5 Ways Principals Can Set a Positive School Tone

A 40-year teaching veteran shares what she has learned about how principals set the tone for the school.

5 Ways Principals Can Set a Positive School Tone

After forty-one years of teaching in multiple schools and under five different principals, I can say confidently that the success of a school hinges on the tone set by the school leader. The climate and atmosphere a principal creates are integral to a thriving body of staff and students.

John Maxwell once said, “Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” In four decades of working in schools, I’ve experienced principals who create a positive atmosphere and empower the people around them. Unfortunately, I’ve also experienced the opposite. Here are five ways I’ve seen the best school leaders set a positive tone so that their school can thrive.

The best school leaders collaborate.

Over four decades in education, I saw a dramatic change in how principals viewed their roles. Early on there was a definite pyramid of power, with all decisions emanating from the top. More recently, however, school leaders tend to solicit opinions from staff about how the school should function. Academic issues, like curriculum, testing, grading, and improving academic performance, all have come under the purview not just of the principal but often the staff as a whole.

A faculty that feels empowered and whose professional opinions are actively solicited meets a school’s goals and vision with more success. The principals at these schools clearly realize the importance of individual contributions to the larger, greater good.

The best leaders set goals with their staff.

There were days when the beginning of school brought yet another handbook delineating school policies. Some random group of staff members would meet over the summer to put it together, and it was considered a done deal.


However, the more astute principals knew that including everyone in the goal-setting discussion guaranteed more buy-in and, ultimately, success. Representatives of grades and teams, on a rotating basis, contributed to determining policies. Consideration was given to routinely assessing the success of those policies and deciding how to amend or delete outdated, irrelevant, or ineffective goals. Setting school-wide goals kept everyone on the right path.

The best leaders are reliable. 

For me, there was always an overriding concern: How much support could I expect as I worked to reach my own professional goals? Were the principal’s goals also in concert with mine? How much latitude would I be allowed in my own classroom? 

When leaders are reliable and facilitate a positive climate of support, the principal can dramatically improve school morale. The demeanors and attitudes of the principals for whom I worked could not have been more different. The two that staff could count on the most proved to be the most “human”; they did not expect excellence from every person in every situation.

We could count on those leaders to always be ready to listen to all issues and mull over the implications of possible decisions. As a result, the school was a much more positive and enjoyable place to work.

The best leaders value all stakeholders. 

I refer to the principal who touched my heart and made me proudest of my efforts as the Teacher’s Principal. He made his entire faculty know they would never be judged if there was a problem. The Teacher’s Principal knew that all sides of an issue were critical to determining the solution to a problem. He valued and respected each and every staff member and felt as though each person was integral in helping to achieve the school’s vision.

The regular recognition of outstanding students and faculty went a long way in making everyone in the building feel validated about their efforts. Assemblies, newsletters, and websites were all used to reach out to the school community to celebrate the collaborative achievements in the school.

The best leaders interact with parents in positive ways.

Principals should interact with families in the school community in a fair and positive way. Some principals put teachers on the defensive when there is a contentious issue concerning students or parents rather than listening objectively to the whole situation. Other principals seem to consistently side with parents in all matters. Over time, I have seen parental power increase in disciplinary matters, moving even into areas such as choosing appropriate textbooks.

Principals endorsing this division of power need to recognize the negative impact this has on school morale. They must also work to orchestrate more symmetry among the school community. Interactions with parents should be positive and forward-thinking, but that does not mean that principals should always “side” with parents. Rather teachers need to know that their school leader is always looking out for everyone’s best interest. 

The principal’s chosen leadership philosophy has a broad impact on everyone in the school community.

I can only hope that each teacher finds, as I did, a true and positive school leader. We need more principals who can see the strengths of their staff and use successfully leverage them.

How do you set a positive tone in your school? We’d love to hear about your experiences.

Join the great conversations going on about school culture in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus, check out this great article on how to be a principal parents want to talk to.