Want to improve your child’s school? Support the principal

Judy Knotts writes in “The Principal’s Chair” about how the head of school matters to its success

Judy Knotts has decades of experience leading schools, including as principal for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School and St. Michael’s Catholic Academy. She served on the board at the Principals’ Center at Harvard and was a consultant to schools for 15 years. Statesman readers might know her for the wise religion columns she writes, mostly on the topic of homelessness, which appear in the Saturday Austin360 section.

Knotts, who is now retired, has written “The Principal’s Chair: Who Sits There Matters, A Secret to School Success” ($12.99, CreateSpace), which is available on Amazon. The book is written for principals, whether they are in their first years as a principal, starting at a new school, or have had long careers at one school. It’s essentially a manual of what to do — and what not to do.

Knotts, whose doctoral dissertation focused on new organizations and whether they make it five years, found the same truth about successful schools: It’s all about the person leading and whether that person is supported.

“Success all depended on the principal,” she says. “It didn’t matter whether they are low income or high income (schools).” It also didn’t matter which country they were in, she says.

When schools weren’t succeeding, they often had principals who were going through the motions or working just for a paycheck. They were unethical people or people without passion, or they were well-intentioned people who didn’t have the right training.

As school begins, parents often worry about which teachers their children will get, but really they think about who is leading the school. Good principals make teachers better, Knotts says. Like the way teachers help children grow, the principal’s job is growing adults (teachers), Knotts says.

“Teachers clearly are important, but ask any teacher what drives excellence, it’s if the principal is creating a culture, a community of care,” Knotts says. “If (teachers) are supported and cared for, they can do their work, then they perform the best.”

Teachers will “do their best work with a gifted principal or they will leave,” she says.

Education is everyone’s business, Knotts says, “We all have a role to play.” Supporting the principal is a great role for parents.

Knotts would love to have parents hand her book to principals as a training tool, but parents also can use these tips to create better relationships with principals:

  • Notice when good things happen and let the principal know. Principals often hear only complaints, not praise. Positive feedback helps create a positive environment.
  • Don’t constantly complain. When parents constantly complain, principals won’t know when it’s a serious.
  • Take problems or concerns to the teacher first. It raises red flags when parents skip steps. It says “they think they are more important than everyone else,” she says. Even if the problem is the teacher, start with the teacher. You want to build a collaborative relationship for the whole year. If that doesn’t work, then you can work your way up to the assistant principal and then principal.
  • If you need to talk to the principal, make an appointment first and let the principal or the school secretary know what the appointment is about. It gives the principal time to research and makes your meeting together more effective.
  • Volunteer at the school. Even if you work full time, there are smaller jobs you can do. “We love those parents, and it’s human nature to want to help them out,” Knotts says.
  • Be involved in your child’s education, but not too much. Know when the science project is due without doing it.
  • Don’t complain about teacher assignments. “Your child is not going to have the perfect teacher every year,” Knotts says. It’s just one year, and you want your child to experience a lot of different leadership styles over the course of their school career. A difficult or strict teacher can help them learn, too, as will the ultra-relaxed teacher. (If you need to request a teacher change, read how to do it at austin360.com/raisingaustin.)
  • Be optimistic about this school year with your children, even if you don’t feel optimistic. Try not to put fear in their minds by bringing up your own worries about what might or might not happen. “I know you’re going to have a great year,” she says, is a great thing to say.

Knotts says she doesn’t miss waking up at 6 a.m. to be out the door by 6:20 a.m. totally engaged, but she does miss growing teachers. “Schools are wonderful, organic communities where people grow,” she says. “If works, it’s a wonderful environment.”

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