Learn to “Think Principal” and Increase Your Professional Credibility and Effectiveness

Learn to “Think Principal” and Increase Your Professional Credibility and Effectiveness

Regardless of what duties you see your principals performing, they are first and foremost leaders of learning with considerable experience in collaboration. While instrumental music teachers often think and act as experienced principals in many ways, a focused effort on adopting a principal mindset can help educators become more effective teachers and enhance their professional credibility.

Collaborate Like a Principal

To increase credibility and effectiveness, embrace professional collaboration opportunities with administrators as well as colleagues outside of the music department. If those opportunities presently exist in your school, rethink your involvement. Be open to learning effective strategies in other content areas and integrate those techniques into your own instruction. If consistent, collaborative learning opportunities do not exist in your school presently, work to create them, even if only among your music peers.

Think of Students as Learners

Think of the students in your ensembles as “learners” as well as performers. If necessary, consider changing your instructional perspective from “what is it I need to teach and how do I go about it?” to“what is it students need to know now as well as five, 25 and 50 years from now?

Cutting-edge classrooms are innovative, inquiry-driven, and digital. Do your principals see these qualities when they enter your room? Are you “credible” in terms of adhering to your school’s learning vision and integrating that focus into your work on the podium? Ask your principals to share activities and delivery methods that are producing excellent results in non-music classrooms. They will be thrilled to share them, and will recognize your commitment to professional growth.

Professional Credibility = “Professional Capital”

Director credibility can be thought of as capital, which is something that adds value to net worth in the eyes your students, peers, administrators, and community. Learning experts Michael Fullan and Andrew Hargreaves have devoted extensive research to the idea of “Professional Capital” in schools where change and improvement are fundamental cultural components. In their book, Professional Capital, Transforming Teaching In Every School, they illustrate that a business capital approach driven by data and bottom line may produce, but not sustainable. Instead, they prescribe a professional capital approach. The most important activity of these high achieving schools is consistent teacher collaboration with clear objectives, shared outcomes and common assessments.

Considering the vast responsibilities associated with the job, exemplary music directors are gifted in professional capital, even without knowing its definition. According to Fullan and Hargreaves, there are three components that make up professional capital:

  1. Human Capital: a person’s individual talents, basic DNA, and expertise
  2. Social Capital: a person’s ability to work effectively with others, especially on behalf of individuals and groups
  3. Decisional Capital: the ability to make sound decisions on behalf of their self, family, organization, and learners

Regardless of how much capital you have at this time, you can easily invest more and increase your “worth” in the eyes of all school stakeholders.

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Decisional Capital

In any leadership role, the biggest loss of credibility occurs when making decisions. In every instance, decisions are made to be safe, secure, nurturing and lawful. Most educators have little training in decision making prior to starting the job. However, there are processes and protocols available to increase effectiveness. Ask almost any principal where a director falters and they will tell you it is in the thinking that led to a decision as much as the decision itself. To that end, collaboration should be a key component in almost every decision, especially involving learners.

There are four ways to make decisions on behalf of a group: command, consult, vote and consensus. The depth of the decision and its ramifications dictate which method to use. As a reminder, “consensus” does not mean 100% agreement. It means the will of the group has been heard and the direction to go is clear. Although each decision may call upon a different method of arrival, collaboration is generally the best way to get there.

Bernie Hoffman, consultant to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education and the National Safety Council, prescribes a four-step process that is extremely beneficial to educators. He advocates using these four questions to guide the steps leading to the most appropriate and legal conclusion:

  • Are you aware?
  • Did you investigate?
  • Did you reach a reasonable conclusion?

  • Did you take appropriate action?

This process can be applied to almost any type of situation but the thoroughness involved in each step may vary greatly depending on the seriousness of the issue, the breadth of those affected and the legal ramifications related to it. Suffice to say, one can never dig too deep and document too much in the investigatory phase.

Lastly, teachers should understand the term, “deliberate indifference.” A person is deliberately indifferent when they are aware of a situation and do nothing, or when they take a totally inappropriate action. Whether it be deciding the most effective warm-up strategy, the best way to reach a student that is falling behind, or how to handle a report of negligence in the home, directors need not go it alone in the decision-making process.

Increase Your Capital

Below are ways directors can increase credibility in and around the school community:

  • Say yes to any opportunity to help “in a pinch” or to do a favor for a colleague or administrator. Your stock will soar and you will be viewed as a team player. Eventually the favors will be returned in one fashion or another.
  • Go to your principals when you have an idea to upgrade your program or provide enriched experiences for your learners. Before you go, make sure you have the idea thoroughly fleshed out with accompanying research, sufficient data and a viable implementation plan.
  • Validate “hearsay” or “rumblings” of change that may negatively impact your program by going directly to administrators. Work with them to research, survey, and collect data on successes and challenges elsewhere. Become their biggest ally by working with them for success!
  • Be meticulous in your preparation of forms, reports, letters, concert programs, requisitions, etc. and meet all due dates with time to spare. Use others to proofread and suggest edits ensuring the consistent level of professionalism you desire.
  • Proactively communicate with parents in all aspects of the job. View assertive parents as truly caring about their children and take advantage of the opportunity to build allies instead of adversaries with children in common.
  • Make your public performances diverse, assessable, and succinct. Showcase your students in ways that promote a sense of team and equality.
  • Expose your students to guest artists, clinicians, conductors, and composers via video conferencing or in person. The growth will be immense and the exposure will be positive for your entire school community.
  • Believe that your principals appreciate your learners’ achievements and work ethic, even if they do not verbalize it as often as you would like. If there are extraordinary happenings, bring it to their attention.
  • Be the most visible, fun, flexible, and collaborative teacher in your school and promote your students through performance outside of school.


Spend more time collaborating and implementing new ideas, regardless of how busy or successful you are. In Built to Last, Jim Collins advocates embracing the “Genius of And” and rejecting the “Tyranny of Or.” The concept dispels the myth that we must choose either “this” or “that” (when raising the bar and adding more to one’s workload) because it will result in loss of excellence in what matters most. Extraordinary individuals in high-flying organizations recognize that choosing between A and B nurtures mediocrity so they find a way to have both A AND B, often elevating the organization to an even higher level of achievement. Music directors are the greatest champions of ensuring that excellence remains, even with added responsibility and change around them.

Thinking like a principal, embracing collaboration and implementing new and creative strategies can transform your learners performance in the classroom and on stage while propelling your own credibility to new heights. Enjoy the journey!

This blog article is adapted from Scott Koter’s presentation at the 2018 Midwest Clinic, December 21, 2018.

Scott Koter

In 2016 Scott Koter retired as assistant superintendent for the Kiski Area SD in Vandergrift, PA, where he had previously served as both principal and band director since 1982. His ensembles received numerous honors and won two BOA Grand National class championships. Scott was cited for teaching excellence from PMEA, NBA, IAJE and others. During his administrative tenure, many area schools were recognized for excellence and the district was named a Best Community in Music by the NAMM Foundation three times.

Since 2016 Scott has served as program coordinator for the 2018 Drum Corps International Champion Santa Clara Vanguard. He was program coordinator for The Cavaliers from 1999-2015, and was inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame in 2015. He is a creative consultant for Fannin Musical Productions and an educational consultant for Innovative Percussion Inc. Scott conducts professional development sessions and adjudicates contests for BOA, WGI, and other organizations worldwide.

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