Leadership matters


The key to student success is a great school, and the key to a great school is a great principal. This is the motto of National Principals Month, celebrated every October to help shine a light on this crucial leader. Here, we do a deeper dive on the principal’s role with some of our award-winning principals and Hope Street Group teachers to get their insight on what effective leadership of a school looks like.


If you have a great principal and want to celebrate him or her in October or any time of the year, please visit the National Principals Month website — and tag your social media posts with #ThankAPrincipal.

The Power of Positive Leadership

Waikiki Elementary School teacher Lory Peroff writes about the 'epidemic' at her school: “I think this should be a lesson for all school leadership or anyone in a leadership position for that matter — never underestimate the power of positivity and trust.”

The key to student success is a great school,
and the key to a great school is a great principal.

Qualities of a great principal

“Humble enough to acknowledge their need for information and advice from others, bold enough to make the changes that need to be made, able to communicate effectively their decisions and rationale, and willing to take feedback and readjust if needed.” — Melissa Peck, ‘Ele‘ele Elementary School teacher

Aurene Padilla“Know the culture and climate of your school. ‘Ike Honua’ — sense of place.” — Principal Dean Cevallos, Kea‘au High School

“Great leaders are good listeners. They regularly communicate with their stakeholders to gauge effectiveness of their leadership. They are risk takers who are not afraid to instigate change for the good of their charge.” — Aurene Padilla, Resource Teacher, Central District Office (right)

Mahina Anguay“Laser focus on what's our ‘compelling why’ and the ability to communicate that to others. As a principal you have to hold a very clear 'current' picture/situation for your stakeholders but you're balancing it with a very clear 'future' picture/situation that everyone has to work together to achieve — your collective why must be so compelling that everyone will persist towards that goal despite immense obstacles, setbacks, budget cuts, dwindling enrollment, frustration. At Waimea High, everything we do is aligned to our mission statement: ‘We are the impetus for the growth, revival, and sustainability of our Westside community.’” — Principal Mahina Anguay (left)

“Vision, ability to listen and synthesize, ability and desire to seek solutions, desire to try new solutions to deal with perennial issues.” — Jon Medeiros, Kaua‘i High School teacher  

Stephanie Mew“Vision, relationships, patience and empowerment are very important in a school leader. A school leader must have a broad vision of education and the national agenda. She must be aware of the innovative best practices and bring that back to the school. A school leader must be able to relate to all staff and convey support and respect at all levels. She must be accessible to the students, families and communities - building bridges and partnerships for learning. A school leader must be patient, knowing that change (especially mindsets) take time. Finally, a school leader that empowers the staff will build capacity that will benefit the students and school.” — Stephanie Mew, Kapunahala Elementary School teacher (right)

“Having a balance between active listening and directing decisions. Inspiring their staff and getting to know their strengths.” — Caroline Freudig, Resource Teacher, Kaua‘i District Office

“I think it can be summed up into, simply: a balance between ‘strength’ and ‘warmth,’ a leader is trusted by those around him/her because of his/her strong anchor in purpose, always starting with ‘why’ and then planning the ‘how’ and ‘what.’” — Cecilia Chung, Kaimiloa Elementary School teacher

“School leaders should empower teachers and help remove roadblocks. The hardest job on campus is that of classroom teachers. Admin and other support staff should find ways to support and improve the work environment for teachers.” — Erin Mendelson, Wheeler Middle School teacher

“Grit. I just read Angela Duckworth's book, Grit. It helped me to understand myself better. I have never been particularly smart or talented. But what I lack in natural ability, I can make up for in hard work and effort. I also have an unending passion for our school and our kids. I always want "more" for our kids — more diverse learning opportunities, more resources, more activities...more success. Grit is my favorite leadership quality because I feel like it can be taught and more importantly, needs to be taught, which is what we are working on this year. It is fun and exciting to hear our students using the language of ‘grit.’” — Principal Malaea Wetzel, Hale‘iwa Elementary School

“Have a vision and be able to communicate it to stakeholders. Allow stakeholders to take a role in making that vision come to reality.” — Lorna Baniaga-Lee, Campbell High School teacher

