The film Lean on Me portrays high school principal Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey in the early 1980s rescuing a school mired in violence and poor academic performance. In one dramatic scene, over two hundred troublemakers are on the auditorium stage. The rest of the student body sitting in the auditorium watch as Clark at the microphone–played by a young Morgan Freeman– quiets everyone including those students standing behind him. Clark tells the students that those on stage have caused all the trouble and to turn around this school, they must be removed.
Facing the two-hundred mischief-makers milling around on stage, Clark points his finger at them and says: “You are expurgated! You are no longer welcome in this school.” The school security staff in blue blazers shoves them out of the doors.
Joe Clark’s kicking out troublesome students pleased movie crowds 30 years ago as it did the country when they learned about this baseball bat-toting principal. In real life, Joe Clark got in trouble with the school board over expelling the students yet he had his 15 minutes of fame and continued as an educator until he retired.
But he was a sprinter principal, not a marathoner.
Lean on Me lays out the fantasy Americans have about their principals. We want fearless school leaders but get managers with keys dangling on their belts. This expectation of principal-as-Superman (or Wonder Woman) is fairly common but few principals are Clark Kents in mufti. Most principals want to be leaders but cannot because they are caught in the middle between their district bosses wanting them to follow policy, parents wanting their requests fulfilled, teachers wanting to be left alone, and students wanting teachers who teach. Principals learn to navigate among potential conflicts by being managers and politicians juggling competing expectations and constituencies. The DNA of the job is managing and taking few risks.
Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.
As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.
Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.
A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.
In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.
Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.
Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.
In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.
Why are there more Ralphs than Ednas? The answer is: A job that forces risk-averse principals to manage bosses, parents, teachers, and students creates Ralphs. Risk-seeking Ednas relish managing conflicts and escape the trap of being caught in the middle. But too often end up leaving the principalship.