A principal celebrating success with some of his teachers
Leadership Skills and Implementation

Principal as Instructional Coach: What Successes Have You Celebrated Lately?

By Terry Wilhelm

According to Robert Marzano and his co-authors of the 2005 book School Leadership That Works, one of the research-based leadership behaviors of effective principals involves being an “Affirmer.”

According to the research, an affirmer principal “systematically and fairly recognizes the accomplishments of teachers, staff, and students.” He or she also “systematically and fairly recognizes the failures of, and celebrates the accomplishments of the school as a whole.”

Celebrating success should happen more often than it does in education

Working within today’s test-driven environment has certainly caused educators to recognize and analyze failures. The drive to improve is relentless. This is not necessarily all bad. But as a result, it has become more important than ever for principals to take a strong lead in celebrating successes, something I would argue we have never done enough in education.

It’s easy for teachers to become discouraged when their effort and diligence is not reflected in results. An effective principal must ensure that they and their teachers are working hard at the right work. This is part of “systematically and fairly recognizing the failures of . . . the school as a whole.” That said, celebrating successes is a morale booster — an all-important step in regrouping and moving forward. When a clear accomplishment has been achieved, any wise principal capitalizes on the opportunity to make sure it is publicized and celebrated.

What can a principal celebrate at an underperforming school?

When Beatrice Gray assumed the principalship of Palm Elementary in the Beaumont USD, her school was the only elementary in the district that had not met its achievement targets for state testing. It had improved, but not quite enough. She was named principal just before the annual back-to-school district-wide gathering and was faced with creating several PowerPoint slides for the superintendent’s presentation about her new school for the assembly that would include all classified and certificated staff, administration and management, and board members. What could she offer?

Beatrice decided to celebrate the “band jumpers.” These were students who had moved from any of the five achievement levels — designated at the time by California’s State Testing and Reporting (STAR) system — into a higher level. Many students had accomplished this feat. By highlighting their success, this principal’s teachers and staff were able to feel successful in the district celebration — and receive praise from their colleagues in the district.

Teachers and staff benefit when their efforts are recognized

Did Beatrice ignore the work remaining to be done? Of course not. But sometimes when leaders are faced with situations that are not outright successes, they tend to focus only on the failure — to the detriment of their work together with teachers and staff.

I have even observed principals missing the opportunity to celebrate unqualified successes with their staffs. What a sad circumstance for the teachers and staff members who worked so hard to achieve them!

Every school has many small achievements that deserve praise

It can be easy to forget that there are many important measures besides high stakes testing to be celebrated. These can include:

  • English learners who have been reclassified
  • Special education students who no longer need special education
  • Special education students who are being mainstreamed
  • Regular and special education teachers who are teaching collaboratively
  • Students who have reduced or eliminated tardies
  • Students who have reduced or eliminated absenteeism
  • Students who have improved their grades
  • High school students taking classes (“a-g requirements”) for college eligibility
  • A reduction in student behavior issues due to a school-wide initiative such as implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies or a restorative justice program.

Quick wins improve student learning in many ways

Anecdotal successes are also important. A struggling teacher who finally masters a new set of instructional strategies after extensive professional learning and coaching deserves the principal’s private kudos.

“Quick wins” are important to celebrate after the staff as a whole has undertaken a new instructional initiative. Whether public or private, the most effective principals are those who regularly celebrate successes — large and small — for teachers and staff, students, and the school as a whole.

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