Education Reform Educational Philosophy Leadership Principals School Leaders Teaching Community Uncategorized

Hey Principals: Want to be great? Answer this question correctly.

Everyone could use a good miracle once in a while. How awesome would it be if there was a Miracle Max (Princess Bride) living in your city? Just bring him your problem and BOOM miracle solved. I’d say the most difficult miracle right now in education is finding a GREAT principal. Not good- GREAT.

Hey Miracle Max… how about a great principal?

I know I know principals don’t really matter. They come and go. They aren’t in the classroom. In fact most teachers giggle a little when they hear a principal say “I’m a teacher too.” The proof is in the pudding my friend, or should I say the proof is in the Professional Development day- just watch your principal try and inspire the staff on a professional development day and you’ll know. You notice they say “I’m a teacher too” but they never say how good they are at teaching. But if you are lucky enough to have a GREAT principal then your school is probably rocking right now.

Why does having a great principal matter?

1. Nothing affects a school, including student achievement, as much as a positive student culture. A great principal understands the importance of environment and culture and is DRIVEN to maximize both.

2.  Principals hire everyone. Nothing will impact a school more than hiring a great teacher (or staff member) who will love, lead and work like a fiend for the next thirty years.

3. Principals serve as examples of how to solve problems and the best strategies to achieve goals. How your principal deals with a crisis, how they interact with the public, how they approach each day is the ultimate example for students, parents, and teachers.

I just finished this great book on leadership- and how leaders can create a culture of belief and drive big results.

all in

In the opening chapter of this book the authors ask if positive culture can really affect a business firm’s long-term economic performance- you know “data-driven.” The authors quote the results of a study done in the mid 90s by Harvard Business School professors Kotter and Heskett. These professors studied the results and climate of over 200 companies over an eleven year period. Companies with a positive culture grew an average of 682 percent with a stock appreciation of 901 percent. That’s impressive data.

Now being a principal is a complicated job, it’s a thankless task with long hours and you have to please many different stakeholders: parents, students, teachers, staff, community and the district and state directives. It can get very complicated and often your goals get muddied. This is where principals get in trouble. In my experience it seems like mediocre/good principals are concerned with:

  • Keeping the waters still. They need to find the squeaky wheel and making it a priority to quiet the wheel. Principals like a quiet phone.
  • Keeping their job. A principals/assistant principal’s job is a bit more tenuous than a teacher’s job, so they often seem a bit more concerned than most with covering their “donkey.”
  • Building their resume. Most principals and assistant principals want to move up the ladder so they MUST start something new. No principal shows up at a great school and says “You know this is a great school- I’ll just keep it the same for the next ten years.” Often when a principal/assistant presents a new idea we wonder if they are doing it to find research for the PhD program or just to build and fill their resume.
  • Data. Principals are busy- that’s a fact. That’s why admins LOVE data. If a parents asks you “why should my son/daughter go to your school?” Or a superintendent or Accreditation team asks the principal “is your school great?” The principal doesn’t have time to watch an entire period of every teacher on their staff, nor can they take two hours sharing what they saw in observations, but they can say- our CAHSEE scores in ELA have gone up the last three years. Data is a principal’s best friend- it makes them feel effective and efficient, but unfortunately it gets used as an instrument of torture and pain.


Count Rugen is dedicated to collecting data

When I talk to a principal or assistant principal I want to know ONE thing. What is their flag issue? If you could plant your flag on ONE idea what is it? Now here’s the secret. That idea needs to be AWESOME- it needs to be built around people, it needs. Well here I’ll show you:

If you don’t want to watch the first 63 seconds of the video you can click here and go right to the question. 

True love.

True love? Come on Theriault- I’m a principal- what’s love got to do with school leadership.


Great point Mr. Avellaneda. I’ve seen a ton of action plans, strategic plans, improvement plans and yet I’ve never seen one plan that asks for compassion or love. I can’t imagine how awesome it would be to send my son to a school that is dedicated to love and compassion.

Now you don’t have to make your flag pole item love per se, but it does have to be centered around people. In What Great Principals Do Differently Todd Whitaker talks about how you need to make your focus people- not the current program of the day… people.

