Is the Principal's Job Doable?

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Is the Principal's Job Doable?

By Frederick Brown, deputy executive director, Learning Forward

Someone asked that question a few years ago during a meeting of The Wallace Foundation Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) professional learning community in New York. I felt it was an incredibly appropriate question considering the many demands being placed on today’s school leaders.  To provide a bit of context, let me remind you that the principal pipeline initiative involves helping six large urban districts create a large corps of “instructional leaders” – principals whose main task is to improve teaching and learning. The districts include Hillsborough County, FL, New York City, Gwinnett County (GA), Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Prince George’s County (MD), and Denver.

This particular question about the viability of the principalship was directed to a panel that included the superintendents of these six districts. Keep in mind that these districts survived a vetting process by Wallace before receiving their funding. As a result, they are among the top districts in the country when it comes to focusing their attention and resources on the principalship. Several of the superintendents were quick to acknowledge their beliefs that the job of school principal is incredibly demanding and perhaps not for everyone. However, each superintendent who answered highlighted that principals absolutely need the appropriate supports in order to do their jobs effectively, but they all felt the job is definitely doable.

I will come back to that word “supports” in just a bit, but first I want to take a moment to contrast that moment in New York with another moment when that same question was posed during a State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) meeting several years ago in Baltimore. At this particular meeting were principals from across the country, and they were the ones to respond to the question about how “doable” their jobs are. Their answers were both passionate and poignant. Although no principal said it wasn’t possible to do their jobs, many of them described a set of circumstances that left the audience wondering how long they would be able to sustain their pace. They described being required to complete formal evaluations of dozens of teachers each year. They emphasized their districts’ responses to their state student assessments and their roles in supporting the testing processes. They described work weeks that typically lasted 80+ hours and weekends that were all but nonexistent. It was a sobering moment and left many people in the audience wondering if we are simply asking our principals to do too much.

As I reflect on both the SCEE meeting and the superintendents’ panel, I’m drawn back to that word “supports.” What is it that districts (and perhaps provinces and states) can do to help support our school leaders? Built into Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Initiative itself are the foundation’s beliefs about some of those supports including:

  • Very clear leadership standards in place that outline what leaders are expected to know and be able to do
  • Strong leadership preparation that ensures leaders can move into a principal position with the skills needed to do the job
  • An induction process that provides job-embedded learning experiences during the first few years on the job
  • Ongoing mentoring and support to help principals navigate the ever changing educational landscape

The six PPI districts had to prove these supports were either partially or completely in place before they were awarded the grant. After hearing from some of the overwhelmed principals from the SCEE meeting and other districts I’ve visited, my guess is their districts may have lacked some of those basic supports. So what other supports do principals need? Here are a few I would offer:

  • As part of their training, induction, and ongoing professional learning, I would argue that principals need help understanding how to more effectively distribute leadership, particularly the management aspects of their work. Gone are the days of the superhero principals trying to manage all aspects of the work.
  • Building leaders need central offices and regional service centers that are viewed by principals not as “mandate generators” but as “centers of support” and “providers of resources.”
  • Principals need opportunities to network with their colleagues in learning communities where they can take ownership of their own learning and focus their efforts on solving “problems of practice” that will help move their collective work forward.
  • It’s imperative that principals receive support to help them strengthen their effectiveness of leaders of adult learning. In order for principals to become “multipliers of effective teaching” as Paul Manna outlined in his 2015 report, they must understand the basic tenets of professional learning as outlined in the Standards for Professional Learning (2011).

Is the principals’ job doable? In many places, unfortunately, I would say the answer might be NO. However, we know what it takes to change that reality, and it’s my hope that those principals who find themselves in “undoable” positions will find a way to advocate for a new reality.

Supporting Principals and Assistant Principals

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Supporting Principals and Assistant Principals

By Jackie O. Wilson, Ed.D, director, Delaware Academy for School Leadership, University of Delaware 

As an educator, professional developer and policy advocate for all matters related to education leadership, I am constantly surprised when state policy leaders, district decision-makers and local school boards do not understand the value of investing in principals and assistant principals. 

In 2004 Leithwood, Lewis, Anderson and Wahlstrom conducted a review of the research titled How leadership influences student learning.  The important finding in the report was that “school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on learning.” This finding prompted some districts to rethink the role of principals and their role in recruiting, developing and retaining teachers. 

Districts began offering new opportunities for principals and assistant principals to participate in professional development. With Race to the Top additional funding was provided to some states to support coaching and mentoring programs and specialized training for turnaround principals. Although some states had success stories about their investment in school leadership, there are mixed reviews about the impact on student learning. 

In 2015 the Professional Standards for Educational Leadership were approved by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. The revised standards were different from the ISLLC (2008) standards and signaled the change in what principals and assistant principals were being asked to do in schools. The standards were based on 600 empirical research studies and input from thousands of practitioners. The consensus of the planning committee was that the work of education leaders is more challenging than in 2008 and the standards should reflect the change in those responsibilities. 

For those of us who work in schools every day, this came as no surprise. Principals are spending more time on the social and emotional needs of their students and teaching staff while balancing the work they are doing to lead instruction, develop teachers, and engage communities.  

We know that schools need strong leadership. We know that teachers want to work for principals they trust and respect. Teachers leave if they are not supported, challenged, and respected. We also know that principals create the environment where teaching and learning can take place. If we know this—why do we fail to invest in school leadership? 

We need to create conditions where our school leaders can grow and develop. It is imperative that we invest in what matters most to our students—great teachers and principals. If we want to retain and grow teachers, then we must grow and retain effective principals. Here are some ways we can do that:

  • Provide principals with a coach during their first year as a school leader. In years two and three the coach transitions to a mentor—less intense but still supportive. 
  • Create a Professional Learning Network where principals can engage with other educators on topics of interest or need. These networks provide the leader with the opportunity to discuss a research article or book, to master an innovative digital tool, or share resources on an innovation they would like to pilot in their school. 
  • Develop a Professional Growth Plan for principals and assistant principals that is personalized to meet their personal career pathway goals. 
  • Finally, provide the school leader with district support such as a Principal Supervisor who is dedicated to providing on-going support, feedback, and professional learning opportunities.  

Isn’t it time that we provide principals and assistant principals with the support they need to provide academic success and well-being to all our students?