The perfect principal

This article originally appeared in the Education Review Issue 2, March 2015.

Students share their thoughts on what makes an ideal school leader.

What qualities make a great school principal? In 2014, over 100 students participated in a national survey through the Student Principal for a Day initiative. Students rated the most important things in a great principal. Their ratings remind us that students are acutely aware of what constitutes effective leadership through observing their school leaders.
First on the list for over half the students was the role of the principal in making the school a safe place.
Other strong qualities relate to the interactions that students observed in their principals. About half of the students rated caring, doing a good job of leading and listening as significant qualities.
The students' comments align well with the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, and the three leadership requirements of Vision and values, Knowledge and understanding, and Personal qualities and social and interpersonal skills. For example, students recognised the importance of a principal leading and living a school's vision and values. Many agreed that empathy and understanding are vital qualities in building relationships. 
Here are some student comments:
A good principal is one who has a good student-principal connection. Has great communication skills, takes time to learn about their students hobbies. Makes appearances around classes and school to see how things are working? (Year 10 female student, TAS) 
They understand the problems you are facing. They know who the students are. (Year 6 female student, QLD) 
They interact and talk with the students. A good principal is someone who is available for support. (Year 7 female student, WA) 
Analysing more responses, it is possible to see strong parallels with the five professional practices outlined in the Australian Standard.

Leading teaching and learning 

A good principal is someone who can have time to see all of their students and what they are achieving? (Year 7 male student, SA)
They try their best to provide quality education for students of all year levels. (Year 6 male student, VIC)

Developing self and others 

A good principal should always try to inspire students to be excellent role models and work their hardest everyday. (Year 9 male student, QLD) 
They believe we can do a fantastic job. They teach us to be a better person in their way. (Year 6 female student, WA) 

Leading improvement, innovation and change 

They listen to all the student ideas and change the school in some way (Year 6 male student, NSW) 
they lead with a non selfish heart, so always ensuring the decisions they make are ones which will benefit or improve the school. (Year 12 female student, NSW) 

Leading the management of the school 

I believe that a good principal is a good leader. A good leader listens, cares, inspires and generally does a good job of leading the school. (Year 12 male student, QLD) 
I think a good principal listens and knows what is good for the school as a whole. Also someone who makes you proud to go to the school, caters for every student no matter who they are and someone who recognises a student's achievements. (Year 10 female student, NSW) 

Engaging and working with the community 

A good principal is someone who listens to the concerns, queries and positive feedback of students, parents and staff and does the best for the school in all circumstances. A good principal shows organisation, leadership skills and a general love for education. (Year 11 male student, VIC) 
Reflecting on their comments helps us appreciate that students across a range of year levels can clearly identify specific qualities in principals, and recognise the complexity of the role of school leader.
student's views graph
Student principal for a Day is a national student leadership event coordinated by Principals Australia Institute. The event is on June 3 2015. Visit the website to register.
Madeleine Regan is a writer in the Communications Team at Principals Australia Institute. She is an educator with more than 20 year’s experience including as a Deputy Principal of a middle school. She was part of the team that wrote resources for the KidsMatter PrimaryPortal.