Todd also tells us that what makes a principal great is what makes a teacher great. Lead like you teach. When I think of a great teacher I think about Dave Burgess’ book Teach Like a Pirate. In Burgess’ book he tells us that great teachers have among other things passion, rapport, and enthusiasm. Those are people skills- not program skills, not data skills, people skills.

In The Princess Bride the Prince has created a super team but because the main driving force of their mission is data (money) they fail in their task- kidnapping and killing the princess. Even though they have


Learning and skill





They all fail until they find a leader with a worthy purpose, something worth living for: true love in the case of Wesley. Once Fezzik and Inigo were working for someone with a noble purpose they could achieve the impossible. Miracles became the norm.

I’ll give you two quick examples from my own campus.


This is Mr. Herzfeld. He started at FVHS as our Vice Principal and then moved into the Principal position about eight years ago. Mr. Herzfeld is extremely smart, loves surfing, skiing, trail biking- he has all the qualifications that you would like to see in a school leader. He has done a fine job, but over the past two years Mr. Herzfeld has grown and what is driving his growth is the discovery of a flag pole or noble purpose. He has decided to stake his leadership around the phrase “Great teaching: it’s what we do.” First off all the statement works because he shows a caring attitude and belief in his staff that they are committed to great teaching. Secondly he has consistently stuck with this belief, supported it with money (hiring an Instructional Rounds facilitator), time (changed the bell schedule to facilitate PLNs) the message is in every one of his Monday Morning Memos, and he is dedicated to finding solutions to anything that gets in the way. It’s been fun watching him find a cause that is driven by a belief that awesome experiences can happen between students and teachers.

Last year we hired a new activities principal: Joe Fraser.


Here is Mr. Fraser leading the Blue Team during the Baron Games

Mr Fraser quickly established himself as a person who is not afraid to take big risks and try new things in order to build on our campus culture. He was in my class the other day and I asked him what drives him and he said “I want to create memorable moments that kids will keep forever.”

Ding, ding, ding… we have a winner. That’s one of my noble causes in the classroom. I LOVE creating memorable moments- the kinds that students bring up when they come back to visit in ten years. I tell every student that when they present in class I want other students to feel compelled to share the experience with others. You want proof of what Mr. Fraser stands for? We started a B4L program last year (Barons 4 Life) that brings back former Barons and celebrates them as well as creating moments that will drive students to wanting to behave in a way that makes them a Baron for life. It culminated in a Blue vs. Gold outdoor assembly. We have 3550 students. Imagine pulling off an outdoor assembly. Students and staff said it was one of the coolest things they’ve ever seen. Here’s the trailer we showed students in class to get them fired up:

Here’s a clip of the assembly. If you are a school leader you should watch both.

Then this year Mr. Fraser successfully implemented our first “Glow Show.” It was a night time pep rally before our big rivalry game. We had well over 1,500 students and parents show up on a THURSDAY night to cheer on the football team and it was spectacular.


Truly a noble cause- one centered in a love of students and staff.

So Miracle Max and I ask YOU: “What do you have worth living for? What is your noble cause?

BONUS SECTION for school leaders-

If you stayed with me, I’m going to give you an extra gift for FREE. It’s from the previously mentioned book ALL IN. In the book the authors have a section called Fifty-two ways to get your people all in. I’m going to share with you the ten ways that I liked the most that would work in a school setting:

  1. End the week with thanks: send out an email or announce a few words of thanks for people: teachers, staff, students, parents who made a difference that week. What a great way to send people off to the weekend- committed to see what they can do for the school.
  2. Start the day on a high: principals get compliments all the time. A student or parent or another staff member pulls them aside and says something nice about a staff member or coach. Empower any of your leadership team to send out a quick email with a recap of that compliment. You could even put it on a whiteboard near the staff mailboxes. At FVHS we often put a complimentary newspaper article on the whiteboard and we have a special bulletin board in the office for media praise of our students and programs.
  3. Hand written thank you notes: I know emails are easier, but I still have my first hand-written thank you note from my first FVHS principal Mr. Ernst. I don’t have a lot of these, when I get them I usually keep them because they make a difference.
  4. Random recognition: invited everyone coming to your next meeting to think of someone they would like to thank and a reason for that thanks. Then, depending on time, randomly pick people in the audience and have them stand up and thank the person they were thinking of- awesome idea.
  5. A tidal wave: pick one person on your staff that is underappreciated. Secretly get everyone on staff to write them a short thank you note, perhaps you can provide the note cards. Then leave them in a HUGE pile on their desk before they get to work, perhaps with a small gift.
  6. Lead by example: students or staff frozen in terror at the thought of getting a daunting task done. Sit down or stand next to them and start working. Start cleaning the cafeteria, making posters for rivalry week, grading papers, whatever it is that your staff is overwhelmed by- SHOW your staff that it’s possible by starting the task with them.
  7. Watch for assists: create a category in your employee performance plan/review for assists. The NBA keeps track of assists, why not you? Expect and note when employees help each other in formal and informal ways. Not just running clubs or heading up committees, but being the person who helped the WASC leader without having a formal help title. Discover ways to create incentives and accountability for helping their fellow staff members.


