Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

6 Stories That Address the Challenges of School Leadership

By Peter DeWitt — November 19, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The principal isn’t just responsible for leading the climate and culture of the learning community, he or she controls the atmospheric conditions inside the school building. Tamara McWilliams

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. There are critics within the district, critics from the outside, and many of them have probably never held a leadership position. What makes leadership more complicated is the type of leadership position someone is in. District leaders have a great deal of control from the top, but building leaders are often stuck between district goals and the teachers in the trenches who do not always believe in the direction the district is taking.

Another component of leadership that is complicated is that of change. In doing a quick Google search on “School leadership change,” 429,000,000 results come up. Many leaders probably think they have been asked to change 429,000,000 times in their career. However, change is very different from improvement.

Improvement...now that is something that doesn’t happen enough. And when it comes to leadership, improvement is even tougher due to a high turnover rate in school leadership. In working with a high poverty school district in Ohio, a teacher said that they “have a new 5 year plan ever 2 years.” He said it because the building leadership changes so often.

Can you imagine having a new leader every 2 years? Maybe some of you can....

Challenges of School Leadership

In The Challenges of School Leadership: A Commentary Collection, Education Week addresses the complicated aspects of school leadership. One of the first stories focuses on the high turnover rate among leaders, which is sometimes called Principal Churn, and it’s a story written by Mary Grassa O’Neilll. In the article O’Neill writes,

“Many principals find joy and satisfaction in their work. But according to the 2014 report “Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover,” by the School Leaders Network, approximately 50 percent of principals leave their jobs after only three years. Why is there such high turnover?”

O’Neill continues by writing,

The job of the principal is increasingly demanding. First and foremost, principals must ensure that the students in their schools are achieving at high levels and becoming kind, compassionate, well-rounded citizens prepared to thrive in an unknown future. Principals are publicly accountable to their teachers, their districts, and their parents. Each day brings with it innovations to implement, limited resources to manage, and crises to navigate."

How can we turn this situation around to get school leaders to love their jobs? (Read the rest of O’Neill’s commentary here).”

One of the other stories, is written by Deborah Jewell-Sherman, and she asks What Keeps Principals Up At Night? Given that I was a school principal for a little less than 8 years, I can tell you that there is a lot that kept me up, and I’m sure other principals feel the same.

Jewell-Sherman writes,

A little known fact to many outside the K-12 education space is how often America's public school principals have their sleep interrupted by the day's burning issues, unresolved challenges, and persistent worries about the needs of their students and school communities."

She goes on to write,

One of the questions that nag all school leaders is whether our nation and its schools can meet the current national challenge of providing all students with the skills they will need to thrive in our rapidly changing economy and society. Principals know the proverbial buck stops in large measure at their school doors."

Jewell-Sherman goes on to write that NCLB has at least done one good thing when it comes to school leadership. You can read her commentary in its entirety here.

Leading Amongst the Noise

Strong innovative leaders know that we need to honor student voice and teacher voice (Quaglia) in the process. In the Commentary Collection there is a focus on four principals who are being innovative, fostering voice, while dealing with mandates and accountability at the same time.

The first is the principal of both Ozona Elementary School and Ozona Middle School, and her name is Tamara McWilliams. McWilliams writes,

Whether it concerns leaks, parents, or local politics, principals are asked to face a tangled web of challenges each day, and often the problems come in nonstop barrages. I'm as human as the next girl, and sometimes I would just as soon hide under my desk as talk to the irate parent at the reception desk, but if my staff or students thought for one moment that an irate parent could change the forecast of our day, then the weather in our school would be at the mercy of whatever challenge walked in the front door on a random Tuesday morning. The principal isn't just responsible for leading the climate and culture of the learning community, he or she controls the atmospheric conditions inside the school building (Read the full story here on how she mixes data points and ice cream to bring her staff together).

The second is Habeeb Quadri, the principal of the Muslim Community Center Academy. Quadri focuses on building a stronger community of students. He writes,

Now one of the largest Islamic K-8 schools in the country (out of more than 200 total), MCCA has seen its enrollment balloon from 185 students to nearly 650 across two neighboring campuses in the years since I joined the school. Our basic-skills-test scores now average in the top 15th percentile among both private and public schools, according to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Despite our academic success, what matters most for our parents is building students' character and establishing a sense of community.

Quadri has a specific focus for each grade level that includes service learning projects, daily assemblies, and mixed-age groups to work on special projects. Read more of Quadri’s story here.

After a rash of transfers due to the reaction of increased accountability in New York State, Rodney Fisher, the founding principal of New York City’s Marie Curie High School for Medicine, Nursing, and Health Professions had to find an innovative way to keep students in the school. He did it by creating partnership. He writes,

One of these partnerships includes Lehman College's nursing department, which provides graduate nursing students to co-teach classes with our health teacher. These health courses support students in researching medical and health topics, as well as in organizing a student-led health fair each semester.

Read about the other partnerships that Fisher created in the full story here.

Being More Than Visible

The final principal being featured is Tim Lauer. Lauer is the Principal of Meriwether Lewis Elementary School. I’m a big fan of Tim and have been talking with him through social media for the last couple of years. Lauer doesn’t just visit each classroom every day, he goes back to engage with students and staff as often as possible.

Lauer writes,

One of the benefits of ubiquitous wireless access in a school, and lightweight laptop computers and smartphones, is that it gives administrators the ability to get out of their offices and spend more time in classrooms. Not being tied to a desktop computer to deal with school business allows an administrator the opportunity to keep up with that work while out and about in the school.

Lauer is a huge advocate for social media and technology. In the blog, which you should read here, Tim offers numerous suggestions on ways that principals can engage with their students and teachers.

In the End

Principal churn is an issue leaders and schools have to face, but some leaders are doing better than others. Whether it’s school climate, building a stranger student community, finding innovative ways to keep students wanting to come back for more, or making sure we get out of our office and really connect with students, these four principals are great examples of how leaders can think outside the box, even when it seems to be closing in on them.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.