Wanted: Principals Who Aspire to Inspire

As a high school student with three years of Latin, I had always been captivated by the power of words. Two that I like–different by only two letters but with great implications for education–are aspire and inspire. Both share the Latin root “spiro-,” which translates as “breathe” or “breathe life into.” Strong school leaders strive to inspire their staff and students as they aspire to promote high effectiveness for staff and high achievement for students.

Talk with any teacher across the country and you find a universal need:  leaders who breathe new life into their schools. In three recent meetings, ED’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows heard this same message many times.

We met with aspiring principals from Fairfax, Va., leaders, who asked us straight up: “What do teachers need from principals?” The Fellows shared  many ideas but focused on our need for supportive principals who coach and develop us to the highest levels possible and who create positive collaborative cultures where we can thrive.

Later, when we discussed the future of the teaching profession with teachers from the District of Columbia, they added another word to the conversation about leadership:  Respect.  Lisa Jones of Watkins Elementary told us that support and respect of an effective principal are critical to keeping her motivated. In fact, when offered the hypothetical choice between a six-figure salary and a competent, effective school leader, she said, “It ain’t about the money; it’s about the leadership!”

The next day, I met with the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ National Distinguished Principals of 2011. Larry DiPalma of Ansonia, Ct. and Dawn Smith from Duncanville, Texas spoke passionately about the importance of being that “inspirational” leader, despite the shifting tides in education and the current obsessions of our testing culture.

What we heard from teachers and principals is that great leadership really matters. While it is true that every child deserves a great teacher, I am discovering that great principals aspire to ensure that our great teachers are inspired and equipped to stay.

Greg Mullenholz

Greg Mullenholz is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Montgomery County, Maryland.  


  1. I agree…as an elementary principal, I often discuss with other principals, how do I continue to inspire my teachers? I know I respect them and I believe they feel that commitment from me, but inspiration goes a long way! Great article…

  2. From my very brief experience in high schools I’ve come to realize the importance of a strong sense of community among faculty. As soon as you walk through the doors of a new school you know the answer to one question: is this a welcoming place where teachers, students, and administrators come together for the greater good and the success of the students?

    In buildings that lack this sense of community teachers hide in their classrooms, students are curtly and efficiently herded from class to class, and administrators stand watch over the on-goings without really being a part of it. On the other hand, high schools with a sense of community have principals/administrators who are present in the building, the students know them and better yet, they know the students. Teachers congregate in the hallways, say hi to one another and joke with students as they move from class to class. And don’t be surprised if the principal comes right up to you, the visitor, introduces him/herself and welcomes you, let’s you know that if you need anything, his staff is the best and most helpful around. THAT is a principal who aspires to inspire and is an active part of his school community.


  3. I think that this blog post brings to light an important issue in the education field today. With the recent hype surrounding teachers and the teachers unions, principals and the effect they have on schools have gone largely unnoticed. The emphasis on teachers is not without reason. Many studies have shown that the greatest indicator of student success in the classroom is teacher effectiveness — that ranks above dollars spent per pupil, curriculum, or infrastructure.

    While teacher effectiveness is important, it is difficult to attract effective teachers to a school with poor leadership. This fact was highlighted by the Wallace Foundation earlier this year. Most highly effective teachers experiment in their classroom with nontraditional teaching methods. Without strong leadership that is focused on student acheivement, those teachers will not receive the support or encouragement they need. Without that support, teachers, particularly young teachers, will transfer to schools with effective leadership.

    I appreciate the attention brought to this issue. It is imperative that we support and reward effective principals in order to foster an enviroment ripe for learning in our schools.

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