A fourteen year-old Thank You note- it still matters to me

Here are two books I recommend that were mentioned in the article:





  1. I stumbled upon your blog and had to smile at all of the connections and the fact that it is, indeed, a very small world:
    * I grapple with similar issues at the international school I work at although we are an ocean away in Moscow, Russia
    * We rewrote our mission statement to include “…love learning…” and are working from a strategic plan to make this a reality!
    * It doesn’t get any better than The Princess Bride – my all-time favorite movie
    * I was a Charger! Born and raised in Huntington Beach.

  2. I totally agree with your statement that being a great principal centres around people. In my career, I have met very few who would qualify for the great classification. I think there are 3 categories for Principals: the ones you would go through the wall for, the ones you loathe and the ones you have mixed feelings about. Most of the Principals I have worked for or know fit into the third group. One of the problems is that the job often attracts those individuals who are ambitious first and everything else second. Some of the best ones I know are individuals ( often women) who go into admin. later on in their careers. Generally, those types bring wisdom and well-developed people skills to the job. The worst have been the highly ambitious bureaucrats who speak edubabble with ease but have not spent enough years in the classroom to really know what they are talking about. I have had the misfortune to have worked for the worst Principal of my career in the last 4 years of it. Underneath his clever speaking style and his seemingly relaxed exterior lurks a total autocrat and control freak. His greatest achievement has been to unite the staff completely in opposition to him. It is draining to work with a siege mentality and is one of the reasons that I retired at the end of the first semester rather than in June.
    If I had to choose between having a vision for a school versus having strong empathetic people skills, I would choose the latter because ultimately happy staff and students are all you need to create a good school.
    By the way, my favourite character in that movie is Mandy Patinkin and I can’t believe he is the same man that is in Homeland ( it’s not nice getting old).

    1. When I read your comments and your blog I get sad that you are leaving the classroom. Please continue blogging and if you are not on Twitter you should join. I love learning from experienced teachers. I’m becoming a veteran now and I miss having aunts, uncles, godfathers etc… teach me new/old tricks. I bet you have 10 years worth of blog posts left.

  3. I saw in one of your earlier posts that your father is from Quebec hence your last name. I grew up in Montreal. Are your family Acadians who left generations ago or are they more recent emigrants?

  4. Mr. T – I stumbled upon your blog as I was searching for information for a presentation I am putting together for my class. This isn’t the first time I have read something you blogged. I have previously enjoyed your comments in “What Star Wars can teach us about student engagement” . . . I thank you for your thoughts on teaching and leadership. I see so many similarities in our approach to education that I would not have guessed we had, based on previous interactions. Recently I just finished reading several of Todd Whitaker’s book regarding great principals and great teachers. His words have inspired me, even after 20 years of teaching, I still strive to be the best I can be for my students. I am always looking for new ways to improve my methods or strategies in order to help support student learning yet I have never wavered from my style of teaching which is modeling love and compassion for all my students as well as my colleagues.
    Thank you for being a unique caring compassionate role model for our students.

      1. I just finished my last week as a teacher as I now am moving into Administration. I came back to your blog post to remind me of the things I hope to do as a leader. I have always been a teacher who does her job with love and compassion for my students and colleagues. I plan to continue doing that in my new role. My love and compassion for students, fellow teachers and staff members will not go away, if anything it will grow. Some have said to me that I am going to the dark side . . . I like to think that I am bringing the light. Maybe I am naive yet I can’t stand by and do nothing . . . I cannot move on without bringing me, the person I have always been, along for the journey. I would love to have your continued help, support and friendship as I start on this new path.

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