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Characteristics of the Principal as Change Agent

Suzanne Harris

Southeastern Louisiana University Doctoral Student 985-549-5713 Kathleen Campbell, Ph. D. Southeastern Louisiana University Associate Professor of Educational Leadership 895-549-5713



The need for improved student learning requires school leaders who can analyze current practices and help the school make appropriate changes. The principal as change agent [PCA] is a structured leadership approach that fosters involvement from participants within the school to make sustainable change. Acting from personal vision for the school, the principal inspires others in the school to a shared vision and is able to communicate the vision to teachers,

students, and members of the community. Using shared leadership, the principal involves others in the school to help carry out the shared vision. The principal manages the change process by making wise decisions about what to change and monitoring the change efforts. Concurrently, the principal develops a supportive culture for teachers by providing support and resources for teachers to carry out the shared vision of the school. These efforts by the PCA lead to a positive learning environment for students. The PCA’s efforts are important to help a school community make and accept change.



The principal plays an important role in bringing about change in schools. Although statistical data does not directly link principal leadership to student achievement (Heck & Hallinger, 2009; Ross & Gray, 2006), the principal has influence over many school factors that are important in bringing about student improvement.

Understanding the role as a change agent is critical for principals. The role of the principal as instructional leader helps support teachers with classroom instruction and helps schools focus on student achievement (Hallinger, 2003); however, the principal position has evolved and expanded to encompass the role of a change agent (Heichberger, 1975). The

principal is not only a significant force necessary to make change, but also has the opportunity to make a difference for faculty, students, and their community. Yet, as central as the principal is to the change process, the principal needs cooperation and ownership of change initiatives from others in the school to bring about long-term improvement. The following literature review explains details of desirable principal as change agent [PCA] characteristics, which will assist the principal in garnering needed cooperation from staff members to make change. These

characteristics include vision, shared leadership, managing change initiatives, and creating a positive culture. An overview of these characteristics is explained in the following section.

Principal as Change Agent Characteristics

Several characteristics were identified as necessary for the PCA to bring about change in local schools: a) a personal vision with which to create a shared vision and the ability to

communicate it, b) shared leadership, c) management of the change process, and d) development of a positive culture. A review of the literature that describes and attests to the significance of these characteristics is presented in the following sections.



The principal is able to provide direction for change in a school by implementing the following practices: a) having a personal vision, b) developing a shared vision with the school staff and community, and c) communicating the vision to students, parents, and teachers. A description of each of these concepts follows.

Personal vision.

The PCA must have a personal vision for his or her school. Described as a moral purpose, the personal vision must include a belief in the importance of developing all students (Fullan, 2002). The principal’s personal vision influences his or her ability to lead (Nardelli, 2012; Zimmerman, 2005). For instance, the results from a study examining one Catholic school principal leadership practices indicated that the principal’s long term commitment to the school’s vision revealed his personal commitment to it and inspired others to develop personal

commitments. The principal’s personal vision compelled him to encourage others to evaluate their practices from a perspective of improvement (Nardelli, 2012). One middle school principal interviewed in an urban school case study indicated that her strong beliefs guided her decision making. She explained that she had to understand her personal purpose and apply that

understanding to her work in the school. A finding from this study suggested that the principal’s moral leadership inspired others in her school to believe they could make a difference with their students (Zimmerman, 2005).

Teachers who have a strong vision for their students make good candidates for a PCA role (Malone & Caddell, 2000). Teachers who listen to the needs of students, work


benefit of student learning have personal qualities that can inspire others to improve (Malone & Caddell, 2000).

A school is influenced by the principal’s personal vision and values whether or not they are spoken of directly (Hallinger, 2011). Decisions made on a daily basis in schools are affected by the personal vision that the principal holds since he or she has the responsibility of allotting resources and protecting the school from outside influences. Furthermore, the way a principal defines, handles, identifies or prevents problems within the school is directed by his or her personal vision (Hallinger, 2011). Results of a perception survey of principals in Al Ain, a city in Abu Dhabi, suggest that principals understand the need to make personal changes before leading others to change (Ibrahim & Al-Mashhadany, 2012).

