An Old-style Principal: 20th Century Strategies for Building Morale and Improving Climate

When I first became an associate principal in a middle school I was in my twenties. I had a computer — the only Apple II in the school and I was the only administrator using it. Frustrated with scheduling, I discovered a program called PFS, file and report, and figured out a way to use it to back into scheduling students in a middle school with a parallel block schedule. The experienced principal basically said “go for it.” My new system replaced hand scheduling over 800 students on legal pads, then, transcribing individual information onto file cards, followed by the office secretary typing class lists using an IBM Selectric typewriter (using white correction tape to correct errors in her typing), and lastly distributing dot matrix printed class lists to teachers and meeting individually with students to resolve class conflicts — on their index cards. The secretary thought her typewriter was quite the upgrade from her old manual typewriter. I thought I was a cutting edge associate principal with my Apple II PFS floppy disks. Imagine that!

The schools I grew up in as an administrator now are so technologically primitive to me that it seems as if they existed “in a galaxy far, far away.” But, in other ways, some classrooms today don’t feel so different from my parents’ or even my millennial son’s schools — desks in rows, teachers at the front of the room, and spelling tests on Friday. After all, who hasn’t heard someone say that if Rip Van Winkle woke up today, the one place he’d surely recognize would be schools?

Yet, some effective practices of the past still hold water for the future because leaders centered on regard for young people and the teachers who served them are timeless in their work regardless of their century …

Much of the work I’ve experienced over the years to build and sustain positive learning communities still stands the test of time. For example, the principal with whom I worked in that middle school believed that students needed autonomy, teachers deserved to be valued, and administrators were there to serve the needs of the school community. In that middle school, as a young associate principal I was designated responsible for instruction in a three-person administrative team serving over 800 students. I learned a lot from my 20th century principal; some of which I would never steer a school leader to do. Fortunately, that was coupled with practices well worth doing, even in this century. He was a life-large school administrator, a former military pilot, and a guy who brooked no nonsense from anyone. He managed the school well.

Yet … he also believed that school should be more like a home than an institution for teachers and students alike. From his military days, he believed that morale was a “command” function of administrators and core to our work. He was relentless in setting up structures designed to support high expectations for all. These were the times before A Nation at Risk was published in 1983. Before high stakes testing took over the nation’s classrooms. Before equity and opportunity were the most important priorities for all learners that an educator could have.

What I learned in those days didn’t begin to address the full scope of what a school administrator needs to know to be successful in the role today. Email didn’t exist. Social media were ideas out past the stratosphere. Summers were slow time with vacations and time to relax, talk with peers, and work hours and days without meetings, phone calls, and development opportunities. I had time to capture what I was learning as a young administrator and eventually compile my learning into a list of maxims from the middle school principal with whom I worked after becoming an associate principal.

Later, I transcribed the list in the 1990s to share with a new middle school principal whom I was mentoring. My hair was still brown, my son was in elementary school, I had been a principal for several years, and Word Perfect was the processor of choice. I do think the list still has some relevancy in today’s schools regardless of level. Here’s the list — learning for a lifetime from a principal long since departed from this world.


Teachers deserve a space to take a break: Create a pleasant, non-institutional lounge environment for teachers with plants,lamps, framed prints, and a reading area with professional journals.

Students deserve a clean environment every day: scrub down student bathrooms daily, repaint over or wash away graffiti immediately, and wash the blackboards and clean the erasers.

Show value for students’ work by sharing their work: Display student artwork to dignify their creative efforts through aesthetic display. Change their work out regularly to ensure that as many students as possible get to see their work on display. Assign teaching teams to rotate projects and flat art through display cases and on bulletin boards. Ditch prefab bulletin boards in lieu of student work.

You get what you model: As principal never walk past trash on the hallway floor and encourage by example the same among students and teachers.

Kids notice when they have their own designated social space: Create a student lounge and give passes to students because they have helped a teacher, a peer, or the school in some way or simply because a student needs a boost.

Parents need a calm space in the school to wait for a variety of reasons. The parent waiting area should be pleasant and positive in its service and environment. Place magazines in the waiting area and be sure parents have a place to be private if needed as they wait.

