The Principal Story: Speaking of Rocket Science

By Nancy Flanagan — December 08, 2009 2 min read
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Live From NSDC, St. Louis--
Scene from “The Principal Story,” a film exploring the gritty reality of being a principal in a tough school:

The principal is prowling around a room filled with teachers, a staff meeting called to discuss student achievement. The looks on teachers' faces reveal the seriousness of the issues. There's more than a little anxiety. The principal says:
Who is the lowest-performing student in your class? How do you know he is the lowest? What is your evidence?"
The teachers are thinking. Concentrating, chewing on their lips. Reluctant to write down any child's name, even though their principal has directed them to do just that. Pondering the nuances of the principal's question--how do we evaluate student achievement? What indicators do we use to judge their work? Are those the right indicators? If we label a student a failure, what happens if we're dead wrong?

It’s one of many teachable moments in a trailer full of provocative clips. This morning, the NSDC breakfast crowd watches the video, and then hears from the filmmakers and the two principals whose best and worst moments were captured over the course of a year.

The filmmakers were on a mission to show the nuts and bolts of leadership--and many such documentaries don’t show principals in the best light. Filmmakers come with an agenda. But the principals also note that having filmmakers in the building for a year pushed principals and teachers to be the best they could be, and the net effect of putting themselves under the microscope was positive.

Both principals talk about relinquishing their personal lives to the job--doing more, doing it faster and more efficiently with fewer resources. The personal relationships in the learning context are webbed and complicated, and getting teachers to pay attention to data is an ongoing struggle. Both stress that principals who aren’t amenable to being learners themselves will never be able to persuade teachers to grow and change.

Then one principal says: It’s not hard work, it’s heart work.

That’s a catchy line--a sweet sentiment--but I’m thinking that teaching, like other jobs in this 21st century, is much more layered, intellectually complex and innovation-driven than it was even a decade ago. It is rocket science, and the challenge of keeping everyone on target and moving forward is immense. On top of all kids’ “heart” needs, the school is held accountable for the academic achievement of every child, directly caused (or impeded) by carefully selected, data-based instructional strategies and measured by psychometrically valid assessments.

The trailer closes with a clip of one principal congratulating the students who are moving from middle school to high school. Congratulations, she says. I love you. A tiny pause, and then the students affectionately say “Love you, too.”

Loving the students is an essential part of the complexity, not some cheap emotion that masks a lack of rigor or bad decision-making. Bring on the instruction based on tested strategies and protocols--good instruction requires rigor and consistency. But don’t forget to love the kids, too. You need all of these things to launch rockets.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.