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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

Are School Leaders Prepared for the Job?

By Peter DeWitt — February 10, 2013 6 min read
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The research is clear: principals are critical to school improvement and student achievement.” The Bush Institute

Principals come across many issues in their daily lives that they probably never learned in their leadership courses. Actually, they most likely never fathomed some of the conversations they would have with students, parents or teachers. I often refer to my training as “principal’s school.” Principal’s school was more about theory and collegial conversations than it was about on-the-job training.

Too often school is like that but it is changing and many leadership programs are using the ISLLC Standards to help guide them. However, the learning that happens in the classroom is never a better teacher than real-life experience, and if principals need to approach those experiences with compassion and empathy.

Life has a way of happening and extraordinary events take place during our leadership experience. Most of the things we didn’t learn in our training revolve around sitting across from a list of untenured teachers who lack seniority and are losing their jobs due to budget cuts or working with parents as we consolidate schools. The events also involve consoling families or staff during tragedies.

The longer principals stay in their role, the more of a chance they have of being embedded in their community, and I’m not talking just the school community. Principals make connections to children and their siblings, parents and grandparents (i.e. special events they attend). They see them at the store and hold their hand when they go through a traumatic time. Being a principal is so much more than just how students do on tests, and we should all take time to reflect on what achievement means to us.

Before entering any leadership position, educators need to decide whether they are secure enough to handle it. Insecure leaders can sink schools, hurt staff and negatively affect students. Insecure leaders have no place in schools and educational leadership programs have to do a better job of facilitating that.

George W. Bush Institute Study
Operating in the Dark: What Outdated State Policies and Data Gaps Mean for Effective School Leadership, researchers from the George W. Bush Institute wrote, “

The research is clear: principals are critical to school improvement and student achievement. We believe the oft-quoted finding that principals account for a quarter of a school’s total impact on student learning actually understates the principal’s power because the principal influences teacher quality.

The principal oversees the hiring, development, and management of teachers who account for the largest share of a school’s impact on student learning. Because principals manage the teaching force, they are best positioned to ensure that every student has a great teacher year after year.”

I am glad to see the Bush Institute focusing on such a topic. As a school principal, and speaking for many of my administrative colleagues, I understand that what I do has an impact on students, teachers, parents and staff. Although that seems like a simplistic finding, it’s much more complicated than people think.

When I was hired by my present school district, I did not understand how big of an impact I had on the school staff. Not because I lacked the education or insight but because I did not fully understand my impact. I felt my impact was as large or small as any other staff member. Then I read Todd Whitaker’s book What Great Principals Do Differently. Whitaker wrote, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. This is neither good nor bad; it is just the truth. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school’s focus” (2003, p.30). He’s right and it has stayed with me over the years.

The Bush study goes on to say, “There are not enough highly skilled principals available today. The principal supply crisis is particularly evident in urban districts, which report low applicant-to-hire ratios and a general lack of high-quality candidates. Rural communities also have trouble recruiting and retaining quality principals. Leadership talent is key to helping schools in urban and rural areas turn around their chronically low-performing schools.”

All students need leaders who will help them grow socially, emotionally and academically over many years. The Bush study is correct that principals have an impact...it’s up to them whether it is positive or not. Leadership is not about power. Leadership is about serving others and fostering growth in students and adults. It’s about supporting good teachers, helping teachers in need, working with parents and students, and using data to drive some decisions.

Who Are You to Tell Me How to Teach?
There has always been criticism that school principals lack real teaching experience. The concern is that without understanding child development, or the age-appropriateness of curriculum for students, principals will not understand the needs of teachers. Without the experience of teaching lessons and working on student engagement, principals do not understand the needs of the students they are supposed to help educate.

Personally, with eleven years of teaching experience under my belt, I was an attractive candidate for my staff because I did understand the teaching world. After all, I was coming to the position straight from teaching inclusion in an urban setting. However, I have been in the position of principal for seven years, and I have concerns that as I get further away from my teaching experiences, I may become more disconnected from the classroom. It’s probably why I, and many of my administrative colleagues, try to get into classrooms at least twice a day. I’m still not convinced that’s enough.

Unfortunately, try as we may, many of us who are principals have not had to teach the Common Core State Standards. Perhaps we even taught in grade levels that did not have high stakes testing and never felt the immediate pressure of that type of accountability. We discuss, research, and pontificate about student engagement, but the only ones who can account for our own teaching expertise are our former administrators and students.

Effective Evaluation
Overall, the study seems to show that school leadership programs do not have the accountability they should. Anyone who is in a leadership program can tell you that there are educators within classes without a great deal of educational experience, just like there are student teachers in pre-service programs who lack a great deal of real-world classroom experience.

Many principals will also tell you that they want and need to be evaluated. All principals have blind spots and they need to be surrounded by a good staff who will tell them when they are missing something and quality central office administrators who will help foster growth and guide them in the right direction.

There are schools that are using Danielson Goal setting or the Kim Marshall rubric to evaluate principals at the same time that principals are evaluating teachers. Many schools do have effective practices in place and what they are doing is working.

Politically, I am not completely aligned with the Bush Institute but they do have some good findings we can all learn from. Leadership programs, as well as pre-service teacher programs, have to make sure they are offering high quality programs and graduating high quality educators who will have an impact on students.

However, their clear area of concern is always student achievement. My definition of student achievement is not based on test scores, and it never will be, because it is not all that matters. Where I agree is that we all need to make sure that our teachers and students are getting the best possible leaders who will help them make social-emotional and academic progress.

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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.