“With great power, comes great responsibility.”
-Uncle Ben in Spiderman
Being a principal isn’t easy, and I’m not so sure it’s supposed to be that way. It’s a tough job. As principal, you have the power to improve the educational experience of students, instructional practices of teachers, and build a strong culture of trust among parents. If you work it right, they say, you can accomplish something amazing. Principals must be master mind readers, noting each teacher’s particular strengths and opportunities for growth. Principals must know their students, in both academic and social-emotional fashion, and must be skilled at developing partnerships with parents to help students reach their maximum potential. Principals are tasked with creating a culture of collaboration, where each and every person feels valued, although they have little control over anyone’s actions. While principals may administer consequences or extend rewards and/or recognition for a particular action, the ultimate decision regarding how one acts or behaves, rest within each individual. Principals work to earn the power and permission to influence others, not control them. Principals are tasked with being familiar with a variety of content, pedagogy, instructional methods, all the while ensuring they have a firm handle on the budget, maintenance and operations, transportation logistics, personnel protocol, professional development, and board policies. Principals must support teachers, students, and parents in their efforts, but here’s a question: Who supports principals? Furthermore, how are principals supported? Beyond the monthly meeting and annual conference, what structures are in place to create that same culture of collaboration that is so beneficial to teachers and students, for principals? When principals need support where do they turn?
For far too long, principals have been left out of the conversation regarding the benefits of collaborative communities of learners for teachers and for students. Principals, too, need collaborative communities with their peers, to work through problems of practice, to develop intelligent solutions to the challenges they face, and quite frankly to last in the principalship. In recent weeks, I’ve read a great deal regarding the principal shortage. Many states and districts are focused on strategies to replenish the principal pipeline, but who helps you stay there once you make the rank of principal? As a former principal, I can attest to the feelings of isolation, pressure, and stress that accompany the principalship. While a monthly principals’ meeting might provide a venue for a common meeting place, it doesn’t serve the purpose of support. In a recent tweet, I asked principals to share with me what would give them the support they so desperately need. As I presumed, they noted the following:
- A listener who understands the complexity of the job. While the first and foremost task is teaching and learning, so very often other factors (meeting basic needs of students, working through a personal crisis with a staff member, budgetary or operational issues) consume a great deal of time.
- A coach who uses an assets-based approach to coach them. It takes more than a review of school data and a set of goals to help principals meet the mark of academic achievement, but so often, to use a sports analogy, we cite last season’s record, state the goal for this season, and tell principals “Play ball!”. Occasionally, we cheer them on, but that’s usually at the end of the game, better known as testing season!
- A superior who recognizes the things that are working well, as well as the opportunities for growth. Monthly principal meetings ought to be more than problem listing sessions. Principals need time with their peers to work through problems of practice. Additionally, principals need to be coached on what they can do to develop their skills, sharpen their weaknesses, etc. and that must go beyond talking to other principals at a meeting or shadowing someone else for a day.
- A structured and routine practice to ensure consistent opportunities for collaboration with job-alike peers. We know professional learning communities serve as powerful platforms for teachers to improve their practice. Principals, too, need a job-embedded opportunity to participate in a professional learning community that meets their needs.
- A focus on principal wellness, with professional development on stress management. As a former principal, I began a journey of fitness purely out of a grave need to manage stress, improve my sleep patterns, and reduce anxiety. It took me years in the principalship to recognize that I needed to be intentional about managing my stress levels so that I could bring my very best self to the job each day.
While the responsibility of the principalship is great, so is the pressure. Principals face a constant pressure to improve teacher practice, student learning, school community relations, and last but certainly not least, themselves. If principals aren’t provided with the support they need, what should be their power, often becomes pressure. In the age of high stakes testing, increased accountability, along with a push to be innovative in the ways we teach and that students learn, it is not difficult to see how a principal’s potential power can easily become a persistent pressure. District leaders have a responsibility to support principals in the same manner and fashion that they support the work of teachers and the educational experiences of students. Principals must not be left to fend for themselves when we know collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking are essential to the educational experience. If we know those elements are working for students and teachers, why aren’t we making it our business to create routine opportunities for principals in the same manner? Principals are the heart of school leadership and they need your support now! I dare you to do something different!
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!