Learning to be Transformational from Principals

In 2014 I my colleagues and I published a book called The Best Teacher in You: How to Accelerate Learning and Change Lives. It was a study of “value added” teachers. By objective measures the teachers were shown to move their students far beyond normal expectations. In doing the study we had the opportunity to do a workshop with value added principals from Tennessee, a group of 30 people who had the highest scores at the school level.

The high value added principals were very diverse and they came from all parts of the state. Some came from impoverished communities and almost all worked with limited budgets and operated under considerable external constraints. Yet these particular principals seemed undeterred by the barriers they confronted.  As I facilitated the discussion three things struck me. The first is that they love what they do. The second is that they are never distracted from their highest purpose, the learning of the children. Third, they go the extra mile to succeed. Here is what they said.


  • When I started out, I prayed for a job that would be a place where I could make a difference.  That is what I found and that is still what I want.
  • This is not a job.  It is what my life is all about.
  • I listened to a speaker who wrote a book called The Element.  He said when you are in your element, work is not work.  This is not a job.  It is what I love to do.

Focus on Purpose (Learning)

  • It is about taking accountability for learning, no matter how bad things are, our job is to move the kids forward. I take full accountability for the progress of the kids and I hold the teachers to that same standard. There are no acceptable excuses. We exist to move the kids forward.
  • Poverty is not an excuse. Low income kids need us even more. We have to help them succeed, we are their only chance.
  • My philosophy is that all the kids in all the rooms can progress. I expect them to push along the kids at the top and also support the kids at the bottom.
  • I have drugs, bombs, and violence. They are not excuses. They are part of the job. I need to do a good job or I should be gone. The teachers need to do a good job or they should be gone.

Extra Mile Effort

  • After nine years as a principal, I know that if it is going to get done, I am the one who has to do it.  I have had to cut the grass, clean restrooms, fix computers, and intervene in home situations.  I do what is necessary to move ahead.  I am a role model for my teachers.  I want them to see me doing what I expect them to do, to go the extra mile, to do whatever is necessary.
  • One student started acting out, we went to the family and found out the power company had turned off their power.  I made it my job to find the resources so that family could get the $650 they needed to turn the power back on.   Stuff like that is required on a regular basis.  It is my job.
  • I talk individually to every kid about their grades.  I know where they are and what they need to do.
  • When the kids succeed they get to do things to me.  I have had to kiss a pig, I been slimed, I have been dressed up as a hot dog, I have been Fancy Nancy.  I do whatever it takes.
  • As a principal I do not know what is going to make a difference until I step back and look.  I take home all the student scores and on the weekends I examine every one.  I need to know where every kid is, what every kid needs.
  • I try to take all of the problems away from the teachers.  I try to absorb them all.  I want to create a climate where all they have to do is worry about teaching.  I bend over backwards so this can happen.  They see what I am doing and they respond.
  • I expect the teachers to ask for help with individual students.  I make sure they know it is not a sign of weakness for them to ask for help.  I then make it a point to do all I can with that student.
  • You have to confront ineffectiveness.
  • I have to have a lot of courageous conversations.

When interviewed by the media, I am often asked to give examples of a transformational leader. They expect me to identify the CEO of a major corporation or a visible world leader. I prefer to talk about the people in every day roles. I want to make the point that transformational leaders are everywhere. In every community we can find positive organizations nurtured into being by a person who started just like us.


If the people who worked for me were like these principals, what would change?

If I had one of these principals as my boss, what would change?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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