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Published in Print: October 1, 1999, as A Return To Principal: March 1990

A Return To Principal: March 1990

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In the late summer of 1988, officials in the small town of Hill City, Minnesota, did something radical: Instead of replacing the departing principal of their one and only school, they divided his duties among a team of six teachers. The team-dubbed SHARE for Staff Helping Administer Responsible Education-was put in charge of everything from the budget and curriculum to student discipline and teacher evaluations.

At the time, SHARE seemed a perfect embodiment of the burgeoning teacher empowerment movement. Here was a district that had turned the management of a school over to the people closest to the learning process, classroom teachers. And not just one or two teachers, but six. This was the epitome of the kind of shared decisionmaking reformers nationwide had been calling for, so we sent a writer to the small, rural community to get a firsthand look.

Fourth grade teacher and original SHARE team member Jan Ferraro captured the heady optimism of that period when she told our writer: "I think we're pioneers ahead of our time. Within five years, this is going to be commonplace."

Ferraro, it turns out, was a bit optimistic. Five years after the experiment at the K-12 school began, the Hill City school board pulled the plug. Pressured by some unhappy parents and teachers, it hired a traditional principal. Ferraro, who still teaches at the 400-student school, has little to say these days about SHARE. "Sharing school leadership makes sense," she offers. "But having a principal makes sense, too."

Few in Hill City's school community found that the no-principal scheme lived up to its promise. Even SHARE members struggled with the reality of leadership by committee. Issues that a single principal could resolve in 10 minutes would often ensnare the team in endless discussion. "You could easily spend three to four hours a day on administrative work in addition to your regular teaching," says Jack Burt, a former SHARE member. "Burnout was a real problem." To ease the burden, the staff decided that teachers would serve on three-year rotations. "But then the new people would have to learn the ropes," Burt says, "which ended up costing the team even more time."

Parents, meanwhile, felt frustrated that there was no direct line of authority. They wanted to take their concerns to a single person, Burt says, not a committee.

But from the beginning of the venture, student discipline was the biggest source of contention. Parents objected to the fact that SHARE members were called out of class to handle problems. Teachers generally liked having six colleagues in charge of keeping order in the school, but some were bothered that they couldn't send misbehaving students to the principal's office. Kids, meanwhile, felt they were constantly being watched. Some who got in trouble groused about having to wait for the team to meet to settle their fate; others felt intimidated appearing before a panel of teachers.

Despite its many problems, shared leadership wasn't a total bust. Burt says it fostered faculty communication and collegiality and helped teachers look beyond their classrooms and focus on the needs of the school.

Interestingly, Karen Mlaker, a SHARE member and veteran 1st grade teacher, says her colleagues are partly to blame for the experiment's failure. Many, she says, simply didn't want to take the time to serve on the team. When the SHARE members' terms expired, there was no one to take over.

"I was extremely sad to see it go," Mlaker says. "The closeness of our school is gone."

--David Ruenzel

Vol. 11, Issue 2, Page 25

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