Stellar 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, the administrators themselves, and students much less district, state, and federal policymakers who make the rules and allocate dollars.

John Caporta, principal of Red Mill Elementary School for 26 years, retired in 2019

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.”

School boards who hire principals, however, expect “great” principals to be strong instructional leaders who supervise teacher lessons and evaluate their classroom 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 Deborah Meier and John Youngquist 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 three 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 “stellar” 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 be political.

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