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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

Principals With a Bone to Pick

By Peter DeWitt — November 27, 2012 4 min read
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As a principal...
• Do you work with staff or do they work for you?
• Do you prefer kids fear you or do you want them to seek you out when they have a problem?
• Are you in the role as a stepping stone to “something better” or do you feel that every day brings a new learning experience?
• Are you more concerned about climate than you are about test scores?

There are many principals who could not wait to have a building they could lead, much like there are teachers who could not wait to get their own classrooms. If you’re like me, you never ever thought you would be a principal. As a young teacher my principal encouraged me to get a Master’s in Administration and I could not run away fast enough so I chose Ed Psych instead. Being a principal was so far away from what I wanted and who I was at the time but that changed and i went back to get my degree. After eleven years of teaching elementary school, something in me changed and I’m profoundly happy I made the transition.

Principals have a reputation for not being very fun, and they’re not always known for their sense of humor or their people skills. In movies and on television, principals are often depicted as mean and one-sided. We are supposed to keep kids safe, but we are as responsible for creating an engaging environment as any teacher or staff member in the buildings where we lead.

Unfortunately, many principals are so caught up in the role of disciplinarian that they lose sight of why they took the position in the first place. Some turn into the very thing they didn’t want to be when they were a young teacher. Now that testing and accountability plays a large role in our lives, principals are more likely to focus on “getting those scores up” than creating a positive school climate and that is really a sad state of affairs.

As much as teachers feel pressure to make sure their students all do well on the test, principals feel the same intense pressure to make sure their school does well on the test. If there are multiple schools in the district, you don’t want your school to do the worst on the state exams. The trickle down effect from all that pressure can really be harmful to the school community, which is sad because very few parents I have met care more about a test than they do about their child’s happiness.

Stepping outside Our Comfort Zones
Recently, the Scholastic Book Fair came to our school and we received a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume to use during the week of the event. The book fair chairperson, who happens to be a former parent who now home-schools her children for faith based reasons, asked me if I would wear the costume and I barked...I mean jumped at the chance. Being an elementary school principal gives me the freedom to do those kinds of things because kids don’t judge me if I’m goofy...or Clifford. Many kids knew it was me because I was standing in my usual position at bus arrival. However, other kids had no idea.

Unfortunately I scared a few kindergartners and I’m afraid that when I took the head off to ease their fears, I scared them even more. As I walked through the lunchroom without the costume later that day I felt like a rock star because the kids were so happy that I dressed as Clifford. It took very little effort for me to put the costume on and yet it made a huge difference in the end. It created a moment that many of us will not forget.

Too often, principals don’t step outside of their comfort zone because they’re too busy trying to make an impact in other ways. Unfortunately, the impact they may have on the building is one that sets a climate of fear. I get it. Our jobs are hard but we knew that getting into it. It doesn’t mean we don’t have our moments, which is why it is so important to surround ourselves with people who will speak the truth. We need people who will call us out if we’re going down a bad path, just like we would call them out if they were going down one. It’s called trust, and it needs to remain in schools.

The Principal’s Impact
We all have insecurities. If someone says they don’t, they’re either lying or clueless. When we let our insecurities take over as leaders we create problems for ourselves and for our staff. Insecure leaders feel the need to know everything but not because they want to help in situations, but because they need to control every move of their staff.

I once worked for someone who checked lesson plan books on a rotating cycle. If a principal wants to check plans to keep up to date with what the teacher is doing in the classroom that is their perspective. However, when they’re doing it to control the classroom, they are setting up teachers for failure because the teacher feels less creative and less trusted. I handed my plan book in late one day and as we both stood together on the staircase, the leader said, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t look at your plans because they’re always done.” I walked away from the situation frustrated and perplexed.

If principals have issues with individual staff, then they should work with individual staff. Don’t make everyone pay for the sins of a few. Principals need to be better than that, and they need to model the fairness they would want any teacher to model to students. The school is a community and not a dictatorship. Principals have the opportunity to create a real sense of community with staff, students and parents.

In the End
There are many principals who are creating a great sense of community in the schools they lead. These leaders can be found on Twitter participating in chats or at workshops with other principal colleagues. Unfortunately, there are many who still contribute to a bad reputation and we should want different for our position. There will come a day when we all look back on the impact we had with our staff and students, and we should want to be happy with what we see.

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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.