Characteristics of a Highly Effective School Principal

School principal
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A school principal's job is balanced between being rewarding and challenging. It is a difficult job, and like any job, there are people who are not able to handle it. There are certain characteristics of a highly effective principal that some people do not possess.

Besides the obvious professional requirements needed to become a principal, there are several traits that good principals possess allowing them to do their job successfully. These characteristics manifest themselves in the daily duties of a principal.


The principal is the instructional leader of the building. A good leader has to take responsibility for the successes and failures of her school. A good leader puts the needs of others in front of her own. A good leader is always looking to improve her school and then figures out how to make those improvements regardless of how difficult it might be. Leadership defines how successful any school is. A school without a strong leader will likely fail, and a principal who is not a leader will find herself without a job quickly.

Adept at Building Relationships With People

If you don't like people you shouldn't be a principal. You have to be able to connect with each person you deal with on a daily basis. You have to find common ground and earn their trust. There are many groups of people that principals deal with daily including their superintendent, teachers, support staff, parents, students, and community members. Every group requires a different approach, and individuals within a group are unique in their own right.

You never know who is going to walk into your office next. People come in with a variety of emotions including happiness, sadness, and anger. You have to be able to deal with each of those situations effectively by connecting with the person and showing him that you care about his unique situation. He has to believe that you will do whatever you can to make his situation better.

Balance Tough Love With Earned Praise

This is especially true with your students and your teachers. You can't be a pushover, meaning that you let people get away with mediocrity. You have to set expectations high and hold those you are in charge of to those same standards. This means that there will be times when you have to reprimand people and likely hurt their feelings. It is a part of the job that isn't pleasant, but it is necessary if you want to run an effective school.

At the same time, you must offer praise when it is appropriate. Don't forget to tell those teachers who are doing an extraordinary job that you appreciate them. Remember to recognize students who excel in the areas of academics, leadership and/or citizenship. An outstanding principal can motivate using a combination of both of these approaches.

Fair and Consistent

Nothing can take away your credibility more quickly than being inconsistent in how you handle similar situations. While no two cases are exactly the same, you have to think about how you have handled other similar situations and continue on that same track. Students, in particular, know how you handle student discipline, and they make comparisons from one case to the next. If you are not fair and consistent, they will call you out on it.

However, it is understandable that history will influence a principal's decision. For example, if you have a student who has been in multiple fights and compare her to a student who has only had one fight, then you are justified in giving the student with multiple fights a longer suspension. Think all your decisions through, document your reasoning and be prepared when someone questions or disagrees with them.

Organized and Prepared

Each day presents a unique set of challenges and being organized and prepared is essential to meeting those challenges. You deal with so many variables as a principal that lack of organization will lead to ineffectiveness. No day is predictable. This makes being organized and prepared an essential quality. Each day you still have to come in with a plan or a to-do list with the understanding that you will probably only get about one-third of those things done.

You also have to be prepared for just about anything. When you are dealing with that many people, there are so many unplanned things that can occur. Having policies and procedures in place to deal with situations is part of the necessary planning and preparation to be effective. Organization and preparation will help reduce stress when you are dealing with difficult or unique situations.

Excellent Listener

You never know when an angry student, a disgruntled parent or an upset teacher is going to walk into your office. You have to be prepared to deal with those situations, and that starts with being an exceptional listener. You can disarm most difficult situations simply by showing them that you care enough to listen to what they want to say. When someone wants to meet with you because they feel wronged in some way, you need to hear them out.

This doesn't mean that you let them bash another person continuously. You can be firm on not letting them belittle a teacher or student, but allow them to vent without being disrespectful to another person. Be willing to go the next step in helping them resolve their issue. Sometimes that might be mediating between two students who have had a disagreement. Sometimes it might be having a discussion with a teacher to get his side of a story and then relaying that to the parent. It all begins with listening.


Education is ever-evolving. There is always something bigger and better available. If you are not attempting to improve your school, you are not doing your job. This will always be an ongoing process. Even if you have been at a school for 15 years, there are still things you can do to improve the overall quality of your school.

Each individual component is a working part of the larger framework of the school. Each of those components needs to be oiled every once in a while. You may have to replace a part that is not working. Occasionally you may even able to upgrade an existing part that was doing its job because something better was developed. You never want to be stale. Even your best teachers can get better. It is your job to see that no one gets comfortable and that everyone is working to improve continuously.

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Your Citation
Meador, Derrick. "Characteristics of a Highly Effective School Principal." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Meador, Derrick. (2023, April 5). Characteristics of a Highly Effective School Principal. Retrieved from Meador, Derrick. "Characteristics of a Highly Effective School Principal." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).