“Great” Principals?

Principals have graced the covers of Time magazine. They have been profiled in books. They have won awards for their schools. Yet “great,” “good,” “effective,” or “stellar” means different things to parents, teachers, and students much less district, state, and federal policymakers who make rules and allocate dollars.

For many patrons of a school, a “great” principal is someone who does it all: Helpful to teachers while honoring their autonomy to teach; responsive to parents while buffering teachers from their demands; listening to students’ problems while not intruding on parents’ turf or reversing teachers’ decisions. Finessing all of these contrary demands is, to many observers, a sign of “greatness.”

Policymakers who hire principals, however, expect “great” principals to be strong instructional leaders who supervise teacher lessons and evaluate their performance, shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year.

Now pause and re-read the last two paragraphs. If you were nodding in agreement as you scanned what various stakeholders expect of their principal, you might conclude that the job is impossible.

Yes, contradictory demands and expectations are part of the DNA of the principalship. Those principals who are labeled “great” or “good”—and there are many who have earned that label—come to understand the paradoxes and dilemmas they face and have to manage. The “great” ones figure out what their strengths are, which values they prize, and plow ahead on those things they do best and figure out solutions to problems they have to face whether they like it or not: working with teachers in their classrooms, managing the budget and staff relations, scrounging funds for the school, insuring that district curriculum shows up in daily lessons, raising test scores, turning in reports to the district office, dealing with parents’ complaints—the list of tasks is unending for the principal.

Those who earn the title of “great” such as Stephanie Smith, Mel Riddile, Deborah Meier, and Barbara Adderley have forged out of conflicting roles and stakeholder demands an identity as an “instructional leader who can turn around a school,” or a “manager with a heart who runs a tight ship,” or some mix of the two. Politicking, unfortunately, remains a dirty word among most educators. And most principals who can mobilize teachers, parents, district administrators, and foundation officials to move in the same direction are allergic to the label of being “great” politically.

Nonetheless, every “great” principal–even the rare super-star–has to parlay a meld of these three roles into a unique blend that carries his or her signature–for at least five or more years. These principals are “good” at their job just as teachers who follow best practices are “good” at their work. But are these “good” principals also “successful” ones? The distinction between “good” and “successful” is as important for principals as it is for teachers (February 28, 2010).

Like with teachers, the past two decades of standards-based testing and accountability policies has put a premium on test scores and, for principals, the role of instructional leadership. The current ideology of schools producing graduates who can enter college and then the labor market fully equipped to work in a knowledge-driven economy has pumped up the role of instructional leadership. In earlier years, concerns for the whole child’s wellbeing, active learning, and project-based lessons competed with more traditional conceptions of teaching and learning. No more. Now it is 24/7 test scores.

District officials inspect school-by-school test scores. In some places, principals receive bonuses for gains in student achievement. In other districts, principals are directed to do frequent walk-throughs of teachers’ classrooms. In short, just as the pressures for higher test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance have squished notions of “good” and “successful” together for teachers, the same as occurred for principals. So a “good” principal is now someone who lifts student achievement to higher levels.

Yet other aspects of a principal’s job remain. The contradictory demands from students, teachers, parents, and district officials continue. Managing daily crises and prosaic duties while politicking different stakeholders continue. Even when “good” and “successful” principaling has been chopped, grated, and mixed together into a recipe for raising test scores, there is no rest for the weary principal on the verge of “greatness” or one simply plodding along to survive.

So the media and grateful patrons of schools will bestow the label of “great” upon certain principals. That label, deserved as it may be, nonetheless, is one carved out of the current hothouse context of testing and accountability, blending “good” and “successful” principaling into a Kool-aid concoction that can be drunk but not savored by principals who have to, by the DNA of the job, daily instruct, manage, and politick.

6 Comments

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6 responses to ““Great” Principals?

  1. Bob Calder

    So what do we choose to talk about? Do we position ourselves as historians, linguists, politicians, or advocates?

    This isn’t a frivolous decision. If we take an unrelated social dialog as an example, we see positions being staked out using historic arguments that never happened as justification for rescuing the nation from ideologies that no longer exist.

    Do similar arguments exist in the education sphere? Without a doubt.

    I don’t think it is entirely unreasonable to require arguments to include citations to peer reviewed research or to exclude those based on appeals to common sense.

  2. While I was still teaching English at the City of London School, I had a lunchtime conversation with 5 colleagues (6 to a table) about heads. I had then, about 15 years teaching experience, and commented that in that time I had worked for 6 heads. 3 had been perfectly OK, and would have been the first to admit their own limitations, 1 had been outstanding and the other 2 …should never have been allowed in a classroom, never mind to run a school.

