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The Many Roles of School Principals

The traditional role of the school principal as lead administrator and disciplinarian has undergone a much-needed transformation in recent years. MiddleWeb recently published an article by Jack Berckemeyer and Dr. Debbie Silver, authors of Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education, covering not only the many roles of school principals but also the qualities principals need to be successful.

The school principal today is “expected to be a data analyst, cheerleader, PR expert, parking lot attendant, production manager, public speaker, educational leader, problem solver, conflict resolver, curriculum coordinator, chief hand-holder, and polished liaison to parents, community, and higher powers in the educational system — to name only a few. And, oh, you’re also the person who gets all the perks of suspending a student from school.” Berckemeyer and Dr. Silver contend that effective school leaders are optimists at their core.

Optimism Isn’t Just a Positive Attitude

For principals, optimism doesn’t merely involve hoping for the best. It includes “such capabilities as acceptance, curiosity, knowledge seeking, empathic listening, problem solving, caring, openness to new ideas, risk taking, honesty, persistence, coping, taking responsibility, acting with courage and hope.”

While being realistic, an optimistic school leader doesn’t passively think good thoughts but consciously chooses hope and takes an active role in examining facts, making plans, finding solutions and taking action to achieve positive outcomes. The effects of this optimism are palpable. Berckemeyer and Dr. Silver have visited hundreds of schools and say they can sense a school’s climate within minutes of walking in the door. When a leader effectively builds optimism, it transforms school culture and curbs negativity.

Principals can teach optimism to their staff, students and parents by promoting what Berckemeyer and Dr. Silver call the “Five Principles of Optimism.”

  1. Before acting or reacting to a situation, gather as much information as possible about it from as many varied sources (and people) as possible.
  2. Determine what is beyond your control and strategize how to minimize its impact on the lives of the people involved.
  3. Establish what you can control.
  4. Take positive steps toward your goals.
  5. Assume ownership of your plan and acknowledge responsibility for your choices.

The Influence of a Good School Leader

Op-ed columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks, recently wrote about how principals affect the success of teachers, staff and students, improving student outcomes measurably. He says, “We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few decades debating how to restructure schools. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to help teachers. But structural change and increasing teacher quality don’t get you very far without a strong principal.” He cites a research study of 180 schools across nine states which says, “We have not found a single case of a school improving its achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”

As the role of principal has changed from administrator to hands-on leader, it has become more important for the principal to collaborate with teachers. Today’s successful principals, Brooks writes, are high-energy types involved in activities like greeting parents, circulating through the building, offering feedback, setting standards and engaging with students. According to Brooks, successful principals embody energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism and determination.

Becoming a Principal

Emporia State University offers a 100 percent online master’s degree program for professionals who want to pursue principalship. Candidates can gain the skills and knowledge required for effective PreK-12 school leadership geared toward student success.

Learn more about Emporia State University’s online Master of Science in Educational Administration program.


MiddleWeb: Principals Should Be the School Optimist-in-Chief

The New York Times: Good Leaders Make Good Schools

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