Building Principals are the #2 Influence on Student Achievement

John Norlin · October 16, 2019

In speaking with Dr. Scott Seaman, Executive Director of the Association of Washington School Principals he noted that the Wallace Foundation, as well as the National Association of Secondary School Principals, did some great research the past few years. Combined they’ve narrowed down some powerful statistics related to the impact that Building Principals have on student achievement. Building Principals are the #2 influence on student achievement behind an effective classroom teacher. 1 in 4 Principals is in the same building after 5 years.

There is a big difference between leadership and management. We lead people, we manage things. Both are important in that we need to manage the systems that make our schools and classroom run efficiently, but we also need to remember that if we work in schools then we are in the people business and because of that our work is all about relationships. With this said, you can be an excellent manager and a terrible leader and vice versa. To get the kind of achievement results that we want to see in our schools, we need to provide building administrators training not just in management skills but also leadership skills. 

A Gallup poll of over 1 million employed US workers showed that the number 1 reason people leave their jobs is because of their boss or supervisor. The scary part is that many of the first employees to get frustrated and leave are going to be high achievers. It makes sense, nothing frustrates a great educator more than a Principal who can’t drive forward a vision effectively, hold people accountable to that mission as well as themselves, while removing the unneeded obstacles so that educators can impact students' lives in a positive way.  

I also know that just like teachers, Principals have a lot on their plates and many times are being pulled a million different directions by dealing with pressure from all different angles. Sometimes it is district office, sometimes, it is teachers, support staff, students, families, or other administrators in their own district. When you are teaching and times are tough you still have those beautiful moments that happen day in and day out with your students. When you are a building Principal sometimes you have to be a bit more intentional to find those moments. 

At CharacterStrong we believe that we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. We also know one of the reasons this is true is that when times get busy, stressful, and tough, the first thing that goes away is a focus on the relational work that we know is critical to be effective as a leader. This is why we created CharacterDares. The basic theory of the CharacterDare is to provide ideas on how to put our character into action. Many times we need ideas not only to get started but also to spur other great ideas. The CharacterDare reminds us of things that many times do not get on our “to do list” but would be on our “who I want to be list”. Unless we are incredibly disciplined however, many do not have a “who I want to be list” that they are going after day in and day out. We have CharacterDares for students that are a part of our CharacterStrong Advisory Curricula and CharacterStrong Student Leadership Curriculum. We also have two years worth of 40 Week Staff CharacterDares that can be shared each week on ways that teachers can connect with students, families, and each with more intentionally. This year though we have also added both a year’s worth of Family CharacterDares and Administrator CharacterDares. These two newest sets of CharacterDares are both tools that a building administrator can use as a part of their critical role as a leader. 

Here are a few of my favorite Administrator CharacterDares:

Staff Chips - Purchase an inexpensive set of chips and put each staff member's name on one. Each day, grab 3-5 chips and put them in your pocket. As you walk around the school, intentionally spend a couple of extra moments connecting with those staff members. 

You can listen to Principal Alicia Jensen talk about how she uses Staff Chips on a recent episode of our CharacterStrong Podcast HERE


Birthday Selfie - Find a list of staff and student birthdays and, each day, take the time to go to classes and take a selfie with the School Admin and post on the school’s social media. It is amazing what happens when the administration finds fun and consistent ways to connect with students and staff. It also lets everyone know whose birthday it is at school! 


Student Board - Select 10 students each month to join the admin for lunch where you ask for feedback on their experience at your school. Get pizza, salad, and something to drink and have a simple set of questions that you work through. Truly listen and seek to understand. This will help you respond with empathy to the things that students are experiencing throughout the year. 

The truth is that the work a building Principal does is incredibly difficult, yet crucial to the success of a school. We need to remind ourselves that the work is supposed to be hard and that if it was easy more people would do it. The balancing of the leadership and management work needed to be effective can seem overwhelming at times, but remember that you don’t need to get every moment right to be an amazing leader. You just need to be intentional and remember that when we protect time for the relational work from Principal to Staff, Principal to Students, and Principal to Families that it fuels us to do the difficult work that goes along with it. 

You can download the entire year’s worth of Administrator CharacterDares by clicking HERE.

You can also learn more about how we are helping administrators to create a culture and climate in their buildings where staff and students want to be there vs feel like they have to be there while infusing social-emotional learning into the daily fabric of schools and classrooms each day.


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.