What Good (and Bad) Principals Teach Us About Teaching

Students complain about bad teachers.

Johnny comes home from school and complains his teacher plays favourites because his teacher praises only a few students and bashes the rest. Johnny hates when his teacher talks about him behind his back to other teachers and even students.

Maria complains to her parents over dinner that her teacher never has time for her and never answers questions.

Jason hates that his teacher is lazy—he sits and sips Starbucks and lectures behind his desk— while expecting only the best work from his students. “It’s hyporcritical!” Jason cries to his parents.  Another teacher takes days to reply to Jason’s emails and takes weeks to mark his work, yet expects Jason’s homework to be handed in on time. “It’s just not right!” moans Jason.

Tina, a thoughtful student, hates the new tardiness rules in her classroom: they don’t make sense to her: there is not logic behind them, and so to her, the rules have no meaning. “I can’t follow a rule that doesn’t make sense!” Tina says.

Caroline, a hardworking student, feels overwhelmed by her teacher’s demands and wonders, “Doesn’t this teacher remember what it was like to be a student?”

Fast forward fifteen years, and our students have become teachers….

Teachers complain about bad principals.

Mr. Johnny Mireau comes home from school and hashes out his principals latest clique antics and the mass email sent out bashing the staff for the honest mistake of the few. Mr. Mireau hates it when his principal talks behind the backs of teachers  to parents or other teachers and passive-aggressively punishes staff he does not like.

Mrs. Maria Johnson complains to her husband over dinner that her principal never has time to answer questions and hasn’t replied to an email sent three days ago.

Mr. Jason Welsch hates that his principal is lazy—he sits and sips Starbucks all day, esconsced in a sofa in his office, and leaves school at the bell—while expecting the best work and long hours from his teachers. “It’s hypocritical!” Mr. Welsch, tired and dejected, cries to his wife.

Mrs. Tina Gerard, a thoughtful teacher, hates the new rules and policies at her school: they don’t make sense to her, there is not logic behind them, and so to her, the rules have no meaning. “I can’t teach in a way that has been proven by research not to work!” Tina says.

Mrs. Caroline Gray, a hardworking teacher, feels overwhelmed by her principal’s demands and wonders, “Doesn’t this principal remember what it was like to be a teacher?”

I have been lucky to work under great principals who taught me more about how to teach than any PD or education class. The truth is the way we want to be lead as teachers is the exact same way our students want to be taught.

Here is what we want from our administrators, and what our students want from us:

  1. Students want fairness. No favourites, no exceptions, no different expectations. Students want equal treatment and equal expectations. Favouritism breeds resentment, and it kills motivation.
  2. Students want positivity. No public shaming, accusations, or group punishing for the mistakes of a few. Students want to be corrected privately and gently. They don’t want to be punished for the mistakes of others. They do want to be recognized when they do a good job.
  3. Students want support. No ignoring, no avoiding, and no off-loading. Students want to know that we will do what we can to support them. This means answering their questions, staying after school to tutor, and doing what we can to help instead of blaming them for their failures. They need to know that “we’re in this together” , “my teacher has my back,” and that “mistakes make all of us better.”
  4. Students want us to be role models. No excessively high expectations for them but low expectations for us. As teachers, if we demand high standards—as we should—we should also demand high standards from ourselves. If they work hard, we work hard. We must communicate this to our students: “I expect you to work hard, but I expect myself to work harder.”
  5. Students want us to care. No brushing off their concerns and no avoiding of their reality. We teachers need to understand their personal stresses and take into consideration our student’s complaints. We have to put ourselves into their shoes, and remember what it was like to study and work two jobs, for example.
  6. Students want transparency. No rules without explanation or logic. Students want to know why we have each rule, and they want to know the reasoning. They want to be able to have some say and engage in a conversation if they believe a rule to be unreasonable or impossible to maintain.
  7. Students want empathy. No blaming and back-biting. They want to know that we have tried to see things from their point of view, and that we are doing all that we can to make things right.

This summer, I was enrolled in a course about new principalship standards in my province. There was a lot of debate about what makes a great principal. We also pondered who among the teaching profession should be promoted to the role of principal. We used a lot of big words and referenced many philosophical theories and academic articles.  But I think the answer is simple:

A great principal was once a great teacher.

Let’s make great teachers our principals.