November 2018: Leadership

School Research to School Excellence

Nine Leadership Behaviors of Principals that are Correlated to Higher Student Achievement

Unpacking Chapter 4 of School Leadership that Works, by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters, and Robert McNulley (2005)


Principals work hard to make their schools run efficiently. Creating systems, keeping up with curriculum, hiring, firing, dealing with teachers and parents, and of course, dealing with errant children, keep a principal busy day and night. But does a principal affect actual student achievement or are they just building managers? In Chapter 4 of School Leadership that Works, Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters, and Robert McNulley identified 21 specific leadership behaviors of school principals that proved effective and were correlated with higher student achievement. (Kathleen Cotton’s 25 Leadership Practices (2003) show similar effective leadership behaviors).
These leadership responsibilities include Affirmation, Communication, and Visibility, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us that these behaviors are considered traits of good principals. But 21 is a lot of traits to focus on. A principal cannot, and should not, try to shoulder all 21 responsibilities alone. The ideal goal is to accept 9 as the principal’s personal list and divide the other 12 among people who can be called “school leadership team members” – people who are either in the administration or have administrative duties. A principal needs to develop a strong leadership team, who then helps the principal choose the priorities in the school to improve achievement.
I chose 9 of the 21 Responsibilities to discuss in greater detail, including a description of the trait and some real-life suggestions and feedback I’ve gotten from principals about each of these.

  1. Affirmation:
    • Systematically and fairly recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of students and teachers
    • Systematically and fairly recognizing the failures of the school

The biggest obstacle to affirmation is ensuring fairness, especially perceived fairness. Fairness in this context requires a commitment to building strong relationships, capacity and trust with faculty and staff.
How do we demonstrate a commitment to affirmation? Principals have shared the following ideas:
• “I set up a school web page – and made sure there is a celebration section that I can refer to at faculty meetings and board
• “I have a newsletter with a section spotlighting teacher (and student) achievements”
• “I have notes I hang in the teacher’s room acknowledging staff accomplishments”
• “I single out staff accomplishments at staff meetings and encourage sharing.”
• “I leave notes in the teachers office mailbox commenting on something positive.”
• “I send a complimentary email to the teacher, often cc-ing the school board or other school administrators.”
• Other principals indicated that they make an effort to listen to teachers concerns, showing that they take them seriously. Teachers would like to know that they are heard, and affirmation includes getting back to the teacher to share what has been accomplished since they voiced a concern. Even mentioning that it was not forgotten and is still on the principal’s list is affirmation that they have been heard.

  1. Change Agent
    • Consciously challenging the status quo
    • Willing to lead change initiatives with uncertain outcomes
    • Systematically considering new and better ways of doing things
    • Consistently attempting to operate at the edge versus the center of the school’s competence

A change agent is willing to challenge the status quo and temporarily upset a school’s equilibrium. A major obstacle to the principal’s ability to act as a change agent is the lack of a plan to focus district resources, including financial resources, on change. A systematic plan for school improvement where shared goals are established and common problems are identified empowers a principal to act.
How do we demonstrate our commitment to being a change agent? Principals have shared the following:
• “I created a Curriculum and Instruction Advisory Team to develop a curriculum improvement process and a model of instruction”
• “I lead the Curriculum and Instruction Advisory Team to create a curriculum template and focus financial resources on this initiative and to create consensus on the need to develop a central school framework of instruction”
• “I worked to implement a school-wide behavior program”
• Other principals indicated that they hold teacher meetings to create a school-wide method for classroom management and best practices. Teacher buy-in is the most important factor in making true change. Identify the teachers who have sway over public opinion and invite them to come on board. While they might then have opinions that differ, the objective is that the overall goals set out are met as the principal wishes.

  1. Communication
    • Developing effective means for teachers to communicate with one another
    • Being easily accessible to teachers
    • Maintaining open and effective lines of communication with staff

Communication refers to the extent to which the principal establishes strong lines of communication with staff, and between the teachers and their students. The principal has the responsibility to build capacity for communication in their school. Everyone should feel like they are being heard. Building capacity for communication has little financial cost but significant cost in terms of time. However, the pay off for this investment can be enormous. Improved teacher morale and retention and improved student achievement are examples.
How do we demonstrate a commitment to communication? Principals have shared the following:
• “I have an open-door policy; I smile and compliment a lot”
• “My compliments are precise and specific. I know general praise doesn’t mean much to my staff or students.”
• “I make time for teachers who share a class to meet and share their concerns and successes with each other.”
• “I make time for all teachers in a grade to have a PLC (Professional Learning Community) grade meeting.”
• Other principals mentioned the importance of Walk-Throughs; making each classroom familiar; how it is run, teacher’s style… make time to compliment or leave a complimentary note after a walk-through.
• As mentioned in Affirmation, teachers thrive on communication and would like to know that they are heard, and real communication would mean getting back to the teacher to share what has been accomplished since they shared a concern. Even mentioning that it was not forgotten and is still on the principal’s list is affirmation that they have been heard.

