Great principals hire great teachers and get out of their way

State Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, gathered some Georgia educators recently for a discussion about education issues in the state. Among the attendees was University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky, who has written several pieces for the blog.

Here is a piece that Smagorinsky wrote after the meeting:

Rep. Edward Lindsey recently invited a group of teachers to meet with him and discuss the state of education in Georgia. I was fortunate to be included in this group of impressive, knowledgeable, and provocative Georgia educators. Among the challenges they identified in Georgia schools was finding effective leadership. A good principal is priceless; a bad one is a disaster.

In my years as an Illinois teacher in the 1970s and 1980s, I had pretty much the same experience. I worked for six principals at three schools over 14 years. One was great; some were mediocre; the rest were a fright. Each made a difference in how students and teachers experienced the educational process.

A bad principal destroys morale building-wide and makes it hard for teachers and students to want to go to school. I’ll next provide an inventory of bad principal types. If you’ve worked in schools, you’ll recognize them immediately.

The laissez-faire mediocrity (Motto: Anything to keep my job)

The my-way-or-the-highway martinet (Motto: Y’all are replaceable; I’m not)

The weasel (Motto: I’ll take credit for the good; the bad is all yours)

The finger-to-the-wind politician (Motto: Whatever you say, parents)

The career-climbing carpetbagger (Motto: Doing you harm so that I can do better)

The hey-y’all glad-hander (Motto: Appearances matter most)

The bully (Motto: Right or wrong, I’m right and you’re wrong—end of story)

The corporate number cruncher (Motto: If you can’t measure it, measure it anyway)

The good-old-boy ex-coach (Motto: It’s time to re-sod the football field, while teachers tape newspapers to the window as curtains)

What’s a school to do? How does a school find and cultivate a principal who earns the respect of the school’s faculty? What kinds of qualities are present in the sort of outstanding school leader that everyone agrees is vital to the success of students and teachers?

I’ll give a personal account of the sort of leader I think that a great school needs. As a high school teacher, I worked for one great department chair and one great principal (although both had their critics, as all leaders do). My beliefs about school leadership follow from the example they set and the way in which they created work conditions for students and teachers that produced a favorable learning environment.

First, a great school leader is personally accountable for everything that happens in the building. No pointing fingers; the buck stops here.

A great principal strives to create great work conditions for teachers so that they look forward to coming to work and doing their jobs. Teachers can then enable students to get the education they deserve. The great principal I worked for announced at the beginning of the year, “My most important role is to hire the best teachers possible and then get out of their way so that they can teach.” Getting out of the way did not mean doing nothing, however. It meant creating a professional work environment that supported teachers in teaching as effectively as possible.

Part of creating a great work environment means hiring well, and dealing directly with teachers who aren’t working out. Weak or unprofessional colleagues undermine staff and student morale and harm the school’s teaching mission. Supporting quality instruction includes the difficult chore of thinning the ranks of the relatively few weak performers who somehow slipped through the hiring process.

Great principals also back up their teachers during conflicts. I once had to fail a very unhappy young man, who responded by throwing the classroom podium at me. At the suspension hearing, parents kept trying to shift the blame to me, but the principal was steadfast in saying, “The teacher is not on trial here.” I felt secure and trusted knowing that the administration was behind me.

A great principal stays in touch with teaching and kids by teaching a class in his or her certified area — a class from the low or middle track with randomly assigned students, not an honors or AP class.

Great principals observe as many teachers in their classrooms as often as the job allows.

A truly great principal is confident and secure enough to provide students and teachers with a voice in how the school is run, and appreciates and listens to dissent. The great principal I worked for collaborated with a Faculty Senate of elected representatives who had regular meetings with the administration to provide input into how the school was run. With that level of involvement, we felt that we had a great stake in the institution and wanted to be a part of it.

There you go: My off-the-shelf great administrator. Not easy, and not the norm. But someone that teachers want to work with.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

152 comments Add your comment


June 29th, 2011
6:15 am

1) Treat all people in a respectful manner.

2) Communicate a vision for the school that invites all staff to
participate in achieving various educational and social goals
of the school.

3) Accept feedback from all staff and allow your staff to improve
upon ,or initiate programs (ideas) that advance the goals of
the school.

