How Principals Unlock Engagement: 4 Keys to Success

Author: Andy Cindrich
December 6, 2019

how principals unlock engagement

How principals unlock engagement is a combination of actions.

For a variety of reasons, teacher engagement is at the lowest levels we’ve seen since the late 1980s. Low staff engagement leader to higher levels of absenteeism and lower levels of student engagement. Getting staff engagement right really matters. Staff volunteer their best efforts when they feel that they are highly valued members of a winning team that is doing work that matters in a high-trust environment.


How Principals Unlock Engagement


  1. Inspire a culture of trust through personal credibility and high-trust behaviors
  2. Communicate a compelling vision of the future
  3. Execute strategies for improving student performance on published public metrics
  4. Coach staff members for performance


Inspire Trust

Trust is the confidence that we have in one another based on our assessment of a person’s character and competence. This confidence allows high-trust relationships, which are bolstered by the way we behave. When administrators and staff behave in high-trust ways, staff create time-saving systems and processes that lead to faster growth and higher levels of student achievement. Achievement creates a positive reputation within the community and supports a belief in an exciting future for all students and the school. As credible people do things like: clarify expectations, practice accountability, confront reality, talk straight, and extend trust, the level of trust between people goes way up.

How do you show up as a leader in terms of character? Does staff see you walk the talk? Are you courageous enough to do the right thing even when it’s hard to do? Do you care about every stakeholder and seek mutual benefit when solving challenging problems in your school? Do you matter to your staff in that they value your talent, skills, and knowledge and feel your enthusiasm for the work?


Clarify and Communicate Vision

How principals can unlock engagement is to leverage a high-trust school environment, leaders must work with staff to clarify and then communicate a compelling vision for the school. That vision should excite school staff, students, parents, and community members and help them commit to the change required to make it real. The vision should help staff understand how meaningful their work can be and should inspire them to DO that work. While most vision statements are not worth the paper they are written on or the space they take up on a Keynote slide, a well-crafted vision drives significant progress. For a vision to influence academic achievement, it must be aspirational, require all stakeholders to think BIG and stretch, and it must be verifiable. A vision statement like this has all the right kind of “buzz words,” but fails to inspire because it cannot be proven:

Our school strives to empower all students to embrace learning, maximize personal potential, and build their emotional, social, and physical well-being.

While nobody can create an effective vision alone and in a vacuum, nor can an outside third-party “hired gun” create something that will engage your staff, a vision like this example below might serve as a model.

Students rank in the top quartile of performance on standardized state and national tests and upon completion of their studies have articulated a clear end in mind for the next stage of life and have already put things in place to make that future real.

Tag lines help communicate vision but must be supported by more detail, sometimes in the form of bullet points. A “t-shirt worthy” slogan for the vision above might be something like:

Real Learning | Real Futures

John Kotter, one of the world’s foremost authorities on leadership and change and an Emeritus Professor at Harvard University, said, “Leaders tend to under-communicate the vision by a factor of 10X to 100X!” Once you have your vision clarified, you should talk about it ALL THE TIME!

Do you have a shared vision in your school? Is it verifiable? Do you talk about it often? Does staff make choices about things like curriculum, technology, structure, schedules, etc. based on the vision?


Execute Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes

How principals can unlock engagement is for staff to feel like they are part of a winning team, the school needs to be winning! They cannot win if you haven’t defined what winning looks like. They cannot win if the staff isn’t clear about what they can do to ensure the win. They cannot know that they are winning if they aren’t keeping score. They will not win if there is no accountability for improvement.

To get this right, schools need to:

  • Focus on one or two Wildly Important Goals® that are reflective of “high-stakes games” that the public really cares about (reading proficiency, graduation rates, standardized test scores, etc.);
  • Show incremental progress on the predictors of success for those goals;
  • Track progress on the goals and predictors of success on a regular basis and use that data to determine daily and weekly strategies for improvement; and
  • Establish a weekly rhythm of accountability among small teams of staff to do “next level” activities that close performance gaps on scoreboards.

Does your staff have clarity about the measures that are most important around student performance? Do you know what predicts success? Are you using data on scoreboards to help determine lesson plans, instructional strategies, and deployment of support staff? Does staff meet weekly to take ownership of student performance and to make commitments for the coming week about the things they will do to drive success?


Coach for Performance

As staff members work to help their students win, administrators must become proficient coaches who listen to staff empathically, ask insightful questions, and acknowledge latent potential within each staff member to discover solutions to the challenges they face in the classroom. While I hope the reader doesn’t take this metaphor too far, great coaches act as “midwives” for staff learning, helping them give birth to their own ideas by asking them to push, encouraging their grit, and “mopping their brows” as they do the challenging work required to solve the difficult challenges educators face in today’s schools. This work shows staff members that they matter to the school – that they are valued

Are you getting out of the office and into classrooms where you see what’s going on? Do you focus your attention on improving the performance of your average staff members, or is most of your time spent with those who are struggling the most? Are you giving your staff members fish, or are you teaching them to confidently fish for their own solutions to classroom challenges?

It’s difficult to calculate the long-term value of a highly engaged staff member when compared with one who is merely doing the bare minimum just to get by. School leaders who engage their staff find improved student outcomes, fewer substitutes covering classes for absent teachers, and a host of secondary benefits. Help members of your staff feel like they are valued; connect them to the meaningful work they do and inspire them to work towards a shared vision that excites and challenges them; show an intent to help them win at meaningful high-stakes games and create a high-trust environment that helps teachers improve performance faster.


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