  1. Discipline:
    • Protecting instructional time from interruptions
    • Protecting teachers from internal and external distractions

This is one of the biggest challenges for a principal. All teachers want to know that the principal “has their back” when it comes to discipline. The problem is that many teachers do not want to deal with behavior issues at all, and many teachers can be the cause of behavior issues they are seeing. If the principal is bogged down with excessive discipline issues, they will not be effective in any other areas of leadership. Both those principals who reactively punish a student and those that don’t deal with an errant child in a serious way cause teachers to be resentful, thereby diminishing their roles as school leaders.
How do we demonstrate a commitment to discipline? Principals have shared the following:
• “We try to develop discipline procedures that work; take the time to network with other principals or meet with teachers and make a plan.”
• “I share discipline responsibilities – for example: divide detention responsibilities with clear instructions.”
• “I met with my teachers and developed steps for discipline; we identified small infractions and how the teachers should handle them, we identified larger infractions and how the teachers should handle them, and I let the teachers know when and for what reasons children should be sent to the office/principal. (Secretaries should also be given clear instructions as to how to handle errant students.) While the principal should be kept updated on infractions so the principal has the bigger picture, this frees the principal to prevent problems by following many of the other responsibilities that can prevent infractions from happening in the first place.”

  1. Flexibility
    • Adapting leadership style to the needs of specific situations
    • Being directive or nondirective as the situation warrants
    • Encouraging people to express diverse and contrary opinions
    • Being comfortable with making major changes in how things are done

Flexibility refers to the extent to which leaders adapt to the needs of the current situation and are comfortable with dissent. Flexibility implies personalized leadership.
How do we demonstrate a commitment to flexibility? Principals have shared the following:
• “I have to remember to listen, when I am more prone to rush and do. Sometimes listening to a staff member brings about greater resolution than my original plan.”
• “I have to be aware of potential power struggles. I can get in a power struggle with a staff member or a student – and neither is helpful. I need to be able to have scripted and planned responses for calling a time-out to reevaluate, as the in-the-moment decision might prove to be the unwise one. Saying, “This is important, let’s meet about this later when we both have time and are not rushed” buys me time to check my biases and meet with an open mind. In the case of a student pushing all my buttons, saying, “Let’s meet when you are calmer,” seems to allow me time to calm down as well and be the rational leader I am meant to be.”

  1. Intellectual Stimulation
    • Continually exposing staff to cutting-edge research and theory on effective schooling
    • Keeping informed about current research and theory on effective schooling
    • Fostering systematic discussion regarding current research and theory on effective schooling

Intellectual stimulation refers to the extent in which the principal ensures that faculty and staff are aware of the most current theories and practices regarding effective schooling and makes discussions of them a regular aspect of the school’s culture. This provides teachers with the intellectual capital (Marx, 2006) that keeps them competitive. Providing faculty with ‘Intellectual Stimulation’ is vital for increasing achievement but it can be very costly in terms of time and money; quality conferences, workshops, and comprehensive professional development programs can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. With Federal grant money available to many schools through, but not limited to, Title I, Title IIA, and Title III finding, much of the expense of workshops and coaching can be covered.
How do we demonstrate our commitment to intellectual stimulation and continuous improvement? Principals have shared the following:

  1. “I try to have a professional development focus each year. This year it is on The Art and Science of Teaching – Classroom Instruction that Works, Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work, Classroom Management that Works.”
  2. “I have coaching through my Title funding and I find that the teachers are more willing to work with and share their frustrations with someone they view as safe and I view as knowledgeable. I have seen tremendous growth in my staff, and as a side point, the teachers feel so nurtured that I have less turnover the past few years.”
  3. “I give out articles I find interesting and practical. I make sure they are short and relevant. They don’t share my love for long and scholarly…”
  4. “I model strategies for teachers. My willingness to enter their class and teach, as well as model something I think would benefit their instruction, seems appreciated and has positively affected my relationship with my staff.”
  5. Knowledge of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment:
    • Possessing extensive knowledge about effective instructional practices
    • Possessing extensive knowledge about effective curricular practices
    • Possessing extensive knowledge about effective assessment practices
    • Providing conceptual guidance regarding effective classroom practices

