My Pathetic Pavlovian Reactions…

In response to my Standing at the Edge of the Classroom post, Mike—a reader with frequent provocative questions—asked:

What do the overwhelming majority of new principals do? Discipline, attendance, security. If you want to teach, teach. I believe that’s where we make a difference, with individuals, a hundred or so kids a year. If not, order your affairs and pursue what you wish to pursue. But consider this: If those in administration were truly motivated by innovation and excellence, why do we see so little of it?

You know, Mike….I spent the greater part of the first ten years of my career as one of the most ardent "principal critics" in every school where I worked. Impatient with decisions that I didn’t understand and frustrated with the incredibly slow pace of change, I’d lob pot-shots from the peanut gallery whenever I could. I was the master of the second-guess, somewhat enjoying the fact that I could criticize poor decisions around the workroom lunch table without ever opening my work up to public scrutiny. 

Then, I spent a summer working as the Teacher in Residence at the Center for Teaching Quality. My assigned task: Research school leadership and collect resources for an online toolkit that can be used by communities interested in improving school working conditions. In an almost pathetic Pavlovian way, I drooled at the thought of the opportunity. 

"Spend a whole summer figuring out what good principals ought to be doing will be awesome," I thought,  "I’m going to get paid to sharpen my barbs!" 

360 hours of research later, my viewpoint changed pretty dramatically. What I learned about school leadership is that it is a remarkably complex position that the majority of administrators are poorly prepared for. A position that was once limited to making sure that buses ran on time and that discipline was handled has evolved into a role requiring a deep understanding of human relationships, public relations, budgeting, school law, data management and driving change in organizations. 

What’s more, our principals work under the watchful—and intolerant—eye of communities that have grown comfortable demanding increasing results while providing fewer resources. While teachers feel natural pressure to produce—knowing that student success depends on our efforts—rarely are our jobs "on the line." Building leaders, on the other hand, bear the brunt of criticism when schools fail.

Despite the changing nature of the principal’s role and increasing performance expectations, districts routinely under invest in meaningful principal professional development. Many of our newest administrators work with little support or guidance from personal mentors, and experienced administrators lack opportunities for continued growth. Left to wrestle with significant challenges on their own, building leaders often operate in something akin to the survival mode that characterizes the work of first-year teachers.

Don’t get me wrong….Principals have incredible power within the schoolhouse and must shoulder the responsibility that comes with stepping into that position. It’s just that they struggle with many of the same challenges that we do: Low salaries, poor professional development and outside pressures that can be almost overwhelming. If our schools were truly interested in driving meaningful change, they’d focus on restructuring the role of the principal so that innovation was truly possible! 

One comment

  1. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Allow me to clarify and expand on my comments just a bit. I agree with you entirely that being a principal is a tremendously difficult and demanding job, a job for which few principals are adequately prepared. I agree too that few are given appropriate post hiring training, and that far too many have insufficient control over their schools (mandated by their bosses). That said, my background has taught me well to be cautious about criticizing my principals, for I know only too well that they certainly do not get to do all that they’d like to do.
    My point, as opaquely expressed as it was, was that in making your decision about what to do with your career, keep in mind that while the only way to make any real money in education is as a coach or an administrator, those positions have their own crosses to bear, and once you step out of the classroom, you inevitably become more and more distant from the actual learning that occurs, and about which you write with skill and passion.
    My little aphorism for new teachers is that when it comes to understanding and properly responding to the daily concerns and needs of classroom teachers and their students, principals, even principals who really want to be supportive of teachers, are essentially beings from another planet. Central office administrators are from another galaxy; state educrats are from another universe and federal educrats are, at best, an utterly unfathomable form of life (perhaps) from another dimension.
    I’ve little doubt you’ve considered similar issues, but thanks for the chance to clarify.