    My colleagues’ unanimous response…”You were lucky!” Not one (and they were all older than me) could point to a single head they felt had been outstanding. It is undoubtedly, as you point out Larry, a near impossible calling.

  3. Larry,

    Perhaps I’m getting off the topic here, but I have a question. In your third paragraph you say the people who hire principals expect them “to be strong instructional leaders who supervise teacher lessons . . . .”. Up to this point I had been reading rather complacently, but that jarred me. Are principals supposed to be instructional leaders? Can they be? Is it wise to expect them to be.

    Okay, I can understand that as rhetoric. And during most of my life the idea of principals as instructional leaders would not raise my hackles. But having given thought to that idea I changed my mind. There is a book by Black and English that presents the idea that school administration is a political job, not an educational job. You are probably familiar with it. When I read that some years ago I thought about it and decided it made a lot of sense. I don’t think much about school administration, but from what I do know I have concluded that Black and English are right. Of course principals are not instructional leaders. How could they be, other than on the basis of their own experience as teachers? I presume the average principal does indeed have some actual experience in the classroom. Indeed I suppose many have a lot of experience in the classroom. And obviously that helps them do their job. But that doesn’t seem to be enough to expect them to be “instructional leaders”.

    I’m afraid I fall into the trap of thinking what makes sense to me makes sense to everyone. But I think there is a bit more than just the idea by Black and English to go on. Thinking back to principals I have known, and admittedly there are not many, I can’t think of any who ever tried to be an instructional leader or to “supervise teacher lessons”. As a beginning teacher I did have one administrator who tried to help me with discipline problems, with limited success, but he didn’t try to tell me how to teach math. When our children were young my wife and I got to know our elementary school principal. I think he did a very good job, but I surely can’t imagine him trying to tell his teachers how they should teach. The conclusion that being a principal is a management and political job fits everything I know in my world.

    So I have to change my perspective a little to realize that to those invested in ed school would take it for granted that, of course, a principal should be an instructional leader. So my first question, “Are principals supposed to be instructional leaders?” needs to change to a suggestion. The suggestion is to consider very seriously whether it does good or harm to expect principals to be instructional leaders. I don’t have personal experience to bear on this. The principals under which I taught didn’t try to be an instructional leader in any but the most perfunctory ways. But from what I read in the blogs it seems that some principals do, and bring a lot of grief to everyone involved. So my suggestion is totally serious. Wouldn’t we all be better off if everyone accepted that the principal’s job is to establish and protect the teacher’s turf, and then leave her alone?

    • larrycuban

      Dear Brian,
      The notion of principal as instructional leader is historical, prized by those who are not principals or never have been, and contrary to the deeply-embedded imperatives of the job. First, historical: mid-19th century principals were “principal-teachers” drawn from cadre of teachers who then had to pick up administrative tasks associated with instruction, management, and politics. Instruction was always part of the early generations of principals. As schools became larger, more rule-driven, and part of districts where school boards made policy and superintendents and principals had to implement those policies–then principals became more managerial and political but did not lose the warm glow of being former teachers and being expected to provide instructional supervision. The latter is commonly in the job description of most principals.
      With the past quarter-century of focus on student achievement, there has been a reassertion of “instructional leadership” even in the face of managerial and political duties–which you nicely point out from your direct experiences with principals. Non-principals and associations of principals, however, bow in deference to the current political rhetoric of each and every principal being an instructional leader when the DNA of the job works against it.

      None of this is to argue that there are no principals who do lead instructionally–there are plenty–or that determined principals cannot supervise teachers and support them in ways that improve their teaching. Kim Marshall’s new book “Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation” is precisely aimed at principals and based upon his work as a principal in Boston.

      I simply agree with your comments about the nature of the principal’s job and how hard it is to be an instructional leader.

  4. Dave Bircher

    The term instructional leader is used a lot and is used in my school division as well. While it is impossible for a principal to have sound knowledge of ALL curriculum and ALL subjects areas, he/she should gain and pass on tips/techniques that will allow a teacher to further develop as a professional. Basically, a support for the teacher. Even Whitaker comments how great principals make their teachers better,

    It is definitely a balancing act, manger coach, “politiker”…..sorry I am getting tired!

  5. Matt

    Great article. It really got me thinking about the diverse group of principals I have worked with during my career. They all had their strengths and weaknesses, unique personalities, and leadership style. The best principal that I ever worked with had horrible people skills, treated all teachers as if they were beneath her, and was rather arrogant to boot. However, this lady had a great educational mind. She had a definite plan for her school and if you were interested in being a part of it, join in. If not, then she would have preferred you to leave. I both despised and admired her at the same time. Very dynamic leader who got the best out of her staff.

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