Students and teachers deserve the best in their environment. Put funds aside to update classroom and office furniture on a reasonable cycle. In the summer deep clean and paint classrooms and halls and replace flooring as needed. This means administrators must work with building maintenance staff to address environmental needs on behalf of teachers and students.

Teacher Morale

Administrators serve teachers, parents, and students. Designate classroom teachers and children as your clients with the idea that service to clients is of utmost importance from the administrative team. Remember — staff supports the line. Use a philosophy of never telling a teacher “no” to ideas that would improve achievement- if in doubt, figure out how to shape the idea.

Thank people all the time. Write handwritten notes to teachers(at least 10 per week) noting something positive that was observed or brought to the administrators’ attention. Make your thank yous authentic.

Professional development is a continuous state of mind. Send article copies to staff regularly related to topics of interest as found in Educational Leadership, Ed Week, Kappan, and content journals (set up tracking system of who gets what and a “mail system” for passing on articles),

Community social time matters. Plan regular get togethers outside of school- encourage a staff member to organize a Fridays after 4:00 group to meet in town.

Learning from other educators brings new ideas into your school. Send teams to conferences with a plan for sharing info upon return. Encourage peer observations in and outside the building.

Spend your budget on learners. Increase budget for instructional materials to maximize new equipment and supplies. Provide mini-grants to teachers for special projects($200..) that represent their creative thinking.

Adopt an invitational schools philosophy in all you do. Set up invitational staff meetings- with two caveats, a) if you are absent you must accept decisions of group, b) you must know of and implement decisions of the group. Read Bill Purkey’s The Invitational School:

t its heart, Invitational Education is an imaginative act of hope that explains how human potential can be realized. It identifies and changes the forces that defeat and destroy people. Invitational Education is designed to create and enhance human environments that cordially summon people to realize their potential in all areas of worthwhile human endeavor.” [2] “Invitational Education asserts that organizations are never neutral. Everything and everybody either adds to or subtracts from an existing culture. Invitational Education offers concrete, practice, safe, successful and democratic solutions for problems that routinely harm organizations and the people within them.” (Wikipedia)

Change happens because of teachers not in spite of teachers. Construct a sociogram to identify both informal and formal power structures in the school and use that info to pre-assess and build support for change prior to initiating it.

Support autonomy with responsibility. Put teachers in charge of their own time to the greatest degree possible — and for setting up when, where, why, and for how long they need to meet as teams.

Student Morale

Young people need your support all the time. Send postcards to parents to note individual successes of students and distribute postcards to teachers to send as well (30 each to start year).

Communication about school between parents and their children matters. Use the phone system to let kids notify parents of personal successes in classes.

Catch young people doing the right thing. Call each family within first month of schoo. Have staff divide up names to call home to simply say hello, welcome, and note 1 thing that the child has accomplished- NO Negatives!

Listen to students because you can learn from them. Designate one day per week for lunch in the principal’s office and ensure you invite a diverse group of kids (4–5 max) to simply talk while you listen. Start a student council that represents the diversity of school and use a combination of student and staff appointments to ensure diversity.

High Expectations for All

Planning for learning makes a difference. Expect everyone, including you the administrators, to develop a ten-day lesson plan to start the year with the intention of building relationships with students, building high positive associations for what will be learned, and engaging learners.

Attend daily to multiple factors that impact learning. Set standards for expectations related to time on task, student engagement, class climate, behavior management, use of planning times, variation in instructional strategies, supervision of students, and assessment.

Differentiate staff leadership. Use team leaders to address the business of school. Use master teachers to address instruction of learners.

Mastery of learning is the goal. Expect students to be prepared to show their learning and teachers to develop a plan to maximize children’s potential to be successful including reteaching and reassessing for mastery.

People, students and staff, need to know individually when they have not met your expectations. Use a specific plan for giving clear feedback when expectations are not met- Consider this from the One Minute Manager “This is what you are doing”, “This is what I expect, how can I help you?”

Some of the beliefs from this 20th century principal have guided me through an extended career path as an educator. I have learned much more along the way from teachers, parents, young people, fellow administrators, and community members who care about schools. As I think about the future of schools, I believe that humans are social learners and the more we do as leaders to build communities grounded in social learning processes, the more likely our learners are to find happiness and success.

as an educator I'm for 21st c community learning spaces for all kinds of learners, both adults and young people; comments reflect my personal point of view.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store