August 30, 2022

Sarah Rodrigues

Education Leader Success: Hearing from Your Team

14 minutes

School districts are struggling across the globe with budget cuts, staff attrition, and divisive political opinions. Superintendents have to manage these issues across multiple schools while trying to achieve their overall district goals, but it is principals on the ground that can have the biggest impact on an individual school’s success.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics in 2017 indicates that 18 percent of principals leave their school annually, and about half of new principals leave before the three-year mark. Recent trends suggest that those numbers are much higher now.

With effective and successful principals linked to positive impacts on student achievement and teacher satisfaction and retention, leadership continuity is in the school’s and the district's best interest. We’ll walk through how frequent principal change impacts groups within the education system and how those groups can work together to improve principal tenure.

What impact does a change in principal have?

Principal changes are a headache for everyone involved. For the school and district staff, the more frequent the change, the more a new principal can affect morale and retention and impact the school’s ability to achieve its student success and strategic goals. Not to mention districts can spend about $75,000 to prepare, hire, and place a principal, so these changes can be costly as well.

Impact on superintendents

A superintendent can't achieve their goals for a district if they aren’t able to keep schools staffed with effective teachers and principals. The principal is the main link between a district strategy and its execution at the school level. The Wallace Foundation cites principal leadership as one of the “Three Essentials” for improving schools, along with district vision and state support.

One study from Brookings showed that “the negative effect of a principal transition is detectable for the first three years of the replacement principal’s tenure, which means that any reform strategy will need to overcome the negative effects of principal replacement while also improving the prior school performance.” Frequent turnover compounded these effects. This means that high principal turnover could impede a superintendent from achieving their strategic goals for three or more years–which may actually be longer than the district’s average tenure.

When principals change frequently, superintendents spend more time recruiting, hiring, and onboarding these new leaders — time that could be better spent developing and executing the district strategy.

Frequent principal changes will also impact trust with the community. High turnover can suggest poor management and erode the community's confidence in its leader. If they’re unable to achieve their goals due to principal turnover, superintendents may lose their positions if they cannot maintain the support of the school board.

Learn more about the struggles and strategies of retention in education from this panel of experts
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Impact on principals

Effective principals are highly motivated to help their students, staff, and schools succeed. It is tough to achieve this if you’re constantly starting over in a new location, especially if your team doesn’t set you up for success.

The role of principal includes boosting staff morale—but districts rarely discuss principal morale. For principals, being reassigned repeatedly can be a significant blow to their self-esteem and job satisfaction. New principals, in particular, may begin their role with significant enthusiasm but find that quickly erodes if they are unprepared or unsuited to the new school.

The need to uproot family and move to another ward, district, or even state will compound these emotional stressors, as they lose their connection with the community.

Just like with superintendents, frequent change in principal erodes community and staff trust for both that principal and possibly even their replacement.

Impact on teachers

With teacher retention top of mind for many education leaders, we can’t ignore that principal tenure plays a significant role in teacher retention. Texas research showed that “the retention rates of teachers hired by a principal are significantly higher with increased duration in the building,” with the most significant gains in retention rate after five years. Unfortunately, that same research showed the average tenure of a principal was only four years—just shy of realizing those gains.
When it comes to retention, education leaders may have something to learn from the corporate world.
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Those teachers who choose to stay may find their efforts at school improvement and student success frustrated by a new principal with a different vision. For example, teacher passion projects may lose funding under a new principal’s budget. If teachers are not aligned with the strategy the new principal is proposing, their productivity can decrease. They may resent new rules, particularly if they are imposed by a principal seen as inexperienced or toxic.

Teachers may also have to pick up administrative slack when principals change frequently. If teachers are unsupported in the school, it could compound issues like bad behavior, classroom safety, and poor student performance. This can lead to burnout and teachers leaving the school or the profession altogether.

“When there’s a good principal, good teachers tend to be attracted to that school and they tend to stay longer. If there’s a bad principal, that’s the number one reason teachers leave.” - Timothy Drake, PhD

How can education teams help principals succeed?

Principals who are well-informed and supported by their teams are more likely to succeed. Whether it’s a new principal who has never led a school before, or a principal moving to their second or third school to fill a need, internal stakeholders can help by providing context for the past and ideas for the future.

How superintendents can help


Recruit & train for success

For superintendents, supporting principals begins in the recruitment phase. Justin Smith, author of How important are school principals to the production of student achievement?, commented in the Globe & Mail: “It's not just that some principals are inherently better than others for whatever reason, but some principals' abilities are particularly well-suited to the needs of particular schools.”

To find the best fit, the superintendent (and the hiring committee) needs to involve students, parents, and the community in the search, by asking, as this ThoughtExchange customer did, “What are the most important strengths and opportunities for growth of our school that our new principal should be made aware of in order to be successful?” The data from these Exchanges can inform the screening process, interview questions, and ultimately candidate selection, and ensure the principal selected is aware of the context of that school and community and prepared to meet those challenges.

Training and development of principals is also a vital area for superintendents. Many principals come from an education background, which may not prepare them for the role's transformational, managerial, and administrative aspects. Anecdotally, one district partnered with a local university to develop a training program for its principals and saw a 70 percent drop in principal turnover over five years. Investment in these programs, with endorsement from the superintendent, can vastly improve the quantity and quality of the available talent.

Establish relationships & communication

Maintaining open communication and building solid relationships with principals and district staff is also vital to the superintendent’s contribution to principal retention and success. As noted in Education Week, “Poor relationships between principals and superintendents can become hurdles for improving schools and serving students, but healthy connections centered on trust and communication can make the whole educational system more effective.”

