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  • by Blaine Helwig

Principal Selection – Mission Critical!

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

In the last couple years, I have not given this topic serious consideration. Over the decade I was a Title 1 elementary principal, selecting campus leaders was the primary responsibility of my superiors – not mine, so I kept out of that fray of district operations. Interestingly though, I attended approximately ten principal selection committees in the Austin Independent School District in Austin, Texas to provide ‘input’ in candidate selections for current administrative elementary campus openings. However, as time passed, I am have become more cognizant of the immediate need for a highly effective administrative training process – especially with Title 1 principals – to prepare a ready supply of viable candidates to lead campuses.

I have visited a myriad of districts, and it is difficult to determine the specific selection criteria that was used to evaluate, vet and choose lead campus administrators. Put simply, common leadership traits among principals in the same district seem more random than carefully planned. Comparatively, when interviewing teacher candidates for classroom openings at my elementary campus, I had a specific list of personality and professional traits that characterized successful teachers at my campus. As expected, if the candidate did not possess those attributes, a recommendation for hire was not offered. But, I am convinced that senior district officials across the country do not generally evaluate administrative candidates in a similar manner for the most critical position at the campus.

My wife and I recently went to the movie, The Founder, that was released a couple months ago highlighting Ray Kroc’s dubious but successful methodology creating the corporate giant, McDonald’s. Interestingly, there was a scene in the movie when the actor portraying Ray Kroc experienced an epiphany on leadership selection that altered the trajectory of the McDonald’s franchise. If McDonald’s was to succeed, store franchisees must be selected with a common set of personal and professional attributes.

What are common traits key to elementary campus leadership success?

A separation of socioeconomics is necessary. Different qualities are required for leadership success in each setting. In a non-Title 1 elementary school or medium to high socioeconomic demographic setting, the academic environment is forgiving; but there are other critical demands that require unique leadership skill sets. In contrast, the Title 1 principal must possess highly successful classroom experience in both pedagogy and effective classroom management. Due to the academic situation in the vast majority of Title 1 schools, the lead administrator must be pragmatic and use praxis as a pedagogical and curricular guide and not educational theory. Without these specific skill sets, I am professionally confident a Title 1 or non-Title 1 school will not be academically successful.

The essential minimum non-Title 1 campus leadership required skill sets

  • High interpersonal and relational qualities - Emotional Quotient (EQ)

  • Diplomatic skill set – mutual problem solving solution provider.

  • Possess high cognitive and organizational abilities

  • Highly articulate

  • Possess a general understanding of classroom management, grade level content and pedagogy

The essential minimum Title 1 campus leadership required skill sets

  • Proven capability to build positive relationships with students, parents and staff in challenging situations

  • The principal and the principal alone will determine the academic outcomes of the campus. They ALONE set the social and academic priorities, curricular focus, student and teacher expectations, stop-gap intervention work. If they are not a good candidate for academic improvement, the school will perform poorly regardless of the quality of classroom teachers.

  • A former - highly successful academic classroom teacher in both instruction and effective classroom management in a Title 1 setting

  • Ability to train campus personnel in effective curricular resources and pedagogy – an instructional leader is required and not a physical plant manager – provide on-going classroom management support.

  • Willing and able to provide active and daily support of classroom teachers in both academic targeted resources as well as classroom management support, as needed.

  • Possess high cognitive and organizational abilities as well as imbued with a high work ethic

  • Possess a goal oriented and results driven mind set

Regardless of the school setting, if district wide academic success is desired, there must be a specific vetting process of administrative candidates based on the key attributes listed above. The candidates must be trained at the campus and in professional development settings by the most successful administrators in that district. A failure to do so will result in a dearth of quality administrators readily available for future openings as well as campus leadership without a core system of beliefs, values and practices.


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