6 Tips for District Leaders to Keep (and Grow) Great Principals

April 12, 2017 – We are willing to wager that behind each of the 74 schools that successfully moved off the Priority or Focus lists in Georgia yesterday, you will find a strong principal and leadership team. Those leaders inspire students and teachers to strive toward higher performance, create a nurturing culture, and help teachers to be more successful in the classroom. It is not groundbreaking to say that principals are vital to the success of schools. It’s well-documented.[note]Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., Anderson, S. E., et al. (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning. Retrieved from

Yet, principals are increasingly throwing in the towel and leaving their positions. According to Ed Fuller, a researcher at Penn State University who studies principal turnover, the average tenure of a principal today is under four years.[note]Fuller, E.  & Young, M. (2009). Tenure and retention of newly hired principals in Texas. Retrieved from http://www.ucea.org/storage/principal/IB%201_Principal%20Tenure%20and%20Retention%20in%20Texas%20of%20Newly%20Hired%20Principals_10_8_09.pdf.[/note] In urban areas, that number is even lower, with many schools getting a new principal every year.

In a recent interview with GLISI, Fuller explained the impact of this revolving door on the school and on kids noting, “Principal turnover is associated with a decrease in student achievement and it takes 2-3 years for the new principal to reverse the downward trend and get the trajectory back in the right direction.” The main way principal turnover hurts student achievement, Fuller explained, is through the turnover it causes among teachers who often will choose to leave when a principal to whom they are loyal is no longer at the school. When teachers aren’t in a school long enough to build relationships with students, or to help put in place more effective practices introduced by a new leader, it means students are left dangling in the gap.

With such a critical role to play in school success, districts must bend over backwards to create supportive conditions for principals, right? We don’t see it as often as we would like. Usually by acts of omission rather than commission, we notice disorganization or neglect on the part of the district can hasten a principal’s departure.[note]Ikemoto, G., Taliaferro, L., Fenton, B., & Davis, J. (2014, June). Great principals at scale: Creating conditions that enable all principals to be effective. Dallas, TX: The Bush Institute. http://bushcenter.imgix.net/legacy/gwbi-greatprincipalsatscale.pdf[/note]

But districts are not helpless to watch principals walk out the door. There are specific – and not very difficult – things that districts can do to ensure principals stay long enough to sustain successes. Below see six tips for district leaders to help keep and grow great principals:

Clarify expectations for leaders.

Too often, principals are left in the dark about what is expected of them. While the state provides clarity in how principals should be evaluated, many district leaders have not spent reflective time to distill and make public what they believe are necessary qualities and practices for principals beyond the state evaluation. This leaves principals discovering these expectations over time, piecemeal, and often from multiple district leaders (or worst case, they discover conflicting expectations from different district leaders). Like the rest of us, principals want to be successful. Research on organizational behavior tells us that eventually, when people conclude success is impossible, if they have options elsewhere, they will leave.[note]Hom, P.W. & Griffeth, R.W. 1991. Structural equations modeling test of a turnover theory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76, 350-376; McGregor, D. 1960. The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.; Mobley, W.H. 1977. Intermediate linkages in the relationship between job satisfaction and employee turnover. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62, 237-240.; Steel, R.P. 2002. Turnover theory at the empirical interface: Problems of fit and function. Academy of Management Review, 27: 346-360.[/note]

 Tip 1: Undertake a district-wide effort to articulate expectations – or even better, a competency model – that describes the qualities and unspoken expectations of leaders in the district. Then communicate, communicate, communicate these expectations so they are commonly understood by all district leaders, and cascaded to principals, assistant principals, and those who aspire to be building leaders.

Seek to understand leaders.

A principal’s day is a near constant flow of requests for information, for decisions, for their presence – a bombardment of incoming demands. Too rarely do districts reverse that flow and invite principals to share what their pain points are, and especially what feedback principals might have for districts about the quality and effectiveness of the support the district provides to them. Principals – like all people – have a need to be understood. When districts make unilateral decisions without explanation or pile on another 80-page needs assessment template, it makes principals feel that the district has no idea what their job is, or worse, that the district is working at cross-purposes to what the principal knows is in the best interests of students. Without an ally or a sense that the district “has their back,” principals begin to feel isolated, unappreciated, misunderstood or invisible, all of which lead to looking for other places to bring their talents.

Tip 2: Shadow a principal from their first moment in the building through lunch solely for purposes of understanding them – even if you were the principal in that building before. Don’t make a school walkthrough or visit a principal in his/her office and think that is sufficient. The purpose is to build relationship and understanding so principals feel less isolated, more supported, and well-understood by the central office that should be there to help them be successful.

Tip 3: Collect anonymous data from principals asking them to rate how well central office provides support to them and helps them to grow as leaders. Be transparent about reporting the data back to principals and about central office efforts to improve their support

Focus on principal growth.

Because teachers are known to have a direct impact on student performance, budgets are often allocated to their training and development at the cost of principals’ professional growth. What principals do get is an annual performance evaluation likely to highlight their areas of weakness. They may also receive information that targets their school, but not their personal growth as a leader. All people seek opportunities for growth and development – it is part of a natural cycle of motivation where new challenges provide opportunities for new successes. Without those opportunities, motivation eventually wanes. Absent opportunities to grow to offset all of the pressures of the principal’s job, the principal is at high risk of walking.

Tip 4: Create or reframe a role in central office to serve the purpose of “principal grower.” This person’s work should not be confused with evaluation – they are there to be what University of Washington researcher Meredith Honig[note]Honig, M. I., Copland, M. A., Rainey, L., Lorton, J. A., & Newton, M. (2010). Central office transformation for district-wide teaching and learning improvementCenter for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.[/note] calls a “learning partner” with principals. This person needs to be a skilled coach who can offer side-by-side guidance that helps the principal be more effective in the work of leading. Even if there is not room in the budget for a new position, anyone whose role it is to supervise principals can reflect on how to shift from merely evaluating (“You’re a 3”) to helping and encouraging principals to grow and succeed (“Have you thought about trying this new strategy? Can I share this resource with you that might help you to reframe your thinking?”).

Tip 5: Next time you visit a school, schedule it during a time when the principal is in an overt act of “principaling” – leading a faculty meeting, giving feedback to a teacher, leading a professional learning community meeting. Watch for specific moves the leader makes that contribute to positive culture or teacher growth. Be sure to share that observation in what The Artisan Teacher author Mike Rutherford calls a “quick burst” of feedback – start with a positive greeting, describe what the leader did, tell how you saw that move positively impacting the school/teachers, and end with a word of encouragement or thanks.

Tip 6: Provide principals with a combination of “required” and self-selected options for professional learning and coaching, with larger proportion of the latter.

Districts do not have to stand idly by and watch principals leave. Some of the exodus can be stopped by simply cutting back on those actions that directly push principals away. But ideally, districts would think strategically and with intention about how they not only retain principals, but also how they create conditions where principals grow, thrive, and want to stay. The tips offered here would be a great starting point.