4) Trust (hardest part for many people) your staff to make decisions,
which will ultimately empower them to take positive calculated
risks necessary to exceeding the desired goals in the school

5) Keep an encouraging demeanor, and provide positive oversight
with timely observations that are instructive to building up the
trust needed for the staff to thrive in his,or her job duties.

6) View parents and community leaders as an asset, and develop
opportunities for staff to deal with both valued groups in a non-
adversarial way.

7) Again-Treat all people in a respectful manner,but maintain your


June 29th, 2011
6:17 am

Competition is the answer.


June 29th, 2011
6:30 am

Sadly with 14 years in Cobb, I am on principal number seven so it is a
short term good or bad experience and then we start over with new expectations, new committees, new hoops to jump through, new room assignments, etc. This article could address the continuity of school leadership.

Peter Smagorinsky

June 29th, 2011
6:54 am

Time4Change, indeed I could address the continuity of school leadership and much else, but not in 800 words, which is the limit for pieces of this type. How about if you take a stab at it?

3rd Grade Teacher

June 29th, 2011
7:00 am

@ Equitas – fully agree, but would add a #8:

#8 – Have prior experience teaching within those grade levels that you will lead.

Particularly at the elementary level, too many principals are brought in that were middle or high school teachers, with no experience in the elementary classroom. You just can’t understand the elementary teacher’s day until you’ve been asked to teach & integrate all subjects to all levels of kids at the same time.

APS are you listening... yet?

June 29th, 2011
7:01 am

After reading this article this morning, I had to respond. I’m a teacher at one of the New Schools of Carver in Atlanta, and our principal is pretty much the opposite of everything on that list of a good leader. If he could even be half of the things on that list, then I wouldn’t be dreading going back there. Two things you left off though: Honesty and Professional Ethics. It’s like Ray Charles’ mama always said, “Scratch a lie, catch a thief.” I still love teaching, and I love my students; however, I have come to hate the place and atmosphere where it has to take place. I never thought I would be in this position at this stage in my career. Oh yeah, if APS ever gets off of it’s butt long enough to see what a bad principal really looks like and really does (on a consistent basis), they would know the one we have has to go. We have more staff turn over at our school then Six Flags does of 15 year olds who clean the park during the summer…And for god’s sake, don’t forget to boot that gargoylel of an assistant principal with him!!

Been there done that

June 29th, 2011
7:04 am

I have been there and done that with school and county leadership–Clayton County. I have seen five principals and at least as many–somewhere along the way I lost count–superintendents. Good leaders need to understand where the experts–the classroom teachers–fit in. Generally administrators get out of the classroom within 3-5 years because they could not cut it. They become administrators who then think they have all the answers and can tell teachers what to do, changing policies and procedures throughout the year. Administrators suddenly become experts on curriculum and classroom management but do not have the time in the classroom to back up this “expertise.” Degrees from on-line universities do NOT substitute for actual time spent in the practice of teaching. Consistency is what students and teachers need and unfortunately what we
never get a handle on in the slippery world of educational leadership.

science teacher

June 29th, 2011
7:11 am

So many ineffective teachers get to keep their jobs because the Principals are changed so often. It takes time for a new Principal to discover who is truly ineffective versus who is having a bad day or week. This process takes even longer when the Principal is also settling into other aspects of the job. Then the Principals provide support and professional development plans. Then by the time they have the documentation, the Principal has been moved or nonrenewed themselves. The worst teachers are the best at knowing that they don’t have to change much, they just have to wait for the next Principal. The good Principals will document the steps they took. However, the Principals that document are maybe one in 5 if that many. Most want to encourage their teachers to do better. Especially if those teachers happen to be in the same sorority or fraternity.

In the past 15 years, I have had 8 Principals. I am expecting a new one next year as well. Do I teach with people who should not be in the profession? Yes, I do. Can I do anything about it? No. I cannot. I am only a teacher. It is not in my job description to evaluate my co-workers. Even if I were to evaluate them, no one would listen.


June 29th, 2011
7:12 am

@ 3rd grade teacher- Thank you- #8 is a definite plus

Been there done that

June 29th, 2011
7:20 am

@Science teacher–that fraternity/sorority bond has caused a lack of accountability on the part of educators and has infiltrated all aspects of education in Clayton County. It is ridiculous. If you are a part of a particular group that just happens to have people in school and/or county administration, then you are deemed perfection and mistakes are wiped clean. The good ol’ boy system has been replaced in urban school districts by a fraternity and sorority network that leaves many people out in the cold.