Nevertheless, a principal’s beliefs and actions are not always consistent (Devereaux, 2003). For instance, one principal told others she believed in sharing leadership and was viewed by others as one who shared leadership, yet she felt personally conflicted when she did not share leadership decisions. Reflections of another principal in the same study indicated that he

believed in sharing leadership with others, yet was not viewed by others as one who shared leadership. When asked if the principal’s actions were consistent with his beliefs, the teachers interviewed did not know what the principal’s beliefs were. The principal told others that he believed new initiatives should be attempted even if success was not assured, yet staff members stated in interviews that they were afraid of the consequences if a new initiative was not

successful. The principal’s actions were not consistent with stated convictions, a situation which cause confusion and conflict with staff and board members (Devereaux, 2003).

The principal can use the personal vision as a basis for developing a shared vision with the staff and community. While forcing the principal’s personal vision on a school community


can be useful in turnaround settings, new principals find ways to subtly use their personal vision to influence others at first (Hallinger, 2011). Teachers at one school recognized the sincerity of the principal’s personal vision and attempted to live up to those ideals (Nardelli, 2012).

Conversely, principals who are able to effectively communicate their personal vision and inspire others to accept it believe that teachers will work hard to achieve it (Zimmerman, 2005).

Shared vision.

Developing a shared vision with teachers and community members is included in the Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC) standards for principal training, thus suggesting its importance as a principal practice (Malone & Caddell, 2000). A shared vision inspires others to participate, contribute, and make personal sacrifices to help the school achieve its goals (Hallinger, 2011). With a shared vision, the principal is able to challenge existing practices and press for a change of thinking, leading staff to improve their own instructional practices (Nardelli, 2012). The principal and teachers should study data and district mandates to guide the development of their common vision for the school (Israel & Kasper, 2004), and that shared vision can provide the basis upon which to make and defend the decisions made for the school (Zimmerman, 2005). By developing a shared vision, the principal establishes a common moral purpose to motivate teachers to action and inspire members of the community to a

collective vision focused on student learning (Israel & Kasper, 2004; Jonas et al., 2005). The PCA involves everyone in designing the future direction of the school, thus giving all members of the community a voice in creating the vision. Developing conversations that take into account varying viewpoints and cultures is a chief consideration for the principal in a


differences (Jason, 2000). Further, community members support and feel ownership of initiatives evolving from conversations in which they participated (Heichberger, 1975).

Crisis situations can assist the principal in leading the school community to form a shared vision. In one school, a sense of urgency was created by the impending loss of funding for the school. All staff members were aware of the situation and invited to participate in developing solutions. The principal hosted gatherings for staff members to facilitate meaningful

conversations. Another principal developed a shared vision through a series of activities in which values and priorities were established (Israel & Kasper, 2004). In another crisis situation, a turnaround school was awarded a grant to develop solutions to a low graduation rate. The ability of the leader and the staff work together to develop a shared vision was credited for their success (Zimmerman, 2005).

Communication of the vision.

Several findings from studies suggest that communicating the vision to all participants is also a key responsibility of the principal in bringing about change. For instance, parents in a Swedish middle school indicated that the principal’s ability to communicate garnered support for the school’s vision (Jonas et al., 2005). Principals gained a thorough understanding of the values and social norms of the cultural groups represented in the school’s community to effectively communicate the school’s efforts at implementing the shared vision. By communicating the values common to all cultural groups, the principal had a basis from which to expand the school’s vision (Jason, 2000). Principals in Al Ain schools have a good understanding of the importance of communicating the vision both within the school and in the community (Ibrahim & Al-Mashhadany, 2012). The principal’s ability to communicate the vision helps put the vision into action and increases the school’s ability to carry it out (Hallinger, 2011).


Principals have a variety of methods for communicating the vision. One new middle school principal structured communication duties so that she managed communications with outside entities such as school board, district office representatives, and other principals, while the teaching staff managed communication with students and parents. Meanwhile, at the school level, staff meetings focused on progress made toward achieving the school’s vision.

Alternately, a principal in another school setting shared the vision with parents through a regular newsletter (Israel & Kasper, 2004) or by meeting with parent groups (Nardelli, 2012).

