The Big Questions
The sentry stood at his post, protecting the troops in the encampment. A movement nearby captured his attention. The dense
undergrowth around the encampment hid the
source of the noise. The sentry steadied his voice
and shouted toward the sound:
“Who are you?”
“Where are you going?”
“How do you plan to get there?”
Principals beginning the school year resemble
that sentry. They are on duty, protecting teachers
from external forces that interfere with their
primary instructional role. When
blinded by conflicting responsibil-
ities—the “dense undergrowth”—
the sentry’s three questions can help
school leaders focus their attention
and provide direction.
Who Are You?
A school leader’s core values and
beliefs will always trump his or
her skills, knowledge, roles, and
responsibilities. This is more than
a principal’s résumé. Effective
leaders possess integrity, are
strong yet compassionate, and
have the knowledge and skills needed to do the
job. These qualities are fundamental to great
leadership. Without them, the effort to improve
the school will be superficial at best. Effective
principals are reflective, asking themselves what
they value and what keeps them going.
Terry’s middle school, in an affluent community, places heavy demands on him. An early
riser, he often greets the sunrise while jogging.
These early morning runs clear his head. Terry
uses this time to reflect on who he is as a person
and how that applies to his service to children.
Barbara chooses yoga as a way to reflect and
recharge. Bill prays. Andre keeps a personal
journal. Dana trusts a critical friend who loves
her enough to tell her the truth. These principals
believe they must tether themselves to their core
beliefs to lead effectively.
Where Are You Going?
School leaders must develop, share, and work
toward some clear vision of what the school
should look like. This sense of a “preferred
future” serves as the school’s global positioning
system, bringing the disparate elements together
toward a common goal.
The principal’s answer to the question, Where
are you going? becomes the driving force behind
his or her efforts. Some principals envision a
school in which kids and teachers care deeply
about one another and are deeply engaged in
learning as a community. Others relentlessly
pursue high test scores. Some might put their
efforts into simply “keeping the ship afloat.”
Unless principals plan
carefully, their vision
will be nothing but
Teachers may not know the words in the
school’s formal vision statement, but they do
know what is important to the principal. Here
are the clues:
n Money. The budget speaks louder than any
words. How much is spent on athletics? The fine
arts? Technology? Staff development? Where we
spend our money reveals where our heart is.
n Time. Daily planners also offer clues to our
real priorities. How much time do you spend
in classrooms? On student discipline? On
answering e-mails? At district meetings? And
what about teacher time? Are faculty meetings
a time for effective professional development or
just a place to air administrative announcements?
Is time carved out for teachers to plan together?
n Learning. When do you, as “head learner,”
attend workshops simply to learn? Do you
provide time for teachers to learn?