Quitting On Principal

Imagine a law firm run by someone who is not a lawyer and has not argued a case in years. Imagine a medical practice run by someone who is not a doctor and has not treated a patient in years. Imagine a university run by someone who is not a professor and has not published scholarly work in years. Now imagine a school run by someone who is not a teacher and has not taught in years – oh wait.

Other professions – doctors, lawyers, and university professors – are typically organized into units run by the most accomplished and senior members. Lawyers become partners, doctors open their own practices, and esteemed professors become deans. High performing members of these respected careers continue to do the essential work at the heart of their profession even when they become leaders. Senior partners take the most important cases at law firms and well-practiced doctors perform the most demanding procedures on the sickest patients. Why is it that primary and secondary schools are not run by teachers but are often managed by people who have not been in the classroom for many years?

The answer to this question has roots in the history of inequality in our country. For years, some of the brightest people in the United States had no option but to become teachers. Women and minorities were welcome in the classroom but were not trusted to manage themselves; black and female teachers “required” a white man in an office to keep a school running. Granted the principal often took care of logistical issues as well as did the important work of hiring, mediating conflicts  and dismissing ineffective teachers (as well as those who became pregnant, a common practice as few as 50 years ago). However the principal is a uniquely American institution which might have run its course in terms of usefulness.

Many agree education is at a critical juncture in the United States and that the elevation of the teaching profession would serve as lever to improve our entire system. But how can we expect more respect for a profession with no career ladder? Most foreign systems do not have the same problem because schools clearly divide operations from instruction and place a head teacher or head master (think of Dumbledore) at the helm. Traditional public schools in the US tend to ascribe a largely operational role to the principal; however, the school reform movement cast the principal as the “instructional leader” of his school. In this role principals observe, evaluate and coach teachers as they develop their skills. I have seen this model work effectively but more commonly I see principals become overwhelmed with operations, discipline, parents, and a thousand other priorities which are so much more immediate than providing instructional leadership to teachers.

More troubling is a growing body research that points to ineffective principals as the number one reason why teachers leave the classroom. This comes as no surprise to those of us in the classroom. An excellent principal who is supportive, humane, and offers constructive criticism for improving is an absolute treasure – and just as rare. How much more effective would an excellent and senior colleague be at the head of a school? Such a leader would be more empathetic because they would still actually be in the classroom to some degree as well as more credible because they are not removed from the essential task of teaching. I often hear district leaders bemoaning the small number of effective principals and I wonder how many good teacher might make good head teachers, as opposed to principals?

While a teacher run school might seem like pie-in-the-sky they exist already (interested? Click here and here for the websites of two teacher run schools and here for an article on another). I have the personal goal of teaching at such a school before the end of the decade but until that time here are my tips for making it work with your awesome or not-so-amazing principal:

  • Walk a mile in her shoes: Principals deal with the worst, most thankless tasks schools offer like irate parents, surly children, and contrary teachers. Regardless of how frustrated you might be with your principal ultimately they deserve your pity not your anger.
  • Always assume your principal is in it for the kids: It is so damaging to make judgements about your principal’s motivation and, unless you can read minds, you actually don’t know why they do the thankless job they do. Assume the best. Give your principal the benefit of the doubt. No one gets into education to get rich or go on a power trip. Seriously.
  • Ask not what your principal can do for you but ask what you can do for your principal: Keep a mental record of how many requests you make of your principal and provide at least two solutions for every one favor asked. In other words, when you refer a child to the office for further discipline you now owe your principal one after school duty supervision and one mini-presentation during a staff meeting. Always be thinking of ways in which you could help your principal out by providing a solution to a problem. Think of what she needs and try to be the one who provides an answer or support.
  • Be positive, be positive, be positive: As tempting as it may be not to, try to speak positively about your principal at all times. And, as our mothers always said, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If others are trash talking the boss, walk away.

What tips do you have for working with principals?


3 thoughts on “Quitting On Principal

  1. […] More of us need to be campus leaders yet remain classroom teachers: We talk about how great it would be if teachers had career ladders that kept us in the classroom but how many of us are putting ourselves out there? Lead that after school professional development, volunteer to run that committee on turning around school culture, or meet with your principal about the proposal you have put together. The key to making this work is to have a great relationship with your principal. See this post for my tips on working with principals. […]

  2. D.M. Kloker says:

    Good Principals are so very important. I actually spent a day observing at one of the teacher-run schools you cited, Avalon, where teachers take turns being the principal. Teachers need someone who is dealing with many things that inevitably come up so they can continue to focus on instruction. Further, I also agree that principals ought to earn their full title: principal teacher. Every principal needs to be an instructional leader in their school. In order for that to be true we as a profession must discourage organizations like the Broad Foundation from recruiting those without any teaching experience to be principals. I am also very suspect when organizations like TFA, New Leaders for New Schools, and Building Excellent Schools recruit teachers with less than 5 years of teaching experience to be principals. Most, not all, effective principals I have worked with had a moral authority that can only come from year of struggle with all of the challenges of being a teacher. Teachers need to support their principals, but they must also demand that they have the experience and talent necessary to do the job well. Policy makers who really care about effective schools should require the same.

    Thank you for all of your passion and writing Abby. You are, as always, an inspiration.

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