Our principal has announced his retirement. I am thinking about applying for the position, but I’m not sure it is something I want to do. Another person is rumored to be applying and is not someone I respect, or agree with philosophically. I really love teaching and do not know if I am a good fit for the job, but some colleagues are dreading what is to come and want me to step up. What qualities do you think make a good principal?
I’ve never been a principal. I never wanted to be one because I loved being in the classroom so much, although I did apply for the job in a little K-3 multiage school that you had to travel to by ferry. I did so when I was urged by a friend who I respected, that told me I would be “perfect for the position.” I didn’t get the job. The human resources person said it was because I interviewed too much like a curriculum director. Go figure. I have heard of some schools that run collaboratively without a principal. I’ve never worked in that kind of building, but I think it sounds like an interesting possibility.
During my over 25 year teaching career, I have worked with over 13 principals. Some of them retired or were reassigned to different buildings. Sometimes it was my choice to change schools or districts for a variety of different reasons. When I think back on my experiences with them, I recall more differences than ways they were alike. What are those things that I liked and didn’t like in a principal and what do I wish I would have seen more of? What follows is a short synopsis of what I have experienced when working for principals and what I have seen that seems to make some outstanding and others, not so much. Let me also say that some principals that I loved others hated, and some that I thought sorely lacked leadership were admired by many of my colleagues.
All of the principals I worked for had been teachers. I always used to say I was going to do research one day on how long a person had to be out of the classroom before they forgot what it was like. I have been out of a regular classroom for two years now, and I still remember every moment like it was yesterday. It is important for principals to visit teachers and lend a helping hand to revive those memories of life in the classroom so they can better empathize with members of their staff. There were some principals that never stepped a foot in my classroom for any reason. Now with teacher evaluations that must include observation, they must at least stop in for the required number of times. I plan on writing more about effective evaluation in a future blog, but for now, let’s just say those evaluations should have positive affirmation and constructive input for ways to improve. I’ve always heard that when talking to a child, you should say ten positive things for every criticism. I don’t think that evaluations of teachers should be any different, so I wouldn’t want a principal who was negative or disinterested.
Principals, like teachers, must wear lots of hats. That is one of the reasons I was confused when I wasn’t hired by that district whose human resources person said I would make a great curriculum director. The management of the curriculum, the evaluation of it and its application, is one of the most important hats that principals wear. Even though many aspects of curriculum are now mandated by federal law, state legislation, and local school boards, it is still the principal’s job to make sure the teachers are delivering the curriculum in a way that best benefits students. That also would include assessment and analyzing its results.
I do believe strongly that good school leaders should be good teacher leaders and understand what the job entails. A school may have 30 teachers, plus a variety of other employees such as office staff, custodial personnel, lunch room help, Para pros and perhaps others. It can be a lot to manage, but good teacher leaders support teachers, employees ,school families and values those relationships. I remember one principal who remembered what the job of being a teacher was like! When August arrived and I was unpacking my classroom, she walked in, introduced herself to me and welcomed me to the building. Although she saw I had plenty of boxes to unpack and knew that the classroom was pretty much full of supplies that had been left, she said, “What do you need?” Since the district I worked for was cash strapped, I was kind of shocked. I said,” What do you mean?” She replied, “If there is ever anything you need, you let me know and I will get it for you!” “Really?” I asked incredulously. She responded, “That is my most important job as a principal, to make the teacher’s job is as easy as possible.” And for the time I worked for her, that is exactly what she did. I had another principal who was very similar. He would stop by my room almost daily and ask if there was anything I needed and how things were going. Were there any problems I was having? He would also check on my family and inquire about my weekend. He said he believed in the “intuitive ability of good teachers.” Both of these principals also had community building among the staff as a #1 priority in their schools. They planned social outings for teachers to give them a chance to get together off the record and get to know each other better. They were also good at helping the school community grow stronger by encouraging social events at the school among the parents that were not always related to “school business.” When they organized these kinds of events and activities, they radiated delight in their jobs. Both of them related to me at different times that they loved what they were doing as much as they had loved teaching and couldn’t picture themselves doing anything else.
Another way that principals create community with school families is by helping to create a warm, welcoming and safe environment. Many schools now have extreme safety measures which are a necessity, but may be off putting. Parents often feel inhibited coming into a school building even though it is paid for by their tax dollars. To compensate for that, it is important that everyone in the office is extra communicative, kind and cheerful. Parents and grandparents should be welcomed as volunteers. I love being in a school where I see parents and grandparents working side by side with teachers, and research shows that it is important for children to see parent involvement as well. Parents may also be included in hiring committees when openings come up for leadership and teacher positions.
The principal must also be a public relations person. With schools of choice, charters, and other options for parents these days, even neighborhood schools have to sell themselves. Parents come in and request a tour of the building and a visit or interview with the principal. Although many things can sway parents in making their decision, if they are turned off by the person in charge, they may decide on another school.
The best principals I worked for were creative and encouraged creativity in their teachers. They didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk. We often heard “If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we always got.” But when push came to shove, nothing was ever changed. One of my most enlightened principals was a former art teacher, and the school environment reflected creativity wherever you looked in his building. Another principal encouraged creativity in classroom structure and curriculum delivery. I suspect this kind of creativity will become more and more rare with scripted curriculums and data walls filling bulletin boards. As much as the term has become cliche, I also think principals should be lifelong learners and keep up to date on current research and educational issues. They should be readers and writers and model that for their teachers by encouraging book discussions , having subscriptions to professional journals available and they should recommend reading, both professional and for enjoyment. Just as teachers should know their students’ reading interests, principals should know the reading interests of their staff.
Loving your position as an employee of the public education system is getting harder and harder these days, which I believe is the result of trickle down bullying. Principals must be very careful not to become the bully they don’t tolerate in their school. Children do what they see modeled. Despite UNICEF determining that the United States has the second highest child poverty rate in the developed world, public education is bearing the blame for just about every problem in our country. This is coupled with less and less funding and more and more pressure on schools to solve our nation’s woes. The Department of Education is bullying states to comply with their dictates, the states are bullying the district administrators to raise their test scores and lower their budgets, the administrators are bullying the principals to do likewise, and the principals in frustration are bullying the teachers. With developmentally inappropriate standards now in place with the Common Core, and teacher’s salaries dependent on the results of high stakes tests that they have NO control over or input in, is there any doubt that before long this bullying will trickle down to the students? There are principals and administrators who support teachers during these times rather than trying to bully them into raising test scores. One of my favorites is John Kuhn, a former principal and now superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Independent School District in Texas. He is a hero superintendent and is courageous in the current political war against public education. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFgrt95OD0U
So to sum things up, being a principal is a big responsibility and is an important and complex position. I firmly believe the most effective principal is one who has been the most effective teacher. Most of the same qualities that are ideal in a principal are the same ones that are seen in a well-managed classroom with a teacher leader who is in tune with the needs of their community of students and creative in delivering a researched based curriculum. Weigh your decision carefully. Continue to discuss your options with trusted friends and colleagues. Ask them what their thoughts are about the role of the next principal in your school and consider carefully if you can fill those shoes. Be courageous and good luck with your decision.