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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

How Many Years of Teaching Experience Should a Principal Have?

By Peter DeWitt — February 19, 2015 3 min read
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In an ideal world, school leaders would have a few years of experience in the classroom before they take a building role. I feel like principals need to have, at least, a few years of experience in the classroom to truly understand students and learning. The transition from teacher to a leader should be one that comes naturally.

As a principal, It made me nervous when pre-service teachers said they wanted to be a principal...before they ever experienced being a teacher. I think it’s ok to have the goal, but focusing on teaching and learning for a few years should be the main priority. However, through social networking formats like Facebook and Twitter it’s pretty clear that many principals do not have an overabundance of experience in the classroom. Some are jumping into the role after a year or two.

In a previous blog where I wrote that being visible isn’t enough when it comes to school leadership, Dr. Spector wrote a comment that helped me realize that the road to leadership is sometimes paved in sports, and not necessarily experience.

Spector wrote,

Here in the old confederacy in the deep south, HUGE number, I would daresay the vast majority of principals are former football coaches who NEVER taught a core subject for any period of time, if at all. And then these goobers are given the "authority" to evaluate real classroom teachers, when they themselves know NOTHING about teaching or pedagogy. it is infuriating at the very least."

Spector went on to write,

I have long contended that in order to qualify to be a principal, one must have at LEAST 15 years in the classroom, FULL-TIME, teaching a core subject. I have now become so radical that I think all coaches should be banned from ever becoming public school admins. It is incredibly disheartening to see a 27 year old former football coach elevated to the position of school admin, while real teachers are ignored and even persecuted."

I could sense, and agree, with Dr. Spector’s frustration. I’m not so concerned about the age of the leader, but I am concerned with whether they have authentic teaching experiences in the classroom. After all, we have seen state education leaders who have had very little teaching and leadership experience and it reeked havoc on the system. But when I asked for the reasoning on why Spector thought there should be fifteen years of experience, they wrote,

I picked the number of 15 years, based upon my own anecdotal and personal observations - it appears that it takes about that amount of time for teachers I have observed and worked with to really come into their own and gain the confidence in themselves and their knowledge base to stand up to bad ideas and say "No!". Granted, it could be 10 years for some, maybe less for others. Just my personal opinion."

I appreciate Dr. Spector’s thoughts because they tap into a frustration that many other teachers feel. If there is a lack of respect in the school climate that is based in a lack of understanding of each person’s role and experience, how can student learning ever be at the forefront of the discussions when there is most likely an underlying concern that one party doesn’t have enough experience with students to really understand the advice or insight they may be giving to a teacher?

But I wonder how many years would make everyone happy...

How Many Years in the classroom does a good leader need?

In the 2009 Principal (NAESP) article From Teacher to Administrator: What Does it Take? Mary F. Borba wrote,

As a coordinator of a teacher preparation program, students often stop by my office to inquire about our program. Some of them are interested in becoming elementary school principals. However, they have not yet realized the importance of "earning your stripes" before moving into a leadership position. Many of them assume that it is possible to begin preparation for an administrative position upon completion of a bachelor's degree or a teaching credential, and think nothing of omitting teaching experience. What they do not realize is that principals have complex and challenging jobs, and they must be skilled and experienced in numerous areas not covered by their training."

Borba goes on to write,

According to Darling-Hammond (1997), developing teaching expertise is essential to improving instruction. If teachers are critical to the school improvement process, principals must be prepared to provide assistance in refining their teaching skills. This assistance may even require principals to go into classrooms to give demonstration lessons. Fullan (2000) believes that extended knowledge about instruction is vital for instructional leadership. Strong instructional leaders notice differences in teacher expertise and how they impact learning."

The article brought in some interesting responses. One commenter wrote,

I don't totally agree with the author that several years of "successful" teaching experience are requisite to becoming a principal. I believe that highly motivated, clearly focused individuals with only a few years of teaching under their belt can become effective building leaders, with the right mentoring and professional development. I've known some great teachers who, when put in a leadership position, fell flat on their face. I don't think standard requisites that are 'one size fits all' have any more business being linked to our vocation than they do in teaching."

And another wrote,

I don't completely agree with the author either. I definitely think the principal needs to have some successful teaching experience, but I think three or four years is enough. Some of the best principals I know only taught for a few years. To me, leadership is a different skill set than classroom teaching."

I have to admit that I recently met an outstanding principal in Australia, and found out that although they had been in the role for well over 15 years, they had only two years of teaching experience. That principal was not only engaged in the workshop I was co-running, they were eager to keep learning more, and it made me question my own deeply held beliefs about years of teaching experience.

Perhaps it’s in the feedback?

As you can tell, I have an inner struggle with the required number of years a principal should have before entering the role. Many might say that a principal should be an assistant principal first, which would take me out of the running, because I went straight from being a teacher in a city school district to being a principal in a rural/suburban school district. What about those principals who were school psychologists and not classroom teachers? I know some who are very worthy of their present leadership positions.

Is it possible that it’s not just the experience but the potential we should be looking at? Should we be less concerned whether they have 10 years of experience and more concerned that they are open to feedback from teachers, students and parents? Is it possible that a principal with 15 years of teaching experience may be closed off to feedback because they believe they know it all already?

In our never-ending discussions about numbers, should we be putting numbers on our expectations of leaders?

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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.