Two weeks ago in Houston, the National Association of Elementary School Principals held its 89th annual convention. One of the main topics was transformational leaders; in these days where test scores classify a school as successful or in trouble, principals are called upon to lead the teachers, students, parents and staff to the promised land of test scores that meet Annual Yearly Progress goals.

Seven principals from schools around the country—large and small, urban and rural—were announced as Transformational Leaders. Virtually none of the seven shared similar situations. One had the challenge of starting a school from scratch in a small town in Idaho. Another principal inherited a Baltimore school that was virtually the lowest performing of all 102 elementary school in a large, district, only to become a top-performing school in just a few years. And yet another principal transformed a Detroit school with test scores that were "lower than low" into the No. 1 elementary school in all of Michigan.

I talked to five of the seven principals to try to get an idea of what equipment, leadership models or super-secret programs they were relying on that set them apart from other schools still struggling with test scores. What I learned is that there's nothing new or different going on in those schools. No innovative programs that few principals elsewhere in the country seem to know about. Just day after day of hard work, mixed in with plenty of trust and lots of love.

Here are the 5 main ways these transformational principals made a difference in their schools:

  1. Create a culture for success. The attitude everyone in a school takes toward learning and the work that goes on every day starts in the principal's office. Each of the award-winning principals I talked to had their own ways of making teachers, students and parents feel comfortable, respected and empowered. "I think so many times principals make people think they are above them," said Theresa Mattison, principal of Carstens Elementary School in Detroit. "My job is the least important job here," she said. "When I think of what the teachers and students and parents must do every day to be successful, they are the ones with the important job."
  2. Communication is a key. If the school needs a transformation, or even if the goal is to sustain excellence, everyone needs to be on board. And that's only possible if the principal is able to communicate his or her vision throughout the school. Brian Dawes, principal at Ferron Elementary School in Ferron, Utah, took over a successful program that stumbled two years later. "The hardest day I may have ever had was telling my folks we did not meet our annual yearly progress goals," he said. But from that disappointment, Dawes instituted meetings where teachers bypassed the blame game and really searched for answers. "We started to really communicate and say, 'What does it take for this school to work?' And we had to be brutally honest."
  3. Let teachers be decision-makers. This idea was a central part of the turnaround for each of the five principals I spoke to. They allowed their teachers to make decisions and to make changes. The principal is the overall boss, but if the teachers feel empowered, they are more likely to stay motivated and work harder. "You have to have total buy-in from everyone, and if you don't, I think that's what will stop you from increasing your test scores," said Melissa Glee-Woodard, principal at Lewisdale Elementary School in Hyattsville, Md. "Everyone has to feel like they have a vital role. Woodard said she focused on professional development for all teachers, and felt a little resistance at first. "But they appreciate being able to make decisions on their own," she said.
  4. We're all in this together. Creating a team concept and trying to tear down any barriers between the principal's office and the classrooms was another issue stressed by the principals. Greg Miles opened Lone Star Middle School in Nampa, Idaho in 2008. He was able to bring 75 percent of his staff from across town and emphasized that everyone needed to play their role to make the new school successful. It was important, he said, "having people that are with you who are like-minded who are really kid-centered ... I think that is super important to have those people who want to go forth and help the kids and not want the glory coming to them."
  5. Don't forget the praise. Teachers, students and parents know the difference between an indifferent pat on the back and some genuine words of thanks. It does more than just motivate, it helps a principal reinforce the kind of actions and teaching he or she wants in the school. Kevin Connelly, principal at Colgate Elementary School in Baltimore, Md., stepped into one of the worst schools in the district more than 5 years ago. He used a program built on praise to virtually eliminate discipline issues, and made sure to praise his top-performing teachers. The goal was more than just keeping the best teachers motivated. It was sending a message to that vast group of teachers in the middle. "They have a choice—they can move to the bottom or move to the top. I believe they rise to the level you expect."

Note: The other principals named as Transformational Leaders are: Susan Bridges, A.G. Richardson Elementary School, Culpepper, Va., and Andrew Collins, Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School, St. Paul, Minn.


April 19, 2010