The Making of a WEAK Principal
Actions conscious and unconscious by central administration can limit the effectiveness of school leaders
BY TERRY P. MCDANIEL AND STEVE GRUENERT/School Administrator, June 2018

Steve Gruenert Terry McDaniel
Do you remember the excitement of becoming a school principal? Every beginning principal has great aspirations of leading a school to high achievement and reaching great levels of success. New principals want only to excel. So why then do many become weak and ineffective?

In our previous article for this magazine, “The Making of a Weak Teacher” (November 2009), we contend that school system leaders can make a weak teacher through intentional and unintentional acts. In other words, we can make any teacher, regardless of his or her potential, become average, if not weak. Similarly, we contend here that district administrators, through their practices, can turn a principal into a weak performer.

We have taught principal leadership courses at universities and have trained and observed hundreds of principals and superintendents. Too often we have seen new principals enthusiastically begin their principalships, only to become discouraged by the very actions and events we describe below.

We caution: Do not attempt to do this in any school.

Manipulating Conditions
The new principal is ready to take on the world, full of optimism and eager to make the school the best it can be. Now, let us see if we can take a driven, dedicated new school leader and make him or her weak and ineffective.

Start by giving the new principal poor secretarial assistance. Provide a secretary who has no people skills; who is rude to those calling the school; gruffly greets students, parents and staff; provides little support for the principal; fails to take messages; does not communicate the concerns of those coming to see the principal; and is quick to blame the principal for any and all deficiencies.

Next, provide weak custodial help. Be sure the school has an inconsiderate head custodian who knows how to play the system and how to clean just enough to get by. Just as visitors judge a school by the secretary who meets and greets stakeholders, many will use the cleanliness of a building as a measure of a school’s quality and thus the quality of its leadership.

Be sure you place that new principal in a school where teachers make plenty of discipline referrals to the office for the most minor offenses, behavior that should be handled in the classroom. This will prevent the principal from spending time in classrooms and providing instructional leadership.

Make sure you cut materials and supply budgets to a minimum, leaving little in terms of classroom or instructional support that the principal can offer to teachers. After all, we know that teachers will spend their own money to provide classroom materials to students.

Do not allow the principal to have input on staffing issues. Create a district-level hiring process that is committee-based and assign teachers to the school with no principal input. This ensures all staffing is assigned by central office, which fortifies the loyalty of new hires to a level above the principal. Soon, even the veteran teachers will not feel any loyalty toward the principal.

Be sure to assign many extra responsibilities to the principal and call them “leadership opportunities.” Bury them with work on district committees and in paperwork so they will feel the need to stay in the office instead of classrooms.

Provide the principal few opportunities for networking or professional development. Do not provide fiscal support for conferences or membership in professional organizations.

Force the principal to support programs handed down from the district office. Ensure decisions on programs are made from a district level with little or no input from principals or teachers. Make the principal a manager of programs, not the leader.

Micromanage the principal’s decisions. Don’t support the principal when confronted with issues from parents or teachers. Instead, offer your own solutions even when contrary to the principal’s. There is no greater way to destroy a principal’s leadership.

And, of course, never ever praise or compliment the principal for an accomplishment. After all, the principal is not in the classroom or running the district. The principal is only middle management — the messenger.

Time-Consuming Tasks
Of course, this is no way to support a new principal. No good district leader would ever subject a principal to all these distractions. Or would they?

Situations such as these occur in schools regularly, resulting in added stress for and disillusionment of the principal. District leaders too often look to the principal as the manager who accepts hand-me-down duties while responsible for all educational outcomes of the school.

The principal, while desiring to be a strong instructional leader, will discover many days consumed by irritating, time-consuming managerial tasks. On a typical day, a principal will make about 300 decisions. At the end of the day the principal may ask, “What percent of my day was spent making decisions about education?” It is difficult to stay focused and upbeat when day after day the principal is bogged down in “administrivia.”

Supportive Principles
Just as teachers value autonomy, principals value administrative autonomy. Principals need to be treated as leaders with autonomy to accomplish goals, while accepting individual accountability, according to Rick Hess, writing in The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship in 2008. Principals of successful schools maintain and support learning for all students and staff, and when their hands are tied by district leadership and lack of strong support by the staff, fulfilling that key leadership role is difficult if not impossible, according to Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson in their book Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes and Promises.

Robert Marzano and two co-authors, in their 2005 book School Leadership That Works: From Research to Results, share research that correlates the principal’s responsibilities with academic achievement. They say the district-level leadership must ensure principals have opportunities to learn and exercise these responsibilities. Finding opportunities is not difficult. Many states offer principal institutes and academies for professional development. Educational leadership departments of universities may run school study councils, and national principal associations operate state affiliates.

Principals also have the responsibility of staying focused. They must remember that they are the outreach for the school. Other leaders look to them for optimism and energy. Strong principals always focus on students, not the adults. They build strong relationships and communicate openly so problems are addressed and rumors do not linger. Effective principals are out of the office and in the halls, classrooms and other sites where students are present. Their happiness and success come from promoting students and staff and seeing them become successful.

Quality teaching in classrooms is linked to the quality of building leadership, according to Timothy Havard, Joyce Morgan and Lynne Patrick, writing in the Journal of Research on Leadership Education in 2010. To be successful, principals need that support from district leadership. This includes support for professional development and furthering their education. Teachers believe principals with advanced coursework and advanced degrees are more effective leaders, according to Jerry Valentine and Mike Prather, in their 2011 article for NASSP Bulletin tying leadership to student achievement.

Unintentional Acts
No principal wants to be seen as weak and ineffective. Yet the noxious combination of the above factors can quickly kill the joy and enthusiasm of an inspired new leader. While no superintendents intentionally create such conditions for their new principals, some may be blind to what is happening.

TERRY MCDANIEL is professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. Twitter: @terrypmcdaniel. STEVE GRUENERT is professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University.