What principles guide principals?

By Joe Nathan
Contributing Writer

With all the talk about political principles, I decided to ask several Cambridge-Isanti principals, along with several other Minnesota education K-12 and higher education leaders, about their personal priorities.

Mitch Clausen, principal at Cambridge-Isanti High School, told me that, “A few of the areas that come to me are in the areas of money/valuable items, relationships, and confidentiality… We are public employees. We could have several opportunities to accept gratuities, gifts or favors from various companies or individuals. We just can’t put ourselves into a situation that can be looked at as giving favors for gifts. I just say ‘sorry, but no thanks.’ Relationships: We are in perceived positions of power. In no way can we use this power to gain personal advantage. Confidentiality: Doing my job means that I obtain a lot of private information about students, staff and parents. This information is to remain very private and only shared on a must know basis.”

Mark Ziebarth, principal at Isanti Intermediate School, wrote, “My principle is ‘do what is do what is best for the students and their achievement.’ This guides me when making my decisions as a principal. I also strive to be transparent and honest in my leadership.”

Shifting to the University of Minnesota, Gary DeCramer, Director of the Master of Public Affairs at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs told me, “my most prized principles as a teacher are to the practice of openness and trust, and a deep commitment to creating a safe place for personal leadership development.”

Karen Seashore, a widely respected “Regents Professor” at the University of Minnesota has talked with educators at the K-12, as well as college/university level. She “also conducted research on the ‘practical ethics’ that faculty members use in their research settings.” She suggested

“(1) …Every time you make an on-the-spot decision, you have to ask yourself whether you are creating an opportunity for harm.

(2) Be fair, particularly in allocating opportunities and credit. In fact, be generous. I hardly ever work alone, and it is very important that others with whom I work have the chance to participate fully and be given public commendation for what they do. This is as true of students in classes as people who work with me as assistants. Along with suggestions above that others offered, John Beach, principal of Princeton’s North Elementary wrote, “I don’t know if this is a principle, but an appropriate sense of humor really goes a long way in creating a comfortable, easy going environment.”

We (including me) don’t always succeed at being open, honest, generous, mixed with a sense of humor. But I found it useful to ask others about their “guiding principles.” What are yours?

– Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. 

He welcomes reactions at [email protected]