Old School

June 29th, 2011
7:25 am

My observations from closer to home:

What about a superintendent and assistant superintendent who micro-manage the schools instead of running the school system? If the principals are hired to do the job, LET THEM DO THE JOB and hold them accountable. Sometimes they aren’t “bad principals” at all but simply not allowed to do their jobs.

There is so much coming from the top down in the name of change, everyone seems to have forgotten that teachers are on the front lines and know where the problem areas are. Empower them to work together to identify those problems and develop strategies to solve or at least improve them. Let them include students in that process and allow the school administrators to oversee and support their efforts. No doubt morale would improve remarkably. Encourage teaching departments to oversee themselves and support them when they step in to mentor a weak colleague or listen and followup when they have tried interventions/help and it has not been successful (non-renewal). Once clear, professional communication can take place, improvement will likely follow.

Principals do not need to be hired for their ability to say, “Yes!” anymore than teachers kept on because they don’t rock the boat.


June 29th, 2011
7:27 am

Try to view yourself in the position of being an administrator,and
you will understand the pressures and difficulties of leadership.
The positive qualities mentioned in the article is a good place
to start.

Atlanta mom

June 29th, 2011
7:37 am

It’s hard for a principal to hire good people when they are given a pool of rejects from other schools. In APS if schools are downsizing, the principals at the downsizing schools get to release teachers and growing schools have to take the released teachers. Surprise! They don’t release the good teachers.


June 29th, 2011
7:45 am

And let’s not forget that the principal is often merely a “puppet on the strings” of the county office. That’s where the good/bad leadership starts and gets funneled down.

Joe Frank

June 29th, 2011
7:47 am

I agree with the list Equitas presented. I disagree with the characterizations presented by Ms.Downey, or should I say, the way they were presented. As a BOE member, I can tell you that sometimes you need a couple of those personas, especially the my way or the hwy person. High schools in particular are often the place the staff determine they better than anyone else, knows the best way to manage the school. If you don’t have a strong leader, they will have him/her dancing like a puppet on a string. Just as in an army, the teachers are not privy to the overall plan, they are there to carry out the plan as put before them. A high school campus IS NOT a college campus. When you start to hear and see your staff act as if it is, you’ve got problems.

Write Your Board Members

June 29th, 2011
7:53 am

DeKalb is a good example of this. Generally, really weak principals who hire really weak teachers, especially in communities that won’t know any better. While I have no direct evidence, the sorority/fraternity issue is alleged to be alive and active in DeKalb as well.

Michael Moore

June 29th, 2011
7:54 am

I don’t think today’s school administrators are being trained as leaders. I think they see their roles as managers. However, students and teachers need leaders. I worked for a great principal who motivated everyone and made school the place to be. He was replaced by a coach who wasn’t very good at being a coach and wasn’t a good teacher so they made him a principal. Morale sank during his paranoid administration. None of the teachers wanted to be there and the students who had heard stories about how great our place was couldn’t believe how far it had fallen.


June 29th, 2011
7:55 am

You could replace “principal” with “manager” and “teacher” with “employee” and this is a universal article. It’s true in every work environment.


June 29th, 2011
7:57 am

My wife has 25 years teaching and never had a bad review, ever, and the new militant principals do their best to get rid of any teacher with any experience. When she started with a new principal last year, in the second week of school, most of the teachers with over 15 years’ experience were told if they resigned that she would give them a satisfactory review, if not she would give them an unsatisfactory review…Wait isn’t a review supposed to be just that a review of your work? This seems very biased and above all wrong. They like the newer cheaper easier to mold liberal stance teacher. I am sure that this is coming down from the state because it is happening to schools all throughout our county. What happened to doing what is right, are these the values we want to teach our children?

Doris M

June 29th, 2011
8:00 am

APS culture is exactly the opposite of what good leadership should be. The UGA education professor is right on the money about principals or any leader. Please let his description be the norm for the next APS superintendent and staff.


June 29th, 2011
8:18 am

Clayton County culture is exactly the opposite of what should be going on.