The principal is most effective when he/she is knowledgeable. A principal should be constantly learning, willing to share and step in and teach. While a principal cannot know everything, it is the wise principal who knows “just enough” to be able to assess how learning is progressing in the school. A wise principal is able to coach the teachers, sharing best practices and strategies most likely to help the teacher manage the class and the material. A principal should keep in mind the long range effect change can cause before implementing new curriculum or innovations, doing the proper research, even visiting other schools, before making large scale change.
How do we demonstrate a commitment to knowledge of the curriculum, instruction, and assessment? Principals have shared the following:
• “I try to use my summer for growth and networking, attending workshops offered in person and on-line”
• “I read books and watch videos to keep up with what other schools and classrooms are doing. Knowledge is power!”
• “I take classes in different subjects over the summer to better hone my understanding of the subject matter”

  1. Situational Awareness (Being Proactive)
    • Accurately predicting what could go wrong from day to day
    • Being aware of informal groups and relationships among the staff
    • Being aware of issues in the school that have not surfaced but could create discord

Principals must have their finger on the pulse of the school. Listen, listen, listen…See the forest from the trees – symphonic thinking (Pink, 2006).
How do we demonstrate a commitment to situational awareness? Principals share the following:
• Actually planning meetings and assemblies; not only what will be said, but where people will sit, what will be served/presented and how… and reviewing each event afterwards to do a post-mortem – analyze what went well and what could have been better so the next event is even smoother.
• “As a principal I can get stuck on the big picture; seeing the big picture is why I am so good at my job!, but I have to take time to see things from the perspective of the staff, parents, and students so that I can empathize and do a better job at explaining and communicating so that they are with me and not against me. At times it also means I can soften my response or decision so it is accepted better, or I can delay the roll-out until it will be accepted better.”

  1. Visibility
    • Making systematic and frequent visits to classrooms
    • Having frequent contact with students
    • Being highly visible to students, teachers, and parents

This responsibility is commonly associated with instructional leadership.
How do we demonstrate a commitment to visibility? Principals have shared the following:
• “The school feels different now that I am more visible. I make sure to walk the halls and peek in windows, and choose a few classes to walk-through, and teachers and students seem calmer and misbehavior is down and learning is up.”
• Walk-throughs – 2 minutes, 5 minutes, and 10 minutes… they don’t need to be long to be effective
• Greet students every morning, say good-bye at the end of every day
• “I have every grade gather in one classroom and give a Parsha thought/story for them to share with their families on Shabbos, and it helps the students and teachers connect with me in a more personal way.”
How do you meet the challenges of the 9 Responsibilities listed above? Have you thought about the other 12 Responsibilities? Please share. Principals are awaiting your responses! 

So What Are the 21 Responsibilities?
1. Affirmation
2. Change Agent
3. Contingent Rewards
4. Communication
5. Culture
6. Discipline
7. Flexibility
8. Focus
9. Ideals/Beliefs
10. Input
11. Intellectual Stimulation
12. Involvement
13. Knowledge
14. Monitoring/Evaluating
15. Optimizer
16. Order
17. Outreach
18. Relationships
19. Resources
20. Situational Awareness
21. Visibility

Not all of the 21 responsibilities are equal. When a school is running day-to-day all 21 responsibilities are important, to different degrees. When a school is making extreme changes, then the principal may have to emphasize certain responsibilities and de-emphasize others. Different skills are important for different types of changes. Successfully making these decisions; what to emphasize and de-emphasize, and what to focus on and when, is what separates school leaders who are “hard” workers and leaders who are “smart” workers. Marzano, et al, posit that many principals work hard, but would be more effective if they worked smart. They recommend breaking down all the factors involved with running a school into three categories; school-level, teacher-level, and student-level, and focusing on the factors that research has proven can impact student achievement most.

References cited:
Cotton, Kathleen (2003). Principals and student achievement: what the research says. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
Marzano, R.J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B.A. (2005). School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

Mrs. Etti Siegel, Adjunct Professor, Coach and Mentor, Workshop Presenter, master teacher, holds an MS in Teaching and Learning/Educational Leadership. She is a coach and educational consultant for Catapult Learning, an educational coaching agency, is a sought-after mentor and workshop presenter around the country, and a popular presenter for Sayan (a teacher mentoring program), Yachad/OU, Hidden Sparks, and the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools. She can be reached for comment and feedback at