Building a Culture of Success: What Effective Principals Do
The 2022 Florida TaxWatch Principal Leadership Awards Roundtable Discussion Summary and Findings
Among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school, leadership is perhaps second only to classroom instruction. Furthermore, the impact of leadership tends to be the greatest in schools where the learning needs of students are most acute. The greater the challenge, the greater the impact an effective principal can have on student learning. There are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by an impactful leader. Many other factors contribute to such turnarounds, but leadership is the catalyst.
The 72 principals who have been selected by Florida TaxWatch as Principal Leadership Award winners since the program’s inception in 2013 come from all parts of Florida, from a small charter elementary school in coastal Franklin County to large urban high schools in Miami-Dade County. As a result of visits to the winners’ schools, and with the holding of education roundtables since 2018, Florida TaxWatch has identified several “best practices” that are common among the winning principals. Among these are:
- Effective principals are the first staff member students see each morning when they arrive at school;
- Effective principals stress parental involvement, and have an open-door policy;
- Effective principals care about each student, to the point where many students could easily recall one or more personal interactions with the principal that one would typically expect of a favorite teacher;
- Effective principals are involved and engaged in the classroom, often helping to teach classes;
- Effective principals use data prominently in developing learning curriculum; and
- Effective principals have created a collaborative culture where teachers feel their voices heard and respected.
- Effective principals prioritize becoming a hub for the community and finding ways to engage guardians, whether it be providing babysitters during parent conferences or running a food pantry on campus.
This report compares the strategies employed by this year’s roundtable participants to those employed by preceding participants to identify best practices and “key takeaways” for consideration by policymakers and education professionals.
Attracting and Retaining High-Quality Teachers
Attracting high-quality teachers is more important than ever, as schools face unprecedented vacancy rates and threats of isolation imposed by rising costs of living. One principal discussed a Florida county with more than 1,000 vacancies and teachers taking second jobs to make ends meet. Meanwhile, principals cannot afford mistakes when building their staff; each addition will influence the carefully crafted culture and hold real consequences for the students placed before them. Teacher effectiveness is the most important driver of success, but retention is not guaranteed. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already stressful profession. Both before and after the onset of the pandemic, most who left teaching claimed the pay did not merit the disappointments and stress of the job.
Based upon an extensive body of research on teacher recruitment and retention, the Learning Policy Institute has identified five major factors, and related policies, that influence teachers’ decisions to enter, stay in, or leave the teaching profession. Two of the five— improving teachers’ working conditions, and providing support to develop them professionally—were strategies identified during the PLA Roundtable.
- Effective principals build bonds of trust and create a positive school culture and climate that ensure a reduction of teacher attrition in hard-to-staff schools.
- Effective principals tell their new teachers up front before being hired what to expect and what they will encounter.
- Effective principals leverage a teacher’s skillset and passion, then support their progress through professional development.
The success of students depends upon dedication to progress. Effective principals lead this progress, setting expectations early and steering teacher development through the use of evaluations and collaborative opportunities. This leadership also helps teachers feel supported, reinforcing retention. A principal’s time in the classroom should be focused on enhancing the ability of the teachers to serve their students. Research on principal leadership indicates that principals are most effective when they focus on instructional improvement, share decision-making with teachers, and encourage teachers to work together actively toward instructional improvement.
- The importance of investing in teachers and developing them professionally cannot be overstated.
- Effective principals recognize the importance of a collaborative principal-teacher relationship and a shared vision, and they understand the impact their support has on their teachers.
- Effective principals build a positive school culture through participatory decision-making, collaboration, and shared instructional leadership that puts the students' learning first and turn a teacher's best practice into a schoolwide best practice.
- Effective principals work to develop connections between teachers by encouraging open communication and guiding teachers to reflect critically on their own learning and teaching practices.
Building a Productive School Culture
The winning principals are ever present for their students and are always willing to listen. They recommend seeking feedback from teachers, students, and parents. When the community sees feedback transformed into change, it benefits from both the improvement and a sense of ownership. Research suggests that the best administrators spend an immense amount of time developing, improving, and investing in relationships and that these positive relationships are the heart of what makes a school extraordinary. To build relationships with people and positively shape school culture, it is necessary for the school leader to be visible in the school and community.