June 29th, 2011
8:20 am

Atlanta Public Schools.
Didn’t Beverly do a great job.
No test cheating there.
All those that opposed her were racist.
Public education at its finest.


June 29th, 2011
8:24 am

Not to use experience as the end-all be-all, BUT there are a great deal of administrators who have spent a maximum of 3-5 years in the classroom (and have been continuing their education during that time – bravo, but it does take away from your teaching) that get all their credentals in a row and move into admin with very little actual classroom experience. Not that new administrators (or teachers for that matter) can’t be effective, but there is nothing that takes the place of time with students and fellow teachers to understand how to lead a school. The scariest part for me as a teacher is how many current administrators got into education to be administrators, not to teach.

Middle School Teacher

June 29th, 2011
8:38 am

One area should be added to the great principal list: EVERY administrator must have experience in the classroom, in academic core areas of instruction. When the principal doesn’t have a clue about how and why a class should be managed he/she cannot lead teachers.

Another APS Teacher

June 29th, 2011
8:39 am

I miss having a good principal. I don’t think they actually exist in APS. There is a mediocre-atrocious continuum in this system. Most of them fall closer to atrocious than mediocre.

George P Burdell

June 29th, 2011
8:50 am

Ms. Downey, I disagree with your article’s title.
In every business, great managers hire great employees and then hold them accountable for their performance.
“Great principals hire great teachers and hold them accountable” would have been a better title.

Peter Smagorinsky

June 29th, 2011
8:58 am

@Joe Frank wrote: “I disagree with the characterizations presented by Ms.Downey, or should I say, the way they were presented.” Actually Maureen only posted my column. Although this buck is pretty cheap, it does stop here–I’m responsible for the content of the op-ed.

“Just as in an army, the teachers are not privy to the overall plan, they are there to carry out the plan as put before them. A high school campus IS NOT a college campus. When you start to hear and see your staff act as if it is, you’ve got problems.”
Yikes. Education is equivalent to war, where there’s an enemy to be defeated and a strategy to be executed against them? I hope not. Positioning teachers as sodiers going into battle against students seems pretty unproductive to me. Not that some schools aren’t difficult and many students not recalcitrant. But to argue that schools need my-way-or-the-highway leaders to beat down faculty thinking, and to argue that schools create problems by respecting the opinions of teachers and incorporating them into decision-making: that’s pretty scary.


June 29th, 2011
9:02 am

Great principals are also great coaches…and I don’t mean the “sports” coach, either….same process, though. Teachers need support and tools to be successful and a great principal has the ability to coach them during their early years and at times when needed. The principal who locks him/herself in his/her office each day and lacks appropriate communication skills with employees and parents does nothing to create an atmosphere conducive for effective leadership and learning.

Jordan Kohanim

June 29th, 2011
9:11 am

Michael Moore said: “I don’t think today’s school administrators are being trained as leaders. I think they see their roles as managers.”

I couldn’t agree more. There is a line between management and leadership, but it seems the system punishes leaders and rewards managers. Principals seldom stay very long; I think some view their role as temporary so they do not see the need to cultivate a community.

That being said, I have seen some principals who were on the job only a couple of years and were able to make a difference for schools. I’ve also seen principals who were on the job for less than a year that did inordinate amounts of damage. The difference? The goal of the principal.

If the goal of the principal is to facilitate learning no matter what, he has a long-term goal and likely the support of his staff. If his goal is to simply please people (whether parents or school boards or superintendents), he doesn’t really have a long term goal. That, ultimately, is the difference between a manager and a leader. One has a mission, the other has a vision.


June 29th, 2011
9:16 am

Amazingly, I recognize my current principal in almost everyone of the items on Dr. Smagorinsky’s list of bad principals. It used to be in my system that new principals were required to have worked at all three levels–elementary, middle and high–and had at least three years experience as an AP. Now we have middle school principals who’ve only taught seniors and high school principals who’ve only worked in elementary schools, and they rarely have more than a year of administrative experience before they become principals.


June 29th, 2011
9:18 am

“But to argue that schools need my-way-or-the-highway leaders to beat down faculty thinking, and to argue that schools create problems by respecting the opinions of teachers and incorporating them into decision-making: that’s pretty scary.”

Peter, I could tell you stories that you would not believe….


