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Good principals need a wide array of skills

Sunday, August 22, 1999

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Good principals need a wider array of skills than a Swiss Army knife.

They need to be able to manage people and budgets, evaluate and coach teachers, develop curriculum, be knowledgeable in child psychology and child development, lead a team, have strong public speaking and writing skills, help resolve conflicts, communicate with parents, discipline and encourage students, have integrity and be up to date on school law and regulations.

"If you don't have effective leadership, you just can't have successful schools," said Joe Werlinich, director of the Western Pennsylvania Principals Academy and professor of administration and policy studies at the University of Pittsburgh. The academy provides continuing education for principals.

"I think you need good teachers, but you need somebody to hold them together, to create an environment to maximize their teaching opportunities."

In Pennsylvania, 30 colleges and universities offer certification programs for elementary and secondary school principals, including Carlow College, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County.

Statewide, 412 elementary and 407 secondary certificates were issued this year.

Today's principals face different expectations than the principals of decades ago did.

"Principals in the past have been very autocratic, and many of them still are," said Faulk, associate dean of the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon. "If we go back in time, anybody in a position of leadership was valued in terms of being a forceful person, a decision maker, a whip cracker. In the world today, an effective leader is one who works with the people."

Faulk said good principals had to have a healthy ego because, "Unless you have a wholesome sense of self, it's very difficult. You become defensive, unwilling to take suggestions from other people.

"With [a healthy ego], you are in a position to realize as the leader of an organization, you aren't an expert in everything that goes on in that organization. A good principal is able to work with the staff to capitalize on their strengths in order to build the best program. They have to see themselves as a team leader.

"They have to be able to create an atmosphere in the school where people feel comfortable."

Principals also need to know how to mobilize the school to improve student achievement.

"We strongly promote principals being what we call an instructional leader. We don't want them to just be a manager. We want them to get involved in the instructional program, work with teachers on making curriculum changes. We want our principals to be on the cutting edge of what best practices are and have the skills to work with a teacher in a coaching type of situation," said Robert Furman, director of educational services at Duquesne University.

And it helps to be brave.

"Sometimes we overlook points like courage. It's easy to have technical skills. Without courage, it's useless," said Charles Gorman, director of the School Leadership Collaborative at the University of Pittsburgh.

The state issues two types of principal certificates: elementary, for kindergarten through sixth grade, and secondary, for seventh through 12th grade.

The state requires those receiving principal certificates to complete a graduate-level preparation program, to be recommended by the graduate program for a certificate and to have at least five years of satisfactory professional school experience.

The state also sets standards for the preparation programs.

The elementary program must have internships or other on-site opportunities to work with practicing principals and individualized programs to meet the needs of candidates.

The elementary program must assess the candidate on decisiveness, judgment, leadership, oral and written communications, organizational ability, personal motivation and problem analysis; and they evaluate the candidate's progress during the program.

The list of traits evaluated for a secondary school principal is the same as those for elementary plus educational values, range of interest, sensitivity and stress tolerance.

Many future principals complete the requirements in two years of part-time study, depending on whether they also are seeking a master's degree or are applying for both elementary and secondary certificates

At the University of Pittsburgh, for example, those seeking principal certificates take eight courses, including completing 150 hours of clinical experience involving hands-on principal work .

If they want a master's degree as well, they must take four additional courses, Gorman said.

A personal assessment course at the University of Pittsburgh this summer offered students an assessment of their skills and an overview of the issues they could face as principals.

The instructor, Blair Kucinski, superintendent of Leechburg Area School District in Armstrong County, emphasized school safety, special education, discipline, student achievement, diversity, accountability, teacher absenteeism and leadership as some of the major issues. Students visited principals in the schools, studied leadership styles, tackled school problems and evaluated themselves.

"It's not for you if you can't absorb stress, are not willing to work with diverse groups, are not committed to the mission of public education and are not willing to work long and hard with little reinforcement," Kucinski said.

Kucinski said obtaining the needed skills was a lifetime endeavor.

"You may get good at this. If you're really good, you're never as good as you want to be."

Some principals continue their education.

Through the Western Pennsylvania Principals Academy at Pitt, for example, principals can share ideas and learn the latest trends and information. Thirty-six principals are accepted each year into the two-year program.

All of the demands of being a principal haven't discouraged Wayne Brookhart, a social studies teacher at North Hills High School.

"I'd like to take on new challenges," said Brookhart, who took the assessment course at Pitt this summer. "I like the position of leadership, and I feel I can deal with the stress."

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