Want To Be a Good Principal? Listen, Observe and Take Lots of Notes!

For the last nine months, I have spent every other Tuesday evening, in a room of aspiring administrators. At the beginning, I felt out of place as I was both the youngest and the one with the least years of experience in the room. With less than five years under my belt in comparison to an average of fifteen, I spent the first two months second guessing myself and wondering if maybe I jumped into the administrator pool too early on. While I now feel confident about my journey and realize that years are not equivalent to expertise or real leadership, I have learned many lessons in the process that have allowed me to recreate my own vision of what transformative leadership is.

Thanks to the numerous assignments focused on interviewing colleagues, shadowing successful administrators and simply listening to teachers and staff as they voice their needs and wishes, and examining my own role as board member of an urban school district, I have learned that what makes leaders transformational is not just dependent on their content expertise but rather on their ability to build and foster strong relationships.

Appreciative Leadership

As a first year teacher, I worked under what I now understand to be as “appreciative leadership.” My Director of Instruction was notorious for the personalized notes providing us both kuddos and multiple opportunities for growth. He led by example and set high expectations for everyone by modeling them himself. He never took our work for granted and made it a priority to acknowledge our commitment to our kids both in and out of the classroom. Looking back and with a new sense of understanding for what qualities make a leader truly transformational, his humility and ability to appreciate others inspired us as staff to go above and beyond for him no matter what. That sense of leadership is unfortunately lacking in many schools nowadays. Perhaps this is a function of not enough leadership training. Or perhaps administrators are feeling overwhelmed with bureaucratic concerns, or maybe some people who climbed into leadership roles forgot about the people who are supporting them from below. Maybe it all stems from the many pressures of being understaffed and having to wear a hundred hats at once, which gets in the way of doing the everyday little things that make a difference. Regardless of all that, it is critical that more administrators make the effort to not only appreciate their staff but also acknowledge what everyone brings to the table as those individual strengths will foster an environment of collaboration. A great leader multiplies him/herself as a way of getting more done — it is crucial that more administrators understand this from the get go or they will get very little done.

Great Operational Management

From all my conversations with colleagues and from numerous observations during site visits and with my own shadowing opportunities, I have noticed two of the common qualities many have shared when describing their ideal administrator:  great organizational skills and strong operational management. As with any other business, a manager’s responsibility is to oversee that all work is completed while still maintaining a rapport with customers and his/her employees. School leaders should do exactly that: oversee their school while keeping families, students, and staff satisfied.

To achieve this, it is critical that school leaders organize their days in a way that allows them to be supportive, while not being overbearing, and have a vision that allows for macro managing rather than micro managing. A great operational leader also understands that in order to successfully run a school, he/she must trust the staff to do its part and also gain the trust of others. There must be transparent communication, where all those involved know what’s going on and information is not simply limited to those in the “inner circle.”

A great operational leader models work ethic through presence: always punctual, always approachable, always accessible and most importantly, always available. If needed, a great operational leader understands the value of proactivity; they don’t wait for things to be taken care of and immediately act as a custodian if need be. But above all, a great operational leader, listens and inspires others to go the extra mile by doing so themselves.

Instructional Knowledge is always a plus

I used to believe that in order to be a successful school leader, one must be strong in all academic content areas. This is an unrealistic expectation. It’s been very clear that it is more important to have instructional knowledge in terms of strategies and understanding of what works for different student populations, over simple content expertise in a few areas. The beauty to being a strong instructional leader is that he/she understands the power of instructional rounds, values and respects teacher planning time, prioritizes intentional data reflection and provides support when its most necessary. But even with all the instructional background in the world, it is essential that a school leader still possess all the qualities mentioned above as we all gravitate towards leaders who are human before anything.

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Alma Renteria

Alma Renteria

Alma-Delia Renteria is a proud product of Lynwood schools. After graduating UC Riverside, with a B.A. in English and a year earlier than anticipated, she decided to commit her “gap year” to City Year. After City Year Los Angeles, Alma went on to purse a teaching career with Teach For America Los Angeles. Upon joining TFA, Alma began her education career as a middle school teacher. It was while teaching that she realized the need to do her part to help serve the community she grew up in and decided to run for office, getting elected to the Lynwood School Board at only 23 years old. Alma completed her Master’s degree in Urban Education at Loyola Marymount University and is currently pursuing a 2nd Masters in Education Leadership and her Admin Credential. She was recently appointed by the Speaker to the Instructional Quality Commission and also serves as a Digital Learning Instructional Coach at a dual immersion school in Pico Rivera.

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