Do’s and Don’ts of School Leadership

I still remember when I applied for my first administrative position. I was a young, 29 year old physical education teacher and coach. My fellow physical education teachers thought it was hysterical.  They started humming the Imperial March from Star Wars as I walked into the gym. Bob, a veteran of over 25 years with a striking resemblance to the Grinch, started talking into the nearby industrial fan and in his best Darth Vader Voice said “Kris I am your father”.

I didn’t understand the reference so Bill, the other rocket scientist I had the pleasure of working with each day, was quick to explain.  “I hear you want to go over to the dark side.” I have to admit what these two lacked in passion, compassion, and talent for teaching they certainly made up for with their comedic timing.

Apparently administration was considered the dark side to them.  It’s probably because our principal actually cared about kids, a skill I quickly found out they lacked when they yucked it up while reading the arrest report and pointing out former students who had fallen on hard times. It never occurred to them that when one of their former students failed that, in a small, it was a poor reflection on them and on our school. It never occurred to them to try to reach out and try to help get their kids back on the right track; it never occurred to them to show some compassion, some empathy.

I was feeling a bit dejected and defeated until a respected member of the faculty approached me and told me that he thought I had what it took to be a great administrator. He cautioned me to make sure to remember where I came from and who I was. “Kris, you are a teacher and you will always be a teacher no matter what your title is. The best administrators I have worked with over the years remember that and remember we are all on the same team.”

That talk was exactly what I needed at that time and his message stuck with me. There are no sides in education, and there is only one title that is more important than the others, it is not teacher, it is not principal, and is not even Superintendent.

The most important title is student.  

That is why we have jobs, that is why we have a future, and that is why we do what we do.

I didn’t land that first administrative position, but did find myself in administration not too long after. I find it hard to believe that I am serving in my 16th year as a school administrator. In those 16 years I have made some bad decisions, some good ones, and others I am still not quite sure of, but I do believe that I have learned each and every year.  I feel I am better this year than last, and will be better next year than I am this year. It is my goal to get better each and every year until I “call it a day”.

Hopefully that won’t be for a long long time because, not only do I learn every year, I enjoy the work more and more each year.  I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing people who have helped me grow. With the support of great people and experience, I have learned some do’s and don’ts that have helped me in my desire to make schools a better place for kids. Here are some of the most important ones:

Do: Put People First

The single most important thing any school leader can do is to put people first. That starts with getting to know everyone in your school community. It is important to have informal conversations, stop into classrooms, get to know your staff members’ families, their interests, their passions. You can never spend too much time building your team. It is also important to understand that $h1T happens, sometimes your people will have a bad day. It is more important for you to be there for them when they do, be that shoulder to cry on, be that sounding board. Don’t focus on the planbook that was a day late.  If we want our teachers to be compassionate and forgiving to our students, we must do the same for our teachers.

Do Not: Pit People Against People

Weak leaders need to tear people down in order to build their own confidence. The best leaders would rather their staff members are mad at them than each other. One of the worst things a leader can do is employ the divide and conquer strategy. Remember, we are all on the same team.

Do: Seek Out Your Best Teachers

Sometimes the best educators do not offer their opinions. They do their job, they do what’s best for kids, and when you make a decision they support you for the betterment of the school and the students. It is important to seek these people out and speak to them informally. Stop by their classroom to chat about an initiative you are thinking of implementing.  Get their opinion on that tough discipline decision you are faced with. Too often, the best minds in our schools are not heard from. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, to solicit opinions of staff members you respect. In fact, it is a sign of strength and a sign of confidence.

Do Not: Empower The Squeaky Wheels

Too often in schools– and life in general–the loudest, most obnoxious people are given too much power and too much control. I have seen them hijack faculty meetings, push the wrong agenda, destroy moral.  This happens when they are empowered. It is ok to listen to everyone and respect what they have to say, but when the same people spew their negativity over and over again, do not be fooled into thinking they are the majority. Todd Whitaker says it simple and says it best when he states we need to listen more to the good guys and less to the bad guys, even when the bad guys are louder.  

Do: Talk to Kids

Take the time to really speak to kids. It is important to get to know kids, their names, their interests, their strengths, and their weaknesses. Just as important is to talk to them about our schools–what is working, what isn’t, how can we do better, what do you think of this new idea, what idea do you have? We have schools for kids, yet sometimes we forget to tap into that resource when we want to improve how we do business.

Do Not: Be The Master Of The Email

It is so much better to pick up the phone or to go see someone face to face, especially if you need to deliver bad or controversial news.  Email can be great and help us to be more efficient, but crafting the best, most clever email that completely proves your point may win you the battle, but, in the long run, may lose you the war. What is it that you want to accomplish as a leader?  Do you want to prove you are right? Do you want to prove you are smart? The best leaders know that bringing people together to best meet the needs of the kids is more important than their ego. Unfortunately, it took me awhile to understand this one.

Do: Be Transparent

If you are planning a change in your school or your District, involve others.  Make sure everyone knows the why, the timeline, and the implications. Teachers do not like to be surprised or have things thrown on them last minute. If they know in advance about a change or initiative and have some genuine input, they are more likely to support it. The best leaders are transparent, think ahead, and even let their staff know the decision they are struggling with and why.  

Do Not: Big Time People  

Everyone in your building is important.  A positive custodian or secretary can be just as important to the well being of a school as the principal, the teachers, or the Superintendent. Similarly, a negative monitor or cafeteria worker can change the whole tone of a building in a bad way. Title and role are a lot less important than positivity, desire, and talent. Never become so impressed with your title that you forget it is just that a title; without action it means nearly nothing.  

Do: Encourage People To Take Chances

It is ok to take risks and do things differently.  We want our students to be innovative; give our teachers permission to do the same. If someone comes to you with a crazy idea, think about  how to make it work before you think of all the “why nots”

Do Not: Take Credit

Whenever possible give credit to your people rather than take it yourself.  Good leaders know how important it is to recognize the good work of others.

Do: Take the Blame

The best leaders are confident and strong enough to take the blame when something goes wrong. They protect their people even when they make a mistake. I cannot accept when students are not put first. I can and will protect my people as long as they have the best intentions for our students.

Do Not: Take It Personal

Sometimes, people will be angry with you because you are the boss and you made the final decisions or you are the face of that final decision. You have to understand it is not personal. Whether it is a teacher who is upset with an assignment change or a parent who disagrees with the suspension you dolled out, people will get mad at the leader. You cannot take it personal.  It is the nature of the position. You must rise above, forgive and forget; you must have a short memory and give everyone a fresh start the next day.

Do: Hire And Listen To People Who Are Different

It is important to have members of your team who think differently than you. This is how we grow, how we learn. Remember that kids come in all shapes and sizes. It is great for kids to have a wide variety of adults with different interests, backgrounds, and skin colors to connect to.


Being a school leader is a great job, a job in which you can make a real difference for people. I never regret making that move to the “dark side” 16 years ago.  One thing I have learned in those 16 years is that there is no dark side. It is just people who want to do right by kids and those who don’t. Leadership is not about a title. Some of the best school leaders I have worked with are teachers, secretaries, and custodians. It’s about being a “good guy” and wanting what is best for kids.

Luckily for our students, there are many more good guys than bad guys in education.