About four years ago, I learned about an amazing principal, Sondra Jolovich-Motes, who turned her school around from lowest in the state of Utah to one of the top 10! I thought, why isn’t her story being shouted from the rooftops? She is doing amazing things, and nobody knows about her! Then I thought, I have about 100 questions I would like to ask her. So much of my professional development up until that point was based in theory, and as a young administrator, I wanted to know what real principals were doing to actually get results.

I created a podcast, “Transformative Principal,” to learn more about what other great educators are doing and share my learning with others. Jolovich-Motes was my very first interview. Her story of taking her school from the bottom to the top was inspiring, and—while that podcast is a little embarrassing to listen to now—it was the beginning of more than 200 interviews describing what transformative principals do.

The guests I have interviewed include names most educators recognize, such as Rick Wormeli and Todd Whitaker, and everyone from major business leaders such as Seth Godin to principals who are not known outside their own districts. And the amazing thing is that every single interview causes me to walk away thinking: That was amazing, and I can’t wait to implement this small practice that will make a big impact!

I tell people that I am learning in dog years. I am able to learn so much from others, and I don’t have to make the same mistakes they did to grow and learn. I get to take shortcuts to what they learned and how they managed to make a real change in their schools.

I conclude each interview with the same question: “What is one thing that my listeners can do to be a transformative principal?”

If I can implement that one thing from each interview, then I can make small, incremental changes and get closer to my dream of being a transformative principal myself.

And you can, too!

After more than 200 interviews, I have learned the traits that make principals great. It’s fascinating that none of the three most important characteristics have anything to do with school itself. Based on these podcasts, here are my top three tips to becoming a transformative principal:

1. Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast!

Bill Daggett, founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education, is fond of saying that “culture trumps strategy.” Recently, education consultant and author Anthony Muhammad added a food reference to the idea by stating that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It doesn’t matter how good your plan is or what your designs are for your school if your culture is not capable of implementing that strategy. Climate is how people feel, and culture is how people act. How people act is more powerful than how people are told to act.

So many principals have reiterated that concept. Perhaps my favorite story has to do with the college visits that Rob Carroll does with his school, South Heights Elementary in Henderson, KY, from kindergarten through sixth grade. Their culture is so powerful that making yearly visits to college campuses happens even if a college cancels on them—even that cannot derail the plans of these kids getting to a college campus in every grade in his school. Their culture is that they visit colleges; so, if one cancels or something goes awry, their culture wills it to happen! What does that really mean? Individual team members take the responsibility on themselves to make sure that the kids get that experience.

2. Relationships! Relationships! Relationships!

Relationships and culture go hand in hand. In an early episode of “Transformative Principal,” Curt Rees, a principal in La Crosse, WI, talked about how connecting with others helped him grow. In our buildings, students can’t learn if they don’t trust, asserts Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain. The same goes for the teachers whom we are helping to learn and grow professionally. Make sure that you are building relationships inside your school and with the community.

3. Go Slow to Go Fast!

So many people have alluded to this, but in my mastermind (a weekly group coaching session) we say it nearly every week. Once you have relationships and culture in place, you can start moving on your changes, but you have to go slow. You go slow to build relationships and trust, and then when you have that, you can go much faster. It’s amazing. Amy Fast, a teacher and educational leader for the McMinnville School District in Oregon, talked to every class in her school to prepare them for a survey they were about to take that would help them steer the school. It took a lot of time to talk to all those kids. But going slow through that process helped the kids know that she could be trusted with the truth. So, they gave her the truth on their survey responses.

By keeping these three tips in mind, you will be well on your way to becoming a transformative principal. And keep those ears open—you just might learn a thing or two!

Jethro Jones is a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and principal of Kodiak Middle School in Alaska. He seeks to impact 100 million students by 2027 through improving school leadership. 

Making It Work

Use podcasts to play a transformative role in becoming a transformative principal

1. Listen to more podcasts! There are many great options out there, including “Better Leaders Better Schools” by Daniel Bauer, “Principal Matters” by William Parker, and “Principal Center Radio” by Justin Baeder. Or, check out “Transformative Principal” by yours truly. There are also podcasts to share with your teachers, including “Cult of Pedagogy” by Jennifer Gonzalez, “UnearthED” by Brad Gustafson and Ben Gilpin, “My Bad” by Jon Harper, and “StartEdUp” by Don Wettrick. There’s even a podcast by students; “Being You: A Middle School Quote Podcast” is by students at Kodiak Middle School in Alaska.

2. Start your own podcast. It doesn’t take much, and this technology is very accessible for anyone. There are so many options to get started, you can’t go wrong. If you need help, reach out to me; I’ll be happy to help you. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Sit with another colleague and chat.
  • Interview your peers and idols.
  • Tell a story.
  • Get your students to create a podcast.

3. Be a guest on someone’s podcast. You are doing amazing work. Reach out to a podcast host and offer to tell the story of your school. I often share the “Obvious to You, Amazing to Others” video by Simon Sinek, because it helps show that even if you think something is obvious, others may be amazed. So, reach out to a host, and get on some podcasts. Your story matters, and it needs to be told.