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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Power of the Principal

By Peter DeWitt — May 28, 2012 5 min read
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Speak up, be a leader, set the direction - but be participative, listen well, cooperate (Bennis, 2003).”

The other day I was on Twitter and came across an excellent blog titled, Do We Need Principals, written by Josh Stumpenhorst, a sixth grade ELA and social science teacher in suburban Illinois. At first when I read the blog title I wrongly assumed it was just another blog written by a disgruntled teacher who dislikes his administrator. After all, I’ve been a school principal long enough to know that there are many people who do not like administrators.

Administrators represent authority and discipline. They have to have tough conversations with parents, teachers or students about issues that make other people uncomfortable. Over the past few years of increased mandates and accountability, administrators are the ones that have had to enforce new rules at the same time that they may dislike them, so I figured the blog was about questioning the need for the very people who enforce these new rules.

As I read on I realized that Josh was not saying he disliked principals but he was questioning what role administrators play in schools. After finishing the blog I thought it was a fair question. Do principals have an impact on students? Most principals do not spend enough time in the classroom. How can principals evaluate how well teachers teach if they do not spend time in classrooms? Why do schools need principals?

Do principals have an impact on students?
“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” (Whitaker, 2003, p.30).

Whitaker’s quotation is one of the best that I have ever read. I have searched for others but none of them ever seem to catch the essence of the impact that principals have on schools. As a beginning school principal a few years ago, it was a quotation that I strongly believed personified what I wanted out of my leadership role and I read it when I’m having a bad day. It helps to shift my focus to the greater good.

On the worst days, and even some of the best, administrators should reflect and question the impact they have on students, staff and parents. The power of the principal can be both good and bad depending on the leader. Being a principal is so much more than doing discipline and completing observations, although those are very important parts of the job. Being a principal is about setting the tone and advocating for students that we have the pleasure of watching over a number of years.
Most teachers have a student for one year but we have students over 4, 5 or even six years depending on whether we are in elementary, middle or high school. That is very powerful because we have often had the opportunity to sit in child study meetings and talk about the growth of a child. “Sure he is struggling with math in third grade but there was a time in kindergarten when he sat under tables and wouldn’t participate in any subject.

The right principal can have an enormous impact on students. It starts at bus arrival and lasts through the day until the students get on the bus. It involves walking into classrooms, watching students learn, and having conversations with students and staff. Good principals create strong relationships with students over numerous years. To some principals, this is the best part of the job.

How can principals evaluate how well teachers teach if they do not spend time in classrooms?
Let’s face it, those of us who have been in education long enough most likely had a principal who came in to do a classroom observation and the evaluation didn’t offer any more information than we already knew. Some observations seemed to be more of a formal obligation to get through than a conversation about how to become a better teacher. I once had a principal go through his wallet as he observed me, which either meant that I was a boring teacher or he was disconnected from the observation process.

If principals maintain the status quo by remaining in their office and not observing teachers and students, then they are doing nothing to move the school forward and they certainly are not helping the case that schools need to be less about accountability and more about teaching and learning.
However, if principals spend time researching best practices and take quality time to have conversations with teachers about teaching and learning, they will be able to have a positive impact on the buildings they serve. And don’t get me wrong, being a principal means serving those who teach, learn and parent in the school community.

Good principals who have years of teaching experience before they enter administration, and those that spend quality time in classrooms can effectively evaluate teachers and help them find better ways to work with students. However, it’s a two way street, good principals need to listen to the needs of their students, staff and parents and find the best ways to meet their needs.

Why do schools need principals?
Schools need principals because they help build the school community and take on issues that many others may not. Principals who take their jobs seriously are true educational leaders. School communities need a leader who can build a guiding team and vision and help move a school forward. That guiding team needs someone at the front as well as quality teachers who can share in what the vision should be.

The truth is that the power of the principal can either be negative or positive. The negative power is when students and staff only fear the person is the role and do not want to engage in any sort of conversation. There are insecure principals who are not respected by the teachers that they work with. However, there are principals who understand that they have the power to have a positive impact on students and teachers every day, which is the power that principals should aspire to.

The principals I know are thankful for their responsibility and they support the teachers they work with at the same time they advocate for students who may sometimes lack the voice to advocate for themselves. There is a balance that all principals must walk between keep students safe, listening to parent concerns and supporting teachers. However, because they may be the only one in the role in their building they must be able to stand alone and take on disgruntled parents, difficult students and underperforming teachers.

All schools need principals, not because that’s what has always been done, but because they play a vital role in the day to day operations as well as the long term vision. Even after six years as a principal in a great school, I feel that there is more for me to learn and areas where I can improve and I often look to my teachers and students for that guidance.

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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.