June 29th, 2011
9:24 am

@Joe Frank:
“Just as in an army, the teachers are not privy to the overall plan, they are there to carry out the plan as put before them”

Your statement is a perfect example of poor leadership in action. Shouldn’t the “overall plan” involve ALL STAKEHOLDERS…..teachers, parents, community members, etc? Only those who are fearful and weak will hide the overall plan from their stakeholders.

Tad Jackson

June 29th, 2011
9:30 am

It happened to me and I’m so deeply grateful. Lurlene Brownlow hired me and let me do my rookie-like job and every other day or so gave me a warm hearted, but firm, performance review. She really was the principal’s principal. To me, a saint. They just promoted her to dean of academics, too, and it was well deserved.

They’re out there … good and great principals. Higher ups: let the great principals do their job, too!


June 29th, 2011
9:31 am

I hope the Fulton county board is reading…and I am guessing, our new Sup should read this as well. Anyone paying attention?

Educator for Life

June 29th, 2011
9:44 am

I would love to implement a rule that says Principals must have prior teaching experience on the level of their schools. I must say, however, that there is a current Principal of a school who has all of the above-mentioned qualities, but without any teaching experience. He is one in a million. As a matter of fact, his doctorate degree is in Public Policy, but he still goes into Social Studies, Math, Writing, and Reading classes and teaches the students. He even worked with the Science teacher to use the debating process in class. If you ask his teachers, students, and parents, they would agree that he is a great leader. It is something great to see a person with the ability to run a school, yet not have the paperwork that states that he is capable. I guess his GT and Harvard experience really molded him.

APS are you listening... yet?

June 29th, 2011
9:44 am

I have been in the classroom for almost 20 years, (most of that time in APS) and I have only had what [I] will consider to have been great principals (two of them)…well that is until now. A great principal has to see him/herself as a “servant-leader”. He has to embody both sides of the role in order to get the best from the staff. You have to be in and out of the classrooms frequently and stop relying mostly of long, boring, meaningless faculty meetings to assess what is really going on in your own school.


June 29th, 2011
9:45 am

It IS a shame that many principals’ “mentality” today is MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY. Parents are the first key to education (sadly, that will never happen); good teachers are the second key. This is where good education drops. Most principals do not have, nor care to have, the skills to work with good teachers. To them, it’s all about the show and presentation…not about substance. Ineffective principals and lack of parenting are here to stay, leaving the teachers to work under such dreadful conditions: ineffective principals and apathetic students.


June 29th, 2011
9:49 am

3rd grade teacher–I would add the word “significant” to your requirement.

Our principal, who just lost her job, had a couple of years experience in a grade. Then she was kicked into a management (no student contact) position for several years. Our system hired her as AP for ONE YEAR, then kicked her into the principalship when the very disorganized, inept principal who was chosen because of who she was married to was booted up to the CO where presumably she could do less harm and wait for retirement. The morale went downhill so far, it was reknown in the county.

I strongly agree about teaching a class a day! The best principal I ever had did just that! It was a small school, and he taught math because he wanted to. He said it kept him up with what was going on. I know SACS and most principals would say they don’t have the time, but I believe it would make principals more aware of the real world as it is now. Principals need to be in schools, not going to meetings and trainings and SACS visits and all other manner of malarkey they are currently sent to.

Hey Teacher

June 29th, 2011
9:50 am

After 20 plus years, I’ve yet to work for a principal with true academic classroom experience. So far I’ve worked for a former football coach, two former shop teachers, a former PE teacher, a former media specialist, former gifted teacher (that principal only taught gifted students for 2 years), a band teacher and an elementary art teacher (mind you I teach high school). NONE taught for more than 5 years. The lack of teaching experience is ridiculous. Would we ask a doctor to practice without a residency?

Georgia Coach

June 29th, 2011
9:51 am

Professor Smagorinsky, you make many good points; however, it is difficult to find quality teachers in any field. A good principal must inspect what he expects and set high performance standards.

Teachers must be wlling to be accountable and be willing to teach bell to bell engaging the students in meaningful activities.

Understanding Atlanta

June 29th, 2011
9:55 am

This was a pretty good assessment of what’s going on in many of Metro Atlanta’s public schools. As a student in a DCSS high school during the early 2000’s I went through three principals in 4 years. Talk about continuity. The last principal, was a much better teacher and should have never, in my opinion, made the transition to administration.

