Rewarding Principals Differently…

One of my former principals was the most remarkable school leader that I’ve ever met. Early in our time together, he asked me what my future plans were. “Where are you going to be in five years, Bill? Clearly you could do most anything that you wanted to,” he said.

My instant reply was, “That depends on where you’re going to be in five years. I’ll be teaching sixth graders in room 2415 at least until you leave.”

If you were to ask the majority of teachers in our school, I suspect that their replies would have been pretty similar. We’d discovered a simple truth that often goes overlooked in conversations about school reform: Good Principals Matter.

So what made our principal so remarkable? For starters, he empowered teachers to make critical decisions about teaching and learning. There was no decision that teachers weren’t centrally involved in. In today’s accountability culture where a school administrator’s reputation—and sometimes career—is dependent on producing results, there is a great temptation to make all decisions from the front office. Control becomes important because the professional risks of releasing control are too great.

Empowering teachers, however, brought results in our school that centralized decision-making could never produce. Most significantly, our teachers felt a sense of professionalism and engagement that many teachers never have the opportunity to feel. There was an atmosphere of collective curiosity in our building. We saw ourselves as problem-solvers because that is what our principal expected us to be, and we were incredibly motivated to identify the instructional approaches that worked best for our students. Our principal had unleashed an often-untapped resource in schools—the intellectual energies of our teaching staff.

Teachers were not the only beneficiaries of our principal’s efforts to create a professional culture within our building. Our students benefitted because our school quickly became a magnet for highly accomplished teachers. I stood in awe of the skill and ability of my colleagues—there were several who were far better teachers than I am—and many of them sought positions at our school because of the reputation of our principal. What’s more, our teachers were constantly learning and growing from one another because of our principal’s emphasis on constant professional growth. His efforts brought some of the best and the brightest to our classrooms—and made them better!

Was my principal “one-of-a-kind?”

No—Our country has many likeminded school leaders who are making a difference.

But not unlike teachers, it is becoming harder and harder to keep our most accomplished administrators in the schoolhouse. School leadership demands long hours, constant scrutiny (from parents, from teachers, from district level supervisors, from the community at large), and almost overwhelming attention to detail. School leaders must manage complicated budgets, understand federal, state and local legislation, recognize changing trends in education, set direction, monitor progress, manipulate data, interact effectively with the community and develop the human capacity of staff members.

Our best administrators possess skills that are greatly valued—and compensated for—in the private sector. As a result, it is becoming more and more difficult for our schools to fill leadership positions with highly accomplished administrators.

As a community, let’s broaden our conversation on rewarding educators differently, recognizing the importance of school leadership and making a concerted effort to identify, develop and fairly compensate our best principals. Keeping them in the profession is a reform strategy that will impact teacher retention and student achievement in positive ways.