Judy Knotts, who served as principal for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School and St. Michael’s Catholic Academy, has decades of experience leading schools. She served on the board at the Principals’ Center at Harvard and was a consultant to schools for 15 years. Statesman readers might know her for the wise religion columns she writes, mostly on the topic of homelessness, which appear in the Saturday Austin360 section.
Knotts, who is now retired, has written “The Principal’s Chair: Who Sits There Matters, A Secret to School Success.” ($12.99, CreateSpace) The book is written for principals, whether they are in their first year of being a principal, starting at a new school and have had a long career at the same school. It’s essentially a manual of what to do and what not to do.
Knotts, who did her doctoral dissertation on which new organizations make it five years and which ones do not, found the same truth about which schools were successful and which ones were not. It’s all about the person leading the organization or school and whether they are supported.
“Success all depended on the principal,” she says. “It didn’t matter whether they are low income or high income (schools).” It also didn’t matter which country they were in, she says.
When schools weren’t succeeding, they often had principals who were going through the motions or working to take the pay check and going home. They were people without passion or unethical people, or they could even be well-intentioned people who didn’t have the right training.
As school begins, parents often worry about which teachers their children will get, but really they should be thinking about who is leading the school. Good principals make teachers better, Knotts says. Like the way teachers help children grow, the principal’s job is growing adults (teachers), Knotts says.
“Teachers clearly are important, but ask any teacher what drives excellence, it’s if the principal is creating a culture, a community of care.” Knotts says. “If (teachers) are supported and cared for, they can do their work, then they perform the best.”
Teachers will “do their best work with a gifted principal or they will leave,” she says.
Education is everyone’s business, Knotts says, “We all have a role to play.” Supporting the principal as a parent is a great way.
Knotts would love to have parents hand principals her book to give them better training, but parents also can help by creating a better relationships with them by following these tips:
- Notice when good things happen and let the principal know. Principals often only hear complaints, not praise. Positive feedback helps create a more positive environment.
- Don’t constantly complain. When parents constantly complain, principals don’t know whether this time it’s a serious complaint.
- Take problems or concerns to the teacher first instead of right to the principal. It raises red flag when parents skip a couple steps. It says: ‘They think they are more important than everyone else,” she says. Even if the problem is the teacher, start with the teacher. You want to build a collaborative relationship for the whole year. If that doesn’t work, then you can work your way up to the assistant principal and then principal.
- If you do need to talk to the principal, make an appointment first and let the principal or the school secretary know what the appointment is about. It gives the principal time to do the research and makes your meeting together more effective.
- Volunteer at the school. Even if you work full-time, there are smaller jobs you can do. “We love those parents, and it’s human nature to want to help them out,” Knotts says.
- Be involved in your child’s education, but not too much. Know when the science project is due without doing it.
- Don’t complain about teacher assignments. “Your child is not going to have the perfect teacher ever year,” Knotts says. It’s just one year, and while you might not think that the teacher is the ideal teacher for your child, you want your child to have experience with a lot of different leadership styles over the course of their school career. A difficult or strict teacher can help them learn, too, as will the ultra-relaxed teacher. (If you do need to request a teacher change, read how to do it.)
- Be optimistic about this school year with your child, even if you don’t feel optimistic. Try not to put fear in their minds by bringing up your own worries about things that might or might not happen. “I know you’re going to have a great year,” she says, is a great thing to say.
Knotts says she doesn’t miss waking up at 6 a.m. to be out the door by 6:20 a.m. totally engaged, but she does miss growing teachers. “Schools are wonderful, organic communities where people grow,” she says. “If works it’s a wonderful environment.”