High Schools should be a mix of freedom for teachers, but with an overall school vision that is conveyed to all that work there. Everyone at the school, from the Principal to the custodians, plays a role in achieving the overall school vision. Great principals do help make great teachers and hold them accountable for what’s in their control.


June 29th, 2011
9:57 am

A leader is someone you want to follow, a boss is someone you have to follow. There are very few leaders.

APS are you listening... yet?

June 29th, 2011
10:02 am

Remember a time and a place….in a land far, far, far, away, when we could just teach and give and the grade that the student(s) actually earned. And then, if a parent would try and make a fuss, the administration would support [us] and our efforts? Well, try that now or challenge the culture against it and see where it leads. In APS, with all the cheating, simply passing students along to keep peace with parents, and grade changing behind teachers’ backs and you might be booted out faster than the air that comes out of the top when you “blow a whistle”. Real leaders have a moral and ethical backbone. Principals could grow more of a need for that backbone if they had the “calcium” that comes from actually having spent years in the classroom…growing. “Real experience does the professional body good.”

Perfect Principal

June 29th, 2011
10:11 am

Wow! So it is refreshing to see many classroom teachers see the same thing in terms of many administrators that are ineffective. If these same administrators worked in the private sector or were the cause of the company to loose employees and profits, they would be given the boot real fast. That being said, since that are harming students and children by their selfish, unforgiving, and evil actions school boards, politicians, superintendants, and congressmen could give a rat’z tazz! Georgia Public Schools still ranks in the bottom 5 out of all the 50 states in the good ole U.S.A. Money is being wasted and many Principals haven’t made a bit of difference in helping to educate the whole child by providing teachers with needed resources and support. I hope to read some comments by principals, politicians, and superintendants. Many or most of them don’t even care.


June 29th, 2011
10:17 am

school choice and competition is the answer

Inman Park Boy

June 29th, 2011
10:32 am

But here’s the problem: great principals are often hamstrung by bureaucratic policies that demand that the principal figuratively peer over the shoulder of every teacher. With all of the new “assessment” forms and requirements for multiple classroom visits (even for master teachers), all added to the tons of paperwork required under NCLB, “getting out of the teachers way” is nigh on to impossible!

N GA Blues

June 29th, 2011
10:32 am

Mr. Smagorinsky, you said “A great principal stays in touch with teaching and kids by teaching a class in his or her certified area — a class from the low or middle track with randomly assigned students, not an honors or AP class.”

I’ve never encountered a principal that does this. I respectfully suggest this is impractical at the elementary level. How could a principal properly perform all their other duties AND teach kindergarten at the same time?


June 29th, 2011
10:44 am

I’m thinkin back to my high school days (too long ago) and I knew a great principal. We had one that was out in the halls talking to the students all the time. He made his presence known. He knew all the students names, he would give a word of encouragement here and there and was a very fair to everyone in the school – including the teachers. He treated them with respect too as well as the parents. He knew most if not all the parents. He did not strike me as a my way or highway kind of guy and we did have some challenging incorrigibles too, it was just handled the way it should be I think. He showed leadership and compassion. I think today you have inexperienced folks getting into leadership positions. In order to be effective I think it must be mandatory that the person applying for principalship better have darn well taught in the trenches for a good long period of time and also should have solid experience in the special education dept as well

Joy in Teaching

June 29th, 2011
10:50 am

My principal has more than half of Smagorinsky’s traits of of bad principal. She’s already let a particular group of teachers in my building know that they are on “her list” even though she’s currently serving a 30 day suspension for two ethics violations.

I really dread going back in August…

3rd Grade Teacher

June 29th, 2011
10:53 am

@ N GA Blues who said…”I’ve never encountered a principal that does this. I respectfully suggest this is impractical at the elementary level. How could a principal properly perform all their other duties AND teach kindergarten at the same time?”

I think principals putting themselves in teaching positions will become even more difficult under the upcoming mandates that significantly increase teacher observation requirements. However, I have seen APs and CSTs in an elementary school teach a 45 minute segment of reading intervention or who have met daily with remedial math students for a 30 minute lunch & learn session. Both administrators were widely respected.