Align around a clear vision

One of the superintendent’s most important jobs is establishing a clear strategic plan for the district, aligning staff to that plan, and providing the tools and resources required to carry it out. This strategic plan can’t just be written and left to accumulate dust on the shelf, a long-time superintendent noted, but rather must be “something everybody lives and works daily — and that’s how we’ve achieved the success we’ve achieved.”

New principals, in particular, may require more guidance on how the strategic vision impacts their day-to-day decisions. If a superintendent can clearly articulate these goals and coach their principals on how to achieve them in their schools, principals will be more likely to succeed at translating that same vision to their teachers, students, and community.

Strategic planning and alignment will help superintendents, principals, teachers, and students succeed.
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How new principals can help themselves


Gain context

New principals should accept personal accountability for gaining context about their new school because understanding the needs of the particular school and community is key to a principal’s success. While the superintendent will likely provide what information they have, as the adage goes, they don’t know what they don’t know. Deeply rooted assumptions, challenges, and missed opportunities could keep a school from achieving its full potential, and the only way to find out what those are is to ask!

If available, the outgoing principal can be a wealth of information on the school's challenges. New principals can take the opportunity to ask questions of the previous leader as they formulate plans for the future. Remember, though, that they are moving for a reason, so take all advice with a grain of salt.

Even better, new principals can be proactive and get the context they need right from their new school’s stakeholders. By talking to teachers, staff, parents, students, and community members, new principals can gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities in their new school to help inform their plans going forward.

“ThoughtExchange allows us to uncover opposing priorities in the conversation, identify gaps in perception, build on areas of agreement among various groups, and discern key themes to understand what’s important to our whole community.” - Lord Kelvin Elementary School

In whatever ways they gather context, new principals will be more likely to succeed if the strategy they put in place aligns with the needs of their community. Gaining the support of teachers, students, and parents helps to ensure that plans move forward, benefiting everyone involved.

Develop open communication

Gaining context isn’t a one-time activity to be completed at the beginning of a new principal’s tenure. It is merely one step in building effective two-way communication with stakeholders to achieve success together.

Never assume that if someone has an issue, they’ll come talk to you about it. Continuously asking for feedback from teachers, staff, students, and parents–and then responding to or acting on it–is the only way to maintain open communication in your new school.

Asking questions regularly and incorporating the feedback you receive will build trust and inspire candid and open dialogue with your staff, students, and community.

Get an early win

This concept borrows from the corporate world but still applies to education. An early win—something that can be tackled quickly and will noticeably impact a pressing challenge or opportunity—can dramatically impact a new leader's success going forward.

First, it builds trust in a new leader’s capabilities. If parents see a new principal quickly revamp an existing program to improve its impact on struggling students, those parents are more likely to support longer-term goals with delayed impact. If teachers get short-term relief from a building problem, they’ll be more patient about implementing the long-term solution.

Second, an early win boosts leader confidence. This is particularly important for new principals, and maybe even more so for principals moved from schools where their efforts were less successful.

Easy enough, right? Not exactly. The hardest part about easy wins is discovering them. Fortunately, if a new principal gains context for their new school, and establishes open communication, opportunities for early wins may present themselves in the form of a stakeholder complaint or suggestion.

Read how one school district uses ThoughtExchange to create a culture of engagement.
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How teachers can help


Provide context & feedback

By being in the classroom, teachers and educational support staff possibly have the best understanding of the challenges students face, other than students themselves. Teachers also have the added context of how administration helps or hinders their attempts to overcome those challenges. By nature, they are passionate about education and deeply care for their students.

The result is that teachers have amazing ideas. But has anyone been listening?

When a new principal comes to a school, that is the perfect opportunity for teachers to reach out to provide context on the challenges the school is facing and their ideas to move forward. Some teachers may be hesitant to do this—maybe they’ve tried in the past and been rejected or are wary of making a suggestion criticizing the administration for fear of their job security. Consider submitting this information anonymously instead. Remember, a new principal can’t fix something if they don’t know it’s broken.

If teachers don’t provide this context or give feedback as plans move forward, the new principal will have greater difficulty achieving success. This could lead to higher principal turnover, which no one wants.

Develop open communication

Gaining context isn’t a one-time activity to be completed at the beginning of a new principal’s tenure. It is merely one step in building effective two-way communication with stakeholders to achieve success together.

Never assume that if someone has an issue, they’ll come talk to you about it. Continuously asking for feedback from teachers, staff, students, and parents–and then responding to or acting on it–is the only way to maintain open communication in your new school.

Asking questions regularly and incorporating the feedback you receive will build trust and inspire candid and open dialogue with your staff, students, and community.

Keep an open mind

It’s also important to remember that the principal can’t implement every idea a teacher has, and teachers may not agree with every decision a new principal makes. Keep an open mind about new initiatives, and provide feedback after you’ve tried them as to what worked and what didn’t. Supporting the principal in the early stages will build trust between you and inspire greater collaboration on projects in the future.

Amplify student voice

Instead of teachers and educational leaders spending countless hours figuring out why their students aren’t engaged and implementing initiatives that may or may not work, they can look to student voice for answers.
7 Ways to Promote Student Voice in the Classroom
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By having constructive conversations and asking students to share their thoughts, opinions, and perspectives, educational leaders can quickly and effectively discover exactly how to keep their students engaged. If student voice is not being effectively solicited at the administrative level, teachers can be their voice in conversations with the principal to help effect change.
Are you a superintendent looking to improve the effectiveness of your new principals? Or a new principal looking to get some early wins?Contact us for a demonstration of ThoughtExchange.
Sarah Rodrigues
Sarah Rodrigues has been a precocious reader and word nerd since age 4, and nothing has changed. A BA in English, combined with further education in marketing and business, allowed her to turn that love of writing into a career in Content Marketing. When she's not reading and writing, you'll find Sarah tending to the animals on her 5-acre hobby farm.

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