Communicating the vision to students is also an important aspect of the principal’s responsibility. While working to meet national standards, principals in a Swedish schools study communicated a vision that valued relationships with students. For instance, the principal was visible to the students, handled problems in a positive manner, and encouraged students to learn in a manner that they could understand (Jonas et al., 2005). Teachers worked with the principal to communicate the vision to students with age appropriate posters and assignments (Nardelli, 2012).

Shared leadership

Sharing leadership is an essential practice in bringing about change. Principals who share leadership with teachers create schools with students and faculty who can learn and improve (Hallinger, 2003). Shared leadership has been linked to conditions conducive to improved student learning (Heck & Hallinger, 2009; Hallinger, 2011), creating a cycle of improvement that increases leadership capacity (Hallinger, 2009). Sharing leadership develops leadership capacity in others rather than centering change initiatives exclusively on the principal’s own leadership style or ability (Fullan, 2002). When the principal shares leadership with his or her staff and community, he or she increases the ability of the school to meet its goals (Hallinger, 2011).


Involving others in decision making is a way for the principal to share leadership. Several examples from studies illustrate how principals involve others in shared decision making. For instance, in one reflective study of a school leader in a middle school setting and a school leader in an early childhood setting, teachers were involved in identifying the needs of the school and deciding what to change by participating in small group brainstorming discussions, gallery walk activities, and retreat activities (Israel & Kasper, 2004). In one of three Swedish schools studied, the principal encouraged teacher teams to think of their teams as decision making bodies within the school (Jonas et al., 2005). Findings from this study indicated that teacher involvement in “democratic dialogue” before and after decisions were made positively changed the culture in the school (Jonas et al., 2005, p. 604). Another study about the changing roles of the principal showed that principals also involved members of the community in

discussions before change initiatives were adopted (Heichberger, 1975).

The principal practice of involving others in decision making is supported in

organizational change research. When participants are informed of the need for change and encouraged to make suggestions, they make adjustments to change initiatives with higher production. Fewer resignations and transfers occur in work settings with involved participants than for those who are not involved in the change process (Coch & French, 1948, 2008). Not only do employees participate more positively when they are involved in the process (Coch & French, 1948, 2008), but they are also more likely give up their own personal preference in favor of group decisions (Lewin, 1952, 2008). Because individuals do not make significant changes beyond the norm of the others in the group (Lewin, 1952, 2008), changing the social norm of the organization will bring about more widespread results (Lewin, 1952, 2008).


Management of Change Initiatives

Managing change initiatives by understanding what to change and monitoring the changes is a responsibility of the PCA. An explanation of these two topics follows.

Understanding of what to change.

Making wise decisions about what to change is a vital responsibility of the PCA. The principal should not attempt to change everything but should select those changes most applicable to the school’s vision that will bring about the most long-lasting difference (Fullan, 2002). Overloading a school with too many initiatives will divide the focus and energy of the staff (Fullan, 2002). Promoting stability within the organization, which may sound

counterproductive to making change, actually allows it to make change (Masci et al., 2008). The PCA recognizes that changes come slowly and must be “implemented carefully” (Jonas et al., 2005 p. 604). Learning about the social norms in the school and in the community (Fullan, 2002; Jason, 2000) and applying changes specific to that context are central to sustained leadership (Fullan, 2002). The principal interprets district and state accountability policies as it relates to his or her school (Louis & Robinson, 2012), works with teachers to prioritize issues that need to change (Israel & Kasper, 2004), and develops a plan for the school to reach goals (Israel & Kasper, 2004; Louis & Robinson, 2012).

Monitoring of the change.

