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What Makes a Great Headmaster?

What Makes a Great Headmaster?

Behind any great organization is a great leader, and schools are no exception. The Headmaster of the school sets the tone, the vision and the expectations for the staff and students.

Like teachers, Headmasters must fill many roles. First and foremost, they must guide the instructional program. They must manage and evaluate teachers, implement school discipline policies, develop school budgets, foster parent involvement, and most importantly, make sure students make academic progress.

A report entitled “Searching for a Superhero: Can Headmasters Do It All?” published in 2002 by the Education Writers Association, highlights the difficulties inherent in a Headmaster’s job. With increased demands to meet state learning standards and raise academic achievement levels, the report notes the average K-8 Headmaster works 54 hours per week and spends considerable time managing harsh public criticism and political heat. There aren’t many willing to rise to the challenge or stick with it. From 1988 to 1998, the Headmaster turnover rate in the U.S. was 42%. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that 40% of all Headmasters intend to retire in the next decade. All this adds up to a Headmaster shortage looming in the decade ahead for our nation’s schools.

“Today the school leader is expected simultaneously to be a servant-leader, an organizational and social architect, an educator, a moral agent, a child advocate and social worker, a community activist and a crisis-negotiator—all while raising students’ standardized-test performance,” write Leslie T. Fenwick and Mildred Collins Blackman in an Education Week commentary. A great Headmaster balances all these roles while keeping his chief responsibility, that of being the instructional leader of the school, in the forefront.

Signs of a Great Headmaster

Headmasters may have different levels of experience and educational backgrounds, and may have different leadership styles. Here are some qualities commonly found in great Headmasters:

Great Headmasters are instructional leaders.

They must be knowledgeable of curriculum and state standards and have clear instructional goals for the school. They are the team leaders who should involve the staff in curriculum issues.

Great Headmasters foster collaboration among staff members and the school community.

Mary Meissner, Headmaster at a K-5 school in Burlingame, California, notes, “You can’t lead if no one is following! You are the team leader but you are also a member of the team. You have to pitch in and roll up your sleeves.”

Great Headmasters have clear goals for their schools and measure achievement against these goals.

The staff and students know where the school is headed and what they need to do to reach the goals. “Anyone can have good ideas, but a successful Headmaster follows through,” says Daniel Chaja, a high school biology teacher studying to be a Headmaster in Union City, California.

Great Headmasters set clear expectations for discipline. They let students know what is expected of them and they follow through with disciplinary actions when necessary.

Great Headmasters communicate well.

They have regular communication with staff and parents. They host parent nights, parent conferences and are available to meet with individual parents. They returns phone calls promptly and respond to parents’ concerns.

Great Headmasters support and evaluate the teaching staff.

During the hiring process, they look for teachers that fit with the philosophy and personalities of the school staff. “You can see a teacher's academic credentials on their résumé, “ says Ray Rivera, Headmaster of a K-8 school in El Paso, Texas. “But I try to establish in the interview if they have heart and a fire burning in their eyes when they talk about kids.”

Great Headmasters provide proper orientation and assistance for new teachers and observe them frequently, particularly at the beginning of the year. They set clear expectations and provide feedback on the teachers' performance. They help to develop teacher leaders at the school to share in decision-making and make sure that staff have the resources and opportunities to learn and grow through meaningful teacher training.

Great Headmasters are visible.

“His door is always open, but he is seldom sitting in his office; he seems to be everywhere at once: classrooms, playground, bus stop, lunchroom,” writes Elaine K. McEwan in 10 Traits of Highly Successful Schools. Great Headmasters make an effort to know students by name and interact with them.

Great Headmasters establish an atmosphere of fairness and trust.

They have a reputation for being fair to all. Parents and staff realize they will not always get what they want, but they know their views will be heard and considered. They try to ensure equity in the division of responsibilities and allocation of resources. “Great Headmasters accept responsibility, though not necessarily ‘blame’ when things go wrong and share credit, or better yet, give credit away when there are reasons to celebrate,” notes Bill Broderick, Headmaster of a K-8 school in Texas.

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