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

You’re a Principal...Now What?

By Peter DeWitt — January 11, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Education needs fewer accountability enforcers and more administrators who can create positive school cultures.

Principals sometimes get a bad rap. They don’t have a room filled with students and are seen as someone “who left the classroom,” wear formal clothing (the suits!), and have to play the mediator between students, staff, parents, and even worse...the central office. Some days they’re disliked, other days there revered, and most days they are trying to find their place in the school system.

What kind of principal are you?

Principals are educators too. If they forgot that they are educators they should look at their surroundings. They’re in a school among teachers, students and staff. Classrooms are right outside their office door. They are in the same buildings and should be fighting for the same things....a more whole child education.

Look to Principal Tony Sinanis for some guidance on what he would do if he were the NY State Commissioner.

Some staff believe when the principal left the classroom to “go to the dark side” they forgot what students need. Some teachers feel that principals have lost touch with what goes on in the classroom, and even worse, some principals have lost touch with the classroom. If you’re a principal, and you’re not entering classrooms every day, you’re just supporting that notion.

We’re Moving On Up!
Unfortunately, some principals believe that having the big office and title gives them the “power.” The power is seen as the most important part of the job. It’s not. Serving others is the most important part of the job. Speaking out against the harmful effects of high stakes testing is a part of the job. Being honest about what budget cuts are doing to quality education is part of the job.

Do you talk about these things in public...or just behind closed doors?

Being a principal means supporting teachers because they still are in the classroom every day, and many of them would put their lives on the line for their students. Sometimes, however, serving others means not giving them what they want and going against the grain. It means asking tough questions and helping teachers find their blind spot.

The blind spot concerns that part of our seeing that we usually don’t see. It’s the inner place or source from which a person or social system operates. That blind spot is present every day in all systems. But it is hidden.” C. Otto Scharmer

Principals have blind spots too and having a strong team which includes teachers and parents can help leaders find their blind spots. All educators have them. They are not confined to one role or another. Blind spots can make or break leaders because not everyone wants to know they have a blind spot.

Preparing Leaders
In educational leadership programs there is a great deal of theory, and even internships do not always prepare leaders for what they will eventually see when they are in the job. Theory sometimes comes with a lack of practical advice. Principals enter the world of leadership not knowing what they don’t know.

Being a principal is so much more than just about establishing and enforcing rules. It’s about creating relationships with students, staff and parents. Education needs fewer accountability enforcers and more administrators who can create positive school cultures. The best way to do this is through the support they provide to all stakeholders, and the most important are the students...all students.

Students come from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs. Some are loved and others are fending for themselves when they get home. Believe it or not, some students get kicked out of their homes just for being who they are. There are students that seem to have the best lot in life while others who feel broken.

You know who they are. Do you reach out to them?

School Climate
We are at risk in public education. We are at risk of continuing to be an institution where students sit all day, much like those old photos from the past, and disconnect from the outside world. The real life that schools are supposedly getting students ready for is not all that apparent within the institution. There are still desks, a lack of technology, and too much paper and pencil. The school climate suffers when students become disengaged but the climate of the school is one of the reasons students disengage in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.

The International Center for Leadership in Education’s Bill Daggett says that “The top barrier to great schools is school climate.” There are so many distractions that take the focus away from a positive school climate but those schools that have done the work leading up to these days of accountability are finding ways to move forward. It’s not easy but they are fighting to move forward.

Do you encourage your teachers to speak out on high stakes testing and the present warped view of accountability?

The public school system is under constant scrutiny and it has had a public relations nightmare for the past few years. As accountability swept in, it brought budget cuts, increased testing and a great deal of negativity which caused low morale. After three or more years of hard times it is time for schools to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Our students deserve an engaging and safe education and our school climates are at the very foundation of what we do to educate the whole child.

Policymakers clearly don’t understand that...but we do.

The following should be part of your every day schedule:
• Talk to students in the hallway
• Greet them when they get off the bus
• Check in on those students who need it most

• Watch interactions among peers
• Talk with kids
• Have a sense of humor with students and adults

Classroom visits
• See what they’re doing...really see what they’re doing. Go deeper.
• How can you help make the classroom better?
• Do you discuss curriculum?
• Do you teach any classes? Do you cover for a teacher if they need it?
• Do you stop by every morning to say hi?
• Do students know you’re there to keep them safe?

Making Connections
• School nurses, Teacher’s Aides, special area teachers get to know students over the years they are in school. Principals can have the same benefit if they are paying attention.
• Principals can see the growth students make
• Principals do have the power...to inspire change in students and staff.

In the End
You put the time in to get your administration degree. You’ve read the books. Written the papers and passed the tests. You got the interview, secured the job, moved into the office and have the fancy nameplate.
Now what....

Connect with Peter on Twitter

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.