Staff always need to feel supported, but never more so than when they are emotionally fragile due to a personal or family matter. People have both long memories and long tributaries of influence. How a principal deals with one staff member in a time of personal crisis will quickly be shared across the staff room and beyond.
School leaders need to show true empathy and genuine concern, while at the same time being honest regarding the parameters of support they can provide and/or help the staff member seeks.
#4 - Inspire Growth
Principals must anticipate and fully support that some of their key staff leaders will eventually leave the school to pursue other opportunities. Staff members need to know that the principal empowers and encourages them to grow, with the understanding that this growth may well necessitate their ultimate departure.
From the principal’s perspective, continual staff growth strengthens the current staff, while also raising the bar for any future additions. This pursuit of excellence elevates the overall culture of the school, and over time this raised bar becomes far more impactful than the contributions of departed staff members.
Conversely, principals must also be tactfully forthright with staff members who plan to pursue opportunities for which they are clearly not prepared. The reality is that some people need more experience, while others may never be ready to assume roles of greater responsibility. Disingenuously supporting professional advancement for these staff members is ultimately not good for the staff involved; it weakens the overall system, and it tarnishes the principal’s reputation among his/her administrative peers.
#5 - Ensure Accountability
As much as any school staff will include a wide range of skills and experiences, they all must be held to the same professional standards. As school leader, a key aspect of the principal’s role, therefore, is the ongoing monitoring of each staff member’s commitment to the collaboratively established school plan and agreed upon school routines. After all, things that get monitored are things that get done.
Highly committed staff members will gradually lose their zest for school initiatives and, more importantly, respect for the principal if they sense that other teachers routinely miss deadlines etc. and are seemingly allowed to “do their own thing” with impunity.
All staff meetings and other professional gatherings need a clear educational focus, open and frank dialogue and agreed upon commitment and timelines. There are many different ways to teach, and principals need to recognize and support the various approaches used across the school. There is only one way to be accountable, however, and principals must actively ensure that everyone is fulfilling their professional obligations to the very best of their abilities.
About the Authors
Jamie Bricker and Jack Barclay are retired school principals who live just outside of Toronto, Ontario. They co-host the Matters of Principal podcast.