When it comes to school leadership, what really matters? Years of experience? Advanced degrees? Principal placement? While each of these indicators can play a role in a school leader’s impact on student achievement, they don’t tell the whole story of why a principal can succeed.

When I tell my story of principalship, I begin by telling about my classroom experiences. Like many of us, I loved being a teacher and never thought that I would leave the classroom. But a lot of other teachers and my peers encouraged me to become a principal. I always responded with “no,” because I liked to teach and loved to coach, but more people continued to ask me. After filling in for an assistant principal during her maternity leave, I never returned to the classroom. Instead, I found a passion for school leadership, and I love that I am able to make an impact on an entire school community.

Here are the lessons I have learned in my time as a school leader:

Always be a student and teacher at heart

I believe that learning is the greatest gift and opportunity we have. Education has been the foundation of all of my success, and I want nothing more than for every student in my care to build their dreams on this same foundation. To show students and staff my dedication to learning, I strive to be a model of that learning.

Incorporate reflection into your daily routine

One of the most important practices that has helped me grow is reflection. Reflecting on my actions with researched best practice as a guide has developed my ability to make future decisions, as I have learned from my mistakes. As the leader, you will have to address a wide range of issues and challenges and make many difficult decisions. Being reflective will help you grow as a leader and will help you make those tough choices. Whether it is dealing with limited budgets, implementing state mandates, changing school policies, and more, regular reflection helps me be a confident decision-maker.

Be patient

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is patience. When you work with over 3000 students, 300 staff members, and nine schools, problems and frustrations are bound to arise. School leaders need to be patient with people, as everyone grows and moves at their own pace. Your job is to provide them the structure and support so that they can grow. Having a system to identify and grow strengths through professional development is essential to success.

Collaborate for success

From staff, students, parents, community members, and business leaders, I work to collaborate with all stakeholders throughout the school improvement process. As a result, four school improvement teams drive the major decisions and actions of the school. When our district transitioned to a college and career approach, our success was built on a foundation of collaboration. We worked through the numerous challenges that a massive transition requires by meeting regularly as PLCs; gathering input from students, staff and the community; asking questions; and developing ways of working together that helped to bring our vision to life.

Connect with students

Students are the heart and soul of the school, so as the principal, I make sure that I regularly connect with them. One way that I make myself available to students is through a webisode series called “Real Talk with Welch.” I film a short video about a lesson I want to share with students. I’ve talked about everything from studying with purpose, the college application process, social awareness and emotional quotient, and the importance of giving. I share these videos during announcements and make them available online. Students like the videos and talk to me about them when they see me in the halls. Click here to view one of these webisodes.

While my story has been exciting so far, I look forward to writing more chapters. My hope is that I will be able to continue to hone my leadership practices and make more of an impact on the lives of students and our school community.

What’s your school leader story? What factors have made you an effective principal?

Tommy T. Welch, PhD, is a nationally recognized school leader and speaker. He is the principal of Meadowcreek High School, a large urban school in the Atlanta metro area. He is the 2017 Georgia Principal of the Year and a finalist for the National Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @PrincipalWelch.

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