- Effective principals remain visible and approachable throughout the school day. They are the first and last person that the teacher sees on a regular day. They greet their students at the school door and move with the student body throughout the school day.
- Effective principals do not expect students to drop their personal lives when entering the classroom. They seek ways of alleviating the out-of-school stresses of students.
- Effective principals not only encourage the formation of positive relationships but equip their teachers with strategies to do so.
- Effective principals set high expectations for the schools and garner commitment from students, parents, and teachers.
- Effective principals make data-informed decisions and provide their teachers with the training to do the same.
Inviting Stakeholders into the Building
Student learning gains occur in the classroom, but they can be more impactful when paired with encouragement beyond the building. The winning PLA principals have all transformed their schools into beacons for the community. Family involvement and community partnerships hold the potential to improve students’ attendance, academic achievement, and behavior. Family involvement is impactful at all levels of education, but the greatest gains are seen within elementary school. Research suggests the most crucial form of involvement is academic socialization, which is when families hold conversations with their students regarding academic expectations, educational values, and future aspirations; therefore, schools should equip parents with the information needed to hold such conversations.
- Effective principals prioritize connections with students’ families by removing obstacles to contact and encouraging staff members to partake in the local community.
Managing Time and Personnel
For many principals, their schedules extend beyond an average school day. Often choosing to maximize their role as vision setter and instructional leader, principals spend their days in classrooms and leave administrative duties for after-hours. Serving as a liaison to families means never having a closing time, with principals willing to take calls throughout the night to ensure the wellbeing of their students. The principals acknowledged times that were once natural breaks, such as traveling, have vanished in a world where one virtual meeting can end at the start of the next, which can be overwhelming.
The nature of a principal’s duties requires them to spend a considerable amount of time on their non-instructional responsibilities. As a result, it is easy for principals to become office-bound. Effective principals do not let this happen. Studies show that teachers perceive infrequent visits by a principal as a demonstration that other priorities outweigh the value of maintaining a classroom presence.23 Regardless of why principals lacked presence in classrooms, teachers consistently shared their belief that administrators’ absences limited their credibility among the faculty.
- Much of principals’ work is done during non-working hours (nights and weekends). With cell phones and virtual meetings, the principal is always accessible.
- Effective principals identify the strengths of their staff in order to place employees in the positions where they are most needed.
Continuing the Discussion
As the leaders of school districts, we encourage you to share this summary with your principals. By sharing these Florida- based success stories, we hope this report can help inspire and validate the ambitions of school leaders as well as encourage conversation and collaboration among principals.
Government Officials and Policymakers
K-12 education is the foundation of workforce development. When workers are able to complete workforce development, they are more likely to maintain self-sufficiency, attract high-wage industry, and contribute higher earnings to the state’s GDP and tax revenue. Therefore, K-12 education is essential to the growth of Florida and the wellbeing of its taxpayers. Based upon our roundtable discussion, we encourage government officials and policymakers to consider the following as they seek the best educational outcomes for Floridians.
- An administrative team with effective training and sufficient funding helps principals juggle their various roles;
- Guidance, mental health services, de-escalation training, and relationship training can help at-risk students maintain their focus upon their studies;
- Developing teachers is a process, so retaining teachers—whether through salary, professional development opportunities, or an enticing school culture—saves a principal’s time and maximizes the impact of their work;
- Students and teachers benefit from a collaborative environment, so schools should hold the autonomy and flexibility to be a community built by its members; and
- Community grants that transform schools into resource hubs can help schools build relationships with families and reduce extraneous stress factors that distract students from studies.
K-12 students are the future workforce. Supporting schools contributes to the availability and development of talent, especially within local areas. Businesses can support schools by providing advice, financial assistance, donations, after- school programs, and internships.
Non-Profits and Community Organizations
When students and their families face challenges beyond the school day, such as illness, homelessness, or poverty, the personal stresses can negatively impact student performance. To support student achievement throughout the education system, non-profits and community organizations can provide expertise and resources such as clothes, food, medical care, and referrals. When dispersed at the school, these resources help enable guardians to visit the school, opening the doors to greater influence upon their student's achievement.