Monitoring the change process is a vital part of the principal’s responsibility as a change agent. Findings from several studies indicate how principals in various school settings

established a structure to monitor the effects of new initiatives on a school (Israel & Kasper, 2004; Masci et al., 2008). For instance, in school districts large enough to have an assessment office, the high school principal established a relationship between the school assessment


committee and the district office to analyze the effectiveness of instructional changes (Masci et al., 2008). For schools without this district resource, the principal solicited the help of school staff or community members to help evaluate results of new teaching initiatives (Masci et al., 2008). One middle school principal, working with teachers, developed a formal structure

composed of small groups to monitor initiative implementation progress (Israel & Kasper, 2004). A Catholic school principal, in one study, promoted ongoing dialogue so he would know how teachers were adjusting to change initiatives (Nardelli, 2012). Another middle school principal overcame resistance to collaboration and professional development by modeling continual learning and sharing knowledge (Zimmerman, 2005), important practices of change agents (Fullan, 2002). As a result of developing structures to monitor change, one principal reflected on progress she observed in the school and made adjustments as needed (Israel & Kasper, 2004). However, results of a case study of Al Ain schools, a district attempting to comply with nationwide education reforms, indicated that principals do not clearly understand their role in monitoring the change in the school, specifically in the areas of curriculum and assessment. (Ibrahim & A-Maschhadany, 2012).

Development of a Positive Culture

Developing a positive culture in the school helps keep the focus on the needs of students and is one of the ELCC standards for which principals receive training (Malone & Caddell, 2000). Creating a structure that develops a supportive culture and promotes positive

relationships, getting to know staff members, and providing support to teachers are fundamental practices of the PCA.

The PCA should provide structure to create a supportive culture and to develop


developed an observation process that celebrated and supported teachers’ preferred teaching styles (Masci et al., 2008). Follow up observation meetings affirmed teachers’ efforts, which encouraged dialogue focused on improvement (Masci et al., 2008). Another principal celebrated accomplishments with staff and supported stakeholders’ efforts to present results to the public by preparing data, scheduling events, and coaching presenters (Israel & Kasper, 2004). Frequent events that celebrate successes promote a positive environment (Masci et al., 2008). One Catholic school principal led the staff in prayer each morning, setting a positive tone (Nardelli, 2012).

Getting to know the staff well helps the PCA develop a positive culture. The PCA should understand relationships on campus and reassign teachers to teaching teams because of their ability to work together (Heichberger, 1975). One principal connected individuals to others of similar interests as well as connected an individual to projects that highlighted his or her strengths (Nardelli, 2012). The PCA should motivate his or her staff to participate in new initiatives, understanding that staff will not respond positively to principal directed mandates (Louis & Robinson, 2012).

Another essential part of developing a positive culture by the PCA is providing support to teachers when new initiatives are implemented. For instance, one principal empowered

committees to provide supportive training and mentors to assist teachers (Masci et al., 2008). Targeted support was provided for teachers whose students take end of course tests or other high stakes testing (Masci et al., 2008). The committees also planned professional development that focused on practices that improve student learning (Masci et al., 2008). Another PCA interacted with teachers with empathy and humor throughout the change process to provide encouragement (McLaughlin, 2000). Additionally, the PCA organized office space to facilitate interactions with


teachers (McLaughlin, 2000). Providing resources such as meeting time to study and analyze details about new initiatives also demonstrated support of teachers (Heichberger, 1975). Providing support for teachers through learning opportunities gave teachers confidence to try new approaches to instruction (Zimmerman, 2005).

In schools with a positive culture, teachers are not focused on changes but on working together, which develops relationships between students and teachers (Jonas et al., 2005). Positive culture fosters confidence with teachers about their ability to help students

(Zimmerman, 2005), thus creating a positive learning environment for students (Jonas et al., 2005). PCAs are confident in their ability to make change and develop a positive culture in the school because of their self-confidence (Jonas et al., 2005), personal vision (Zimmerman, 2005), or strong moral ethic (Nardelli, 2012).


When the principal acts as a change agent, his or her structured approach to leadership can assist the school as it moves toward change (Bridges & Mitchell, 2000). Acting from personal vision for the school, the principal inspires others in the school to a shared vision and is able to communicate the vision to teachers, students, and members of the community. Using shared leadership, the principal involves others in the school to help carry out the shared vision while managing the change process by making wise decisions about what to change and monitoring the change efforts. Concurrently, the principal develops a supportive culture for teachers by providing support and resources for teachers to carry out the shared vision of the school. Such efforts by the PCA lead to a positive learning environment for students and are the impetus that helps a school community make and accept change.



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