As we celebrate National Principals Month, we appreciate all principals who work tirelessly to make a difference in their schools. Throughout the month, we are excited to highlight a handful of school leaders to learn from, as we see great work happening across the nation. Today, we reflect on three key strategies that are helping Louisiana principals make a big impact - Tia Trahan, Louisiana’s 2024 Principal of the Year at Lafayette Middle School in Lafayette Parish, Tamara Whittington, at DC Reeves Elementary School in Southern Tangipahoa Parish, and Johnika Gayden-Gaines at East St. John Preparatory Academy, St. John Parish Schools.
By Theresa Hamilton, NIET South Central Regional Director
During my time as a school principal for multiple campuses in Tangipahoa Parish, certain moments with teachers and students stayed with me. Specifically, one day every month, eager faces filled my conference room, gearing up to speak on ways to improve the school, visions for success, and changes to be made. These particular meetings stand out in my memory. The speakers’ feet swung excitedly above the floor, chins rested on the massive table, and thoughts were likely interrupted by the fleeting reverie of an afternoon snack. It was a chance to talk with students about some of the things we were doing in our school, why we were doing them, and what the benefit would be for them. It’s important to provide that opportunity and to be able to promote citizenship, to give students as well as teachers a voice.
It’s small moments like these that principals find to be so important when it comes to effectively leading schools - and it reflects key strategies a school principal must develop to help their school thrive, no matter where they serve. These strategies include:
Building relationships, leading with learning, and being a data-driven leader.
When it comes to principals, first impressions matter. Being able to establish and maintain quality relationships with teachers, students, families and administrative staff provides a strong foundation and a sense of community.
“Building relationships is imperative to have a thriving school climate and culture,” said Tia Trahan, Louisiana’s 2024 Principal of the Year and leader of Lafayette Middle School in Lafayette Parish School System. “Creating those connections and positive culture together not only builds morale but ignites growth and maximizes potential in all stakeholders.”
Trahan helped lead Lafayette Middle School to state recognition as a 2022 Comeback Campus. The school witnessed a notable increase in the percentage of students scoring mastery or above on state tests, along with a decrease in the number of students scoring unsatisfactory, building on its work to rise from a D-ranking to a C-ranking school during the height of the pandemic. “As the primary instructional leader and learner of my school,” she said. “It is vital to lead by example and promote a growth mindset - after all, one has to see it to be it.”
Along with the academic traction she helped create as principal, she also brings great energy.
When you enter the building, you see how students come up to her - they feel comfortable engaging with her, they hug her, she is approachable. That's something that sets her apart, she's very approachable for students. That's a great quality to have.
Leading With Learning
To instill curiosity and wonder, principals must stay curious themselves. Leaders who constantly seek constructive feedback and find ways to improve school systems model being a learner and build a culture of personal, career and academic growth among students and teachers.
Both Principal Tamara Whittington, at DC Reeves Elementary School, and Principal Johnika Gayden-Gaines at East St. John Preparatory Academy, embody the lead learning position.
“Effective educators never stop being students,” Principal Gayden-Gaines said. “Being a lead learner is not just a title or catchphrase, but an action. When your team and campus stakeholders value you as their lead learner, they trust you to take on challenges and take risks to evoke necessary change. Going first guarantees that a shift will occur across campus yielding positive outcomes for teachers and students.”
Embracing failure as an opportunity to change, learn and grow is something that has helped Principal Whittington capitalize on her and her own teams’ capacity as educators and leaders.
“Leveraging the strengths of my team will cause me to have a growth mindset and a willingness for shared leadership that fosters an environment conducive to impacting student achievement daily,” Whittington said. “I love learning from my team members and my students, and realize I have to unlearn the beliefs of the old and what worked for the students of the past.”
As a principal, you're leading a learning organization because a school is a learning organization, and that means the adults in the building also have to have a learning mindset. Creating expectations and building a shared vision around high-quality learning for all students is the key. It shouldn't matter where your school is located for students to have the opportunity for high-quality teaching and learning.
Being a Data-Driven Leader
As principals look ahead and envision an improved school system, using data and student work as the foundation for planning is a third key quality for a school leader to develop.
It’s an approach that has helped Gayden-Gaines fuel her school’s success.
Once a Master Teacher herself, Gayden-Gaines has worked in her district for 15 years and witnessed the power of data and the importance of collaboration among educators to use data effectively. She has been an avid implementer and proponent of NIET’s TAP System, which puts teacher collaboration, data-driven analysis, and individual coaching at the core of a vision for school achievement.
Effective principals use multiple data sources to explain the rationale behind decisions. This clarity builds trust with the faculty and students. When a principal values data-driven decision-making, it creates a ripple effect in a school that impacts every classroom. It also helps bolster a community of teachers who work together and feel supported.
“I am ecstatic about leading our work in transferring passion for teaching, learning and empowering the lives of young people each day,” Gaines said upon her appointment as principal. “Mostly, I am looking forward to building strong relationships with our community as we remain steadfast in our work dedicated to helping our students become successful lifelong learners.”
Building relationships, establishing learning mindsets, and creating processes for data-driven decision-making are three key strategies that effective principals pursue.
These three outstanding Louisiana principals provide an inspiring look into the role during National Principals Month. Their momentum for effectiveness begins with asking the simple question, “How can we do better tomorrow?”