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Ask any teacher, rookie or veteran, what he or she most needs to succeed and the answer is likely to be fairly straightforward: a supportive but demanding principal.

Profile: Public School Principals

50.3% female
49.7% male

82.3% white
9.6% black
5.9% Hispanic
2.1% other

Highest degree earned
Bachelor’s degree – 8.8%
Master’s degree – 58.5%
Education specialist or professional diploma – 24.5%
Doctorate or professional degree – 8.1%

Average age

Average years of total experience: 7.5
Average years at current school: 4.3

Average annual salary, by years of experience
Fewer than three years: $73,500
3-9 years: $80,200
10+: $82,700

Average hours spent per week on
All school-related activities: 57.3 hours
Interacting with students: 20.5 hours

Source: U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey, 2007-2008

Surveys of teachers confirm this. Public Agenda, a public opinion research organization based in New York City, found in 2007 that given the choice between a more supportive principal or a significantly higher salary, over 70 percent of first-year teachers would prefer a more supportive principal.

Good school leaders ensure that their teachers have the resources and training needed to meet high expectations, while also creating environments that aspire toward continuous improvement. Perhaps even more importantly, good principals can influence the whole culture of a school building and create a “set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the persona of a school,” according to Kent Peterson, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A school’s culture, says Peterson, influences “the ways people think, feel and act.” And it can be positive, neutral or negative.

A toxic culture, Peterson says, characterizes schools that “reinforce inertia, blame students for lack of progress, discourage collaboration, and often have hostile relations among staff.” The result is an unhealthy, unproductive work environment for both staff and students.

In more positive environments, principals are able to reinforce good teaching by providing staff with more opportunities to attend professional development conferences and extra money to buy needed materials. Even simple things like allowing teachers to use the photocopier with greater frequency can send the message that they are valued, productive members of the staff.

Shana Frazin, who taught elementary school in California before becoming a staff developer with the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, says the best principals find ways to reward teachers who work harder and are more effective than others. Uninspiring principals, by contrast, don’t. “Lots and lots of schools reward incompetence so that the least effective teachers get the easiest class … whereas if you’re good, you get more piled on your plate,” Frazin says.

Good principals support teachers in ways simple and profound – both making sure they have the basics and that they’re protected from whatever might distract them or undermine their teaching. Matthew Delaney, a high school teacher in Whitman, Mass., says a good principal is a lot like Gore-Tex, the lightweight, waterproof material frequently used in outdoor clothing: “Effective principals … allow you to move freely to do what you need to do, while filtering out the bad.”

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  1. Wow! What a great article. I agree 100%. I have worked for two “great” principals who were totally different in how they operated. Both were highly demanding of staff. Both supported me in very different ways.

    I love the gore-tex simile. It really works.

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