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School Principals' Priorities: 3 Essential Focus Areas

The role of the school principal is changing, and, as it does, so must principal training.

That’s the emerging view of many university education programs across the country.

Schools such as Northwest Missouri State University and others are rolling out updated school principal training courses to keep pace with the demand for evolving professional development, reports Education Week. Many of these efforts are based on a set of national standards released in 2015 by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

“These new standards have rejuvenated our program,” David Kiene, who coordinates Northwest Missouri State’s principal training program, told Education Week. “It’s given us a good way of focusing on what the most important things are for beginning principals to know and understand as they prepare to become school leaders.”

So, what is most important for these school building leaders moving forward?

Here’s three priorities every school building principal should focus on, according to the CCSSO guidelines and new university training programs.

1. Emphasize a caring and inclusive school environment

Every child matters. That goes without saying.

But not every principal effectively embodies this ideal. That failure can leave certain students feeling marginalized.

The CCSSO guidelines suggest that principals:

“Create and sustain a school environment in which each student is known, accepted and valued, trusted and respected, cared for, and encouraged to be an active and responsible member of the school community.”

That work starts with fostering a positive school climate.

“When classrooms are open and inviting, students tend to engage better and more completely with schoolwork,” writes Dr. Stephan Knobloch, a veteran school researcher and former director of research for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia.

Inclusivity means understanding the backgrounds, customs, and home languages of each of your students and providing equitable opportunities for them to express themselves and be heard.

A caring school environment also engages students outside of the classroom and promotes strong relationships between students and their peers, their teachers, and their communities, posits the CCSSO.

2. Equip staff and faculty to embrace their own leadership roles

The best school leaders trust their staffs to make the right decisions. The teachers of tomorrow say they are looking for coaches, not bosses.

Top-down edicts and hierarchical performance management don’t work in today’s school environment. Faculty members want and need more responsibility, along with a stronger team work ethic.

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Successful principals trust staff, and provide training to ensure that every teacher and classroom aide has the skills necessary to help students achieve their full potential. This starts in initial recruitment and hiring phases and continues with professional development and on-the-job learning opportunities.

Jacquelyn Wilson, the interim director of the University of Delaware’s Professional Development Center for Educators, framed it this way for Education Week: “[As a principal] I also need to know how to grow my teachers into leaders. I need to know how to develop a culture where teachers take risks.”

3. Collaborate with your community

Effective school leaders see community engagement as an essential, ongoing process, the CCSSO says.

Principals must understand the social and cultural makeup of their communities. That requires the ability to have strong two-way conversations with students, parents, and other community members. More important, they must use that feedback to make smart, informed choices for students and families.

School principals are among the most vocal advocates for community needs.

That might mean identifying business partners to bolster the school’s mission, or providing health services for at-risk students and families. Or, it might mean starting an adult learning program for parents.

Have you read the CCSSO’s guidelines? Are you using them to inform principal training in your schools? What do those programs look like? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for more ways to rethink school leadership in an age of change? Read Why understanding millennials is key to fighting teacher attrition.