Kindness and Clarity: The Heartbeat of Powerful Principalship

Let’s talk about that time of year. You know, that time when principals are in classrooms, making observations, looking at student work, and finding ways to support teachers in their instruction? 

As a principal, I remember that feeling in my gut each semester when it came time for teacher evaluation conversations. I knew from my own experience that these conversations could be invaluable or they could be tremendously disappointing. And for some teachers, a conversation with the principal might not even occur—like the year my principal stopped by my English classroom to say, “Hey, I put your evaluation document in your teacher mailbox. Everything’s good. Just sign it and return it to me by the end of the day. They’re all due tomorrow morning.” That was it. That was all the dialogue I received during one semester of teaching my heart out. It felt horrible. 

Why is it important for teachers to have principal support?

Teachers need and deserve a real and meaningful dialogue with their principal at least twice a year.  This dialogue could be 40-45 minutes, with a review of the current semester’s work and looking ahead to the next. Specific areas of instructional strength are discussed, and specific areas of growth are determined. I firmly believe that every single teacher (all staff members, honestly) deserves this from their leader. 

However, I struggled to develop a plan for these conversations to make them meaningful and to nudge teachers forward in their instructional practices. One thing was certain: the developed plan had to be simple, timely and monitored. When a teacher sets one or two things to work on for the semester, that work can be extremely complex and difficult.

Setting the right goals as a principal 

One goal might be plenty! Principals must ensure that the goal(s) are appropriate and precisely on target for student learning needs. If the teacher selects a mediocre goal, the principal must have a real dialogue with the teacher to explain why the goal is inappropriate and guide the teacher to a more specific and essential goal. The easy thing to do here is to allow the teacher’s goal to be the intentional work for the semester, but that’s not brave leadership.   

Looking to enhance your leadership skills as a principal? Check out these insightful blogs for valuable tips on creating a positive work atmosphere and guiding a cohesive team.

For example, one year, a teacher shared with me her goal of having students bring their school planner to class each day and complete the homework section at the end of each period.  She wanted to increase the percentage of students doing this. This goal had nothing to do with her instruction. And many of her students weren’t doing the homework because it was pure drudgery! (You know, the homework assignment of doing the “odd” numbered math problems on page 118.) I knew I had to be clear and tell her that was not the goal we would embed for the upcoming semester. 

While she could have raised her concern about students not bringing their school planners and completing homework sections, my focus was on ensuring her students were proficient in tackling complex problem-solving in her math classroom.

Clarity in expectations yields great results

We set the following goal: Ms. Smith’s math class students will complete a problem-solving problem every other week. Our math coach will provide Ms. Smith with math problems that align with our Math Pacing Guide. Our coach is also available to assist with new strategies to use.  Ms. Smith will track her data for periods 2, 3, and 5. She will be ready to share two things: the percentage of students achieving the correct answer and the interventions in place for students who continue to struggle with the math concepts for that problem-solving cycle.   

The goal was clear. It was simple to understand but not so simple to put into place. Ms. Smith had to teach the math concepts, practice the problem-solving poster procedure, implement the strategy every other week, keep track of the data, and develop a plan for struggling students. We both knew exactly where we were headed. She knew exactly what I was expecting. She followed through and achieved each step of the goal. In fact, she went way above anything I had expected for developing interventions. She met with other math teachers and exceeded my ideas for what could be done for our students. 

How brave leaders move 

“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind,” says Brene Brown in her most recent book, Dare to Lead.

She discusses the fact that brave leaders operationalize goals into behaviors where people can be held accountable for demonstrating them. Brave leaders work with each team member to ensure they are focused on the right work. She states that “clarity absolutely reduces stress and story making “so that team members aren’t wondering what their leader expects.  

“Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind. Talking about people rather than to them is unkind,” Brene writes. 

So let’s be clear with the people in our schools doing the most important work – our teachers.  Let’s set meaningful and worthy goals with each of them. Facilitate valuable and real conversations during our evaluation meetings. Let’s be clear. Let’s be kind.

About the Author

Rhonda J. Roos, PhD, is an educational expert coaching principals, district leaders, and administrative teams in the ever-challenging work of leading schools. Dr. Roos has served in diverse roles such as a guidance counselor, English teacher, and district administrator. Her book, The Deliberate & Courageous Principal, published by Solution Tree, offers invaluable insights into fully embracing the role of a school principal. Exploring five crucial leadership actions and five essential skills, Dr. Roos book empowers principals to unlock their full potential, driving incredible outcomes for both students and staff alike.


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