The Value of Teaching Experience for Principals

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New Jersey recently became the first state to remove prior teaching experience as a qualification for becoming a principal. Advocates of the new policy--which only requires new principals with little or no teaching experience to teach one class a day during a one- to two-year residency period--hope this change will enlarge the pool of able candidates. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1988.)

But the rationale for requiring full-time classroom experience as a precondition for becoming a principal remains compelling. Through such experience, administrators gain not only knowledge of their profession but also credibility with their colleagues--qualifications crucial to their success. Whatever other positive changes the New Jersey policy might create, its undercutting of these two elements raises serious questions about its ultimate value.

Supporters of the policy contend that teaching experience is an inappropriate criterion because principals' responsibilities include many functions that lie outside the instructional realm, such as evaluating job performance, ordering supplies, keeping records, disciplining students, ensuring proper maintenance of school buildings, and communicating with parents. But while the premise of this argument holds, the conclusion does not: The range of their duties does not warrant eliminating teaching as a qualification for administrators.

Attorneys, for example, face complex issues in many fields besides property law. Yet mastery of this sphere is an important component of their professional knowledge. Similarly, physicians do much more than administer physical examinations--but we expect them to possess that skill at least, among many others.

Such analogies suggest the superficiality of arguing that since principals' duties do not fall solely in the realm of teaching, they do not need to have been teachers in order to succeed as administrators.

One of their most important responsibilities is simply supporting teachers--being sympathetic to the rigors of the job, finding resources to assist them in improving their performance, serving as a mirror in which teachers can see themselves, and continually posing questions so that teachers can examine their own performance. To provide the necessary insight and reinforcement, principals may need to have been teachers. Without firsthand knowledge of the issues and demands of teaching, they will lack credibility with the faculty under their supervision.

The experience of teaching may also affect a principal's view of the "non-instructional" facets of administration: It helps a manager understand how even bureaucratic details that seem insignificant for teaching can shape the quality of instruction. A principal who has not been a teacher is likely to take a much different approach, for example, to scheduling buses than one who has had to cope with the effects of scheduling quirks on classroom activity.

Backers of the New Jersey policy also assert that having been a teacher is no guarantee that a principal will hold the respect of instructors working for him. Again, their assumption is correct--but the logic for changing the requirement is insufficient.

Respect flows from many sources. An administrator clearly can have been a teacher and yet not be respected by the teachers he supervises. But the obverse of this argument is more pertinent: Can an individual who has not been a teacher become a principal and hold the respect of faculty members?

The answer to this question is much less clear. Principals must play a large symbolic role, and they gain legitimacy by being able to say ''I was a teacher," or "I am a teacher." Having taught, they inspire greater confidence not only among teachers but also students, parents, and the community.

New Jersey officials suggest, too, that most executives of large corporations have not themselves served as technical functionaries in their companies' particular line of endeavor. Rather, they are valued as leaders, managers, and coordinators of resources. The state of contemporary American business, however, weakens this analogy.

An increasingly common criticism of business is that its leaders are insufficiently familiar with the manufacturing or service-sector processes for which they hold responsibility. The fall from prominence of the General Motors Corporation best exemplifies the danger of elevating individuals on the periphery of the business to central-management positions.

If an automobile-manufacturing company seeks a leader, it might be best advised to employ not a professional who is knowledgeable about finance or governmental relations, but one who understands the design, manufacture, sale, and distribution of automobiles.

Advocates for altering traditional qualification criteria stress that hospitals are not administered by physicians. But while it is true that one need not be a physician in order to be the chief executive of a hospital, it is also true that physicians seldom hold hospital administrators in high regard.

Doctors certainly do not abandon to hospital administrators decisions about the important business of the institution: treatment of patients, employment of new physicians, or, in many instances, the purchase of crucial pieces of medical equipment. Hospital administrators are not expected to be "medical" leaders in the same sense that principals are expected to be "instructional" leaders.

If New Jersey's other reforms are directed at building a stronger cadre of teachers--professionals who themselves are capable through collegial interaction of assuming greater responsibility for instruction--then the hospital-administrator analogy eventually may hold.

In such a situation, the principal could become less the leader of instruction and more the manager of an institution. But to anticipate such a development, one would need to be convinced that New Jersey has achieved this kind of professional status for teachers.

It may be instructive, in this regard, to examine the role of university administrators. They fulfill a range of functions comparable to school principals'--but without the same kind of intense responsibility for instructional leadership. It would be rare indeed for a dean, provost, or chancellor to offer teaching advice to a faculty member, no matter how badly the latter needed it.

Yet universities seldom employ in a major leadership position an individual who has not himself formerly served as a professor: He simply would not have credibility in the eyes of faculty members. Even though they perform different functions, the ability of the administrator to lead and manage would be severely impaired if the college's professoriate did not accord him legitimacy.

The controversy over New Jersey's new policy may eventually turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. Even with the removal of teaching as a threshold qualification, school districts most likely will continue overwhelmingly to hire former teachers as principals.

And the idea of eliminating teaching experience from the list of criteria for principalships is by no means silly. Under the current model, classroom instruction frequently isolates teachers from other adults and renders them naive and insular. Changing the requirements might indeed expand the pool of dynamic individuals who would otherwise be excluded from applying for these positions.

But a better solution would be to enhance the role and ability of teachers. Improving their qualifications would ensure that the pool of persons eligible to be principals is sophisticated and talented.

Vol. 08, Issue 07, Page 36

Published in Print: October 19, 1988, as The Value of Teaching Experience for Principals
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