It seems natural that those who enter the field of education would be fond of children and enjoy helping students succeed. Those who pursue positions of leadership maintain those same qualities. Instead of teaching a single class, however, they facilitate teaching in an entire building.

When teachers move into educational leadership, they become less involved with individual students and more involved with the student body as a whole. When this change takes place, it is crucial that principals, assistant principals and other building leaders do not lose the sense of the caring and compassion they carried for their classroom students.

Creating a Successful Learning Environment

Shelly Habegger, educational consultant in Wadsworth, Ohio, conducted a survey of principals in three low socioeconomic areas who lead schools in which students were “achieving great academic success despite society’s obstacles.”

Her study revealed that the difference between highly successful schools and those failing to make progress was simply the nature of their school culture. She found that when principals and teachers cared about each other and their students, it created a nicer place to be. Caring supported student progress and academic achievement.

When the principals were asked, “What were your major goals for the building?” the answer was not to generate high test scores, but to develop positive relationships. One principal articulated a desire for students to develop a relationship with caring adults in the building. The principal hoped these relationships would encourage children who did not want to come to school to be motivated to do so because of the support and nurturing they received.

Active Compassion

The variety and number of responsibilities taken on by school leaders can make it especially difficult for them to interact and connect with students. This does not mean that the principal does not care about students. It does mean, however, that students may not be aware of how much the principal cares.

Principals may feel compassion for the students in their schools, but it may be from a distance or in a small group setting. Teacher, speaker and author, Kathy Paterson, maintains that demonstrating “active compassion” is key to building relationships and trust. It is critical for principals who want to demonstrate authentic compassion to be intentional and strategic. Paterson recommends several ways to show active compassion:

  • Smile and mean it. Students can tell when you are faking it.
  • Get to know students by listening to them.
  • Maintain your own sense of calm, even in chaos.
  • Show respect to students. Allow them to make decisions about their learning.

School Leader as Servant Leader

Cherie Esposito is the Principal of Hall Elementary School in Aurora, Illinois. She has also been a special education teacher and an adjunct instructor at the university level. In a recent interview, when asked about the importance of caring in her role as school leader, she said:

The principal of a school is truly a servant leader and has the privilege of impacting a community. To do the job well you must know those you serve and care deeply about them as individuals to develop an in-depth understanding of what is needed to serve them. With children, this caring is shown in visibility and predictability — not in power or position.

Spending time in the drop-off line, in the lunch room, on the playground, or in the hallway as students are changing classes lets children know you as a person and a safe place to go when there is trouble. Many conversations happen during these informal times that provide clues to the climate and learning culture of the school.

When a kindergarten student introduces me to his or her parents as the lunch teacher, I consider it the highest compliment and a signal that I am doing my job well!

If you are an experienced educator who would like to pursue an administrative position, the Master of Arts in Educational Leadership at Eastern Michigan University can help you on your way. This all-online program will help you develop the skills you need to not only lead a school but also to “cultivate an inclusive, caring, and supportive school community.”

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s Master of Arts in Educational Leadership Online.


Education World: Compassion and Empathy: School Climate Essentials

NAESP: The Principal’s Role in Successful Schools: Creating a Positive School Culture

Education World: BRAVO Principals – Care About People

Education World: Principals Identify Top Ten Leadership Traits

Personal interview with Cherie Esposito, Principal, Hall Elementary School, Aurora SD129, Illinois, October 30, 2017