Esther Park“A school leader must have a strong "WHY" and know how to communicate his/her vision with the entire school community. If all stakeholders truly understand the purpose and philosophy behind the leader's words and actions, the work can move forward more efficiently to focus on student, staff, and system success. Trust is established through strategic hard work and is necessary to navigate difficult conversations and circumstances.” — Esther Park, Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School teacher (left)

“The principal needs to filter out non-essential information, then work to build a culture around shared values. I had a principal who trusted the teachers and would support each of them. There was always this feeling of loyalty, protection and care. If there was a conflict, he went directly to the person and would handle the issue in a kind way. Everyone felt they were the Number 1 priority — the kids, the parents, the teachers.”  — Kristilyn Oda, Holomua Elementary School teacher

“Effective school leaders see the potential in students, faculty and staff, and operates by a strengths-based model. They are encouraging to teachers and provide the necessary supports so they can succeed in their classrooms. They first listen to see where the other person is coming from. Through these actions, the school leader earns versus demands respect.” — Debbie Heyler, Olomana School

“Shared leadership is critical to student, teacher, and staff success.  This requires building inclusion where everyone has a voice and a sense of belonging, working through stages of influence for decision-making and problem solving, and creating a community that supports learning for all.” — Teri Ushijima, HIDOE Leadership Institute

“Collaboration, Adaptability, and Active Listening. These qualities are essential if we are going to first empathize around student, faculty, and community needs. By actively listening we can then collaborate and act on innovative ideas to create results needed for a transformational education experience.” — Mathieu Williams, Kealaheke Intermediate School teacher 

The principal’s role

John Mulroy“Principal Randall Miura (Leihoku El) always acknowledged the important work that teachers do everyday. He worked tirelessly to ensure that both teachers’ and students’ voices were heard. He worked to create a culture where students and teachers took care of one another. He set high expectations and provided support along the way.” — John Mulroy, Resource Teacher, Honolulu District Office (right)

“They have taught me how to break down a lesson from an objective to a closure. They have helped me develop and modify my lessons by observing me and my students. They have given me advice on all aspects of the job without sounding condescending or short.” — Kelly Dame, Koloa Elementary School teacher

“Constantly remind everyone that we are all learners and leaders. Constantly look for opportunities to encourage and cultivate leadership qualities/opportunities for my kids and staff.  Write for grants so I can afford to send my staff/kids off island to learn/broaden horizons.” — Mahina Anguay

Lorna Baniaga-Lee“My principal was able to see potential that I never knew I had. And with that insight he opened doors to challenge and stretch me to build my leadership skills. It is his high expectations of professionalism and his trust in me that I am able to be that positive influence with my colleagues to begin building a culture of collaboration and appreciation of our profession on campus. His continuous support in projects and ideas that I shared with him were integral to my professional growth. He once told me, ‘...just needed to point you in the right direction, get out of the way and let you shine.’” — Lorna Baniaga-Lee (left)

“The principal's role is key in building student and staff success. Debbie (Nekomoto, Kapunahala El) is constantly working to close the achievement gap, improve student behavior and build an inclusive school community. She respects the teachers as professionals and continues to introduce mindsets and goals that promote and ensure equity among students. She is patient, supportive and communicative.” — Stephanie Mew

“Positive relationships — rooted in trust and mutual respect — are an absolute necessity to growing success with all role groups in our schools.  Once positive relationships are established, there are almost limitless goals that can be accomplished.” — Malaea Wetzel

Kristen Brummel“Dr. Rochelle Mahoe of Noelani Elementary School pushed me grow and stretch for my students by providing me meaningful professional development and ongoing support, while validating my work and honoring strengths I never knew I had. She encouraged me to pursue National Board Certification, and provided me leadership opportunities such as mentoring student and beginning teachers, and sharing my practices with other educators.” — Kristen Brummel, Resource Teacher, Honolulu District Office (right)

“My principal (Brenda Vierra-Chun, Wheeler Middle) treats all teachers as professionals. She understands that we have outside commitments and that we put in a lot of hours outside of the school work week. She does not micromanage us. She believes that the job will get done and supports excellence.” — Erin Mendelson

“A former principal of mine made it a point to build relationships with everyone at the school. She had high expectations and was also professional and respectful. This made everyone try to behave in the same manner and helped build a better working community.” — Dana Tanigawa, Waipahu Elementary School

