Multiple Expectations for the Role of School Leader

Written By dwalker

On January 6, 2010

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School leaders answer to a number of audiences, each of which holds different expectations.  District leaders want well-run schools that meet their academic targets, have positive learning environments and satisfied parents: their expectations are that principals will take care of operations in a systematic way so that they are available to lead instructional improvement efforts and engage the larger community.

Parents want school leaders who will maintain discipline and order, and who will ensure that their students learn what is important for them to learn.  They want a principal who communicates with them frequently, who makes them feel welcome in the school but who doesn’t ask too much of them in terms of on-site involvement.  Most parents are happy to help their students at home, with regulating homework, bedtimes, etc., but have constraints on their own time and resources when it comes to volunteering regularly at the school.  They also look for a principal to be knowledgeable and accessible at the same time; one who values their opinions and invites them to be a partner in their child’s education.

Teachers may hold the most complex set of expectations for school leaders.  They want a principal who ensures the school runs smoothly and who is knowledgeable about instruction, can support them in the classroom and garner needed resources, someone who will improve learning conditions in the school.  At the same time, they are often hesitant to embrace a school leader who is viewed as a change agent and who will cause them to alter their methods and routines.  They tell the principal to hold students accountable for their classroom behavior and academic progress, but get nervous when they are held accountable for increased student learning, especially if the principal wants to tie their performance evaluation to student outcomes.  Of course this is not true of all teachers and depending upon the context, many teachers will respond positively to a strong principal who is an instructional leader.  However, in instances where teacher committees are charged with hiring a new principal, they often opt for someone who will maintain the status quo or who is not sufficiently experienced to bring about deep instructional changes.

Students expect school leaders to keep them safe and the school well organized.  They like to think that their principal is interested in them and their learning, will treat them fairly, and will make sure that there are skilled and caring teachers in the classroom.  Students, even young ones, have a sense of justice and understand from a young age that teachers exert authority over them and their learning.  The principal is sometimes seen as an arbitrator who will make sure that the actions of teachers or other students are positive and appropriate.  They like to think the principal is on their side and will see the world through their eyes. 

These different audiences and expectations add challenge to the role of school leaders, especially given the hectic schedule of a principal and the fact that most interactions are brief and hurried.  So how do principals work in an intentional way to meet these different expectations?  A few suggestions follow:

  • Make sure all audiences know your priorities, and use clear and straightforward language to communicate those priorities.  All groups want to know that student learning is paramount and that in ensuring high levels of student learning you will also ensure that your school is safe and has a positive learning environment.
  • Communicate a consistent message about your priorities in person, through e-newsletters, e-mail, your school website, twitter and any other means you use to interact with your audiences.
  • Make sure you also offer evidence of progress in meeting your priorities, giving all your audiences specific examples of smooth operations—decrease in classroom interruptions, improved attendance for students and teachers, reduction in misbehavior and suspensions, effective use of funds, increased community involvement; and of student learning—good examples of classroom practice you’ve observed, exemplars of student performance, increased scores on achievement tests and other measures, academic awards garnered, etc.
  • Create opportunities to interact in positive ways with your audiences.  Don’t underestimate the value of time spent listening to and interacting with students.  Not only can your presence and attention connect them more closely to the school, but these positive interactions are conveyed to their parents and through their parents, to the larger community and district.
  • Remember that the principal’s role is both substantive and symbolic.  Your presence and your attention signal priorities to others in addition to your words and actions.  Be aware of the power of the role to make a difference in the lives of students and teachers at your school.

Do you have other suggestions for how school leaders can meet the expectations of their various audiences?