The Effect of a Great Principal on School Culture

Even if you have great teachers, the principal is the one who sets the tone.

principal affects school culture

I’d never considered how a principal affects school culture until my kids’ elementary school got a new administrator two years ago.

She was our fourth principal in a seven-year period. Instability had become the norm and everyone in our community wondered if we’d ever find the right principal. We weren’t sure what we were looking for, we just knew each prior principal wasn’t it.

Then, two years ago, our current principal arrived, and something remarkable happened.

Hours after the first day of school ended, at our annual PTA-sponsored Welcome Back event, our new principal chatted comfortably with parents, students, and teachers—she clicked with every one of them. She was clearly invested in our children’s futures. That night, she vowed to memorize the name of every student in school within her first month—and she did.

The ripple effect of a principal’s attitude

Since that first evening, our principal has done everything within her power to make our school a better place. She’s carefully preserved the existing culture while adding new, positive layers of improvement.

Morale was low when other principals were at the helm. Teachers transferred to other schools within the district. PTA officers had trouble getting approval for ideas or initiatives. Parents whose sons or daughters occasionally needed help dealing with out-of-control life circumstances were often told “No.”

But with our new principal, a very positive vibe took over the school. Teachers felt motivated and supported, and they stopped leaving. The PTA had a willing partner to encourage participation among parents, and we were able to implement new programs. And parents with reasonable requests were rarely turned down.

The right principal can make a school a community

Our principal has made a point to become a fixture at PTA-sponsored extracurricular events, so that everyone in the school community, down to the youngest kindergartener, witnesses her having fun with students and faculty. She’s the only adult who laces up roller skates at our skating fundraisers. She teams up with the teachers who participate in our annual talent show to help make each year’s faculty dance number more elaborate than the previous one. She comes to a significant number of evening events, even though she lives 45 minutes away and it takes away from the time that she could be spending with her family.

Losing a great principal

I recently started thinking again about how a principal affects school culture. Our beloved principal will be let go at the end of the school year, due to restructuring within the district.

Our current principal introduced me to the woman who will lead our school community in the fall. She says that the new principal has very similar philosophies to her own, so she expects that we should experience a smooth transition.

Some parents have been discouraged by the news since the rotating cast of principals past hasn’t always been so rosy.

I’m remaining hopeful that we may once again achieve the perfect balance of an involved principal, motivated teachers, inspired parents, encouraged students, and a respectful learning environment. And I’m eager to see how our new principal embraces the community at our Welcome Back event this upcoming fall. That evening, I’ll greet her with an outstretched hand and a warm smile.

Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more ideas on how to transform your school community.

Posted by Lisa Fields

Lisa Fields is a freelance writer and editor who writes health and psychology articles, profiles of interesting people and personal essays. She has written for national magazines and websites, including Reader's Digest, WebMD, Ladies' Home Journal, Self, Shape and The New York Times.

5 Comments

  1. Oh, YES! We had a WONDERFUL set of administrators for four years, then lost one (to distrect level) and the next year lost the other (to retirement); the next few in both positions were good to ok…. never quite reached that peak again, but it may have been a symbiotic chemistry thing between them. Then, alas, we received a dismal Principal with a VP who we never really got to read because of the miasma created by the Principal. In less than six months, half of the faculty had put in for transfer and many parents were considering homeschool… luckily the District figured it out the next year and got rid of him. Unfortunately we had left; and I feel very sorry for the students whose sophomore/junior/senior schedules were so badly affected by his tenure.

  2. John Sakel, WCSC, you were one of the best….RIP.

  3. It is poor management decisions on the part of a district to move principal around so frequently. It sabatoges the great work a principal creates in build cohesion with students, parents and faculty only to have it disassembled by district mandate! It destroys trust and a sense of ownership– I remember a time principals stag 10 or more years developing a solid school culture.

  4. My district currently has a principal who plays favorites, never comes out of their office, and deliberately ignores teacher who pass them in the hall and try to hello or food morning. Our building morale has never been this low.

  5. Thanks for the useful information 🙂

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