“One word I would use to describe my principal is innovative. Mrs. Jan Iwase (Inouye Elementary) is always willing to try something different if it means it can help improve our school. She also embodies the lifelong learner mindset as she continues to learn new things and shares her reflections with the students, staff, and parents through various media.” — Esther Park

Kristilyn Oda“Gary Yasui has been instrumental in encouraging growth by offering opportunities to attend STEM training, locally and nationally; supporting and giving feedback to new ideas I had for implementing Social Studies differentiation based on learning styles; allowing me to raise parent engagement through technology (messaging app); supporting community partnerships and innovative biography projects. Without his support, my growth would be hindered.” — Kristilyn Oda (left)

“Mark Hackelberg (Kealakehe Intermediate) has been instrumental in my growth as a teacher leader. He strongly believes in the mindset of a growth mindset and is willing to give opportunities to educators. I partly owe my investment to the classroom because of him. He allowed me to pursue HIKI NO, invested in our school media program, allowed me to integrate HA school wide with faculty and staff, and supported our school wide Advisory program that I have helped co-lead.” — Mathieu Williams

Supporting school leaders

“I also see the value of vice principals. I am at a school where we do not have one, and I see the strain it puts on my principal and the academic coaches. There is so much paperwork and so many meetings that it almost prevents the principal from being present with the staff and students despite their best effort.” — Melissa Peck

Dean Cevallos“We should ensure that every principal/school has a VP (that we don't have to fund each year). The work of a principal is overwhelming and lonely. People burn out and/or start to make poor decisions because they're plain exhausted — physically, mentally, emotionally. Another admin at the school level helps to spread out the work and allows for collaboration and more time in classrooms with teachers and kids, which lead to better student outcomes. Also, really look at the way schools are funded — $1 on a Neighbor Island is not worth the same as $1 on O‘ahu.” — Mahina Anguay

“Come and see your schools and walk through so you can have a firsthand look at what is happening in them. This way you do not rely on the coconut wireless for your information gathering.” — Dean Cevallos (above right)

Malaea Wetzel“It is important that everyone participate in making their school "special." Each school has its own unique qualities that makes it stand out from the next school. By actively engaging in the different activities that a school has — whether it is chairing a WASC committee, running an after school program or tutoring kids before school begins — all of those positive contributions to the school makes it even stronger.  When everyone contributes, schools and their leadership can do amazing things!” — Malaea Wetzel (left)

“We can all promote shared leadership. Teachers develop leadership in students, school administrators grow teacher leaders, complex areas provide support to school leaders, and state leaders work collectively so as a system we can truly keep students at the center of all that we do. ‘Everyone a leader, everyone a learner, proud to serve keiki.’” — Teri Ushijima

Parting thoughts

Erin Mendelson

“Good leadership is the key to a great school. In the past, I used to believe that leadership didn't matter — I could control what was in my classroom and that would be sufficient. But under poor leadership, I continually hit barriers.” — Erin Mendelson (right)

“Principals can make or break a school. They need to see the ‘whole’ picture and then execute ‘their picture’ in an organized manner. If they are a big picture person, then they need to find a systematic leadership team member to work with them.” — Kelly Dame

“A poor leader can do more damage faster than a strong leader can make positive change.” — Jon Medeiros

“This article is on point: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/letter-to-administrators.” — Esther Park

“If teachers aren't supported, trusted and given autonomy, they cannot grow wings and will be dependent on direction for their entire career. This will put teachers in a position of lagging behind, waiting to be told what is next. After we’re given tools and a clear vision, we must be released to do what we know best for the kids and direct the school as a team of contributors.”  — Kristilyn Oda

“Try to involve all your community in your school for better or worse — it will be a benefit in the long run.” — Dean Cevallos

“Principals have the potential to truly impact a school, working with staff to achieve goals and led by vision. Appreciating all of the hard-working and passionate school leaders out there!” — Cecilia Chung

“All schools, teachers, students and community deserve an effective principal.” — Lorna Baniaga-Lee

Contact Information

Communications Office

Phone: 808-586-3232

Email: doe_info@hawaiidoe.org

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