School & District Management

10 Insights Principals Gained From Working in Central Office

By Denisa R. Superville — November 19, 2019 9 min read
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Principals often complain that their colleagues who work in the central office are out of touch with the real world of running schools.

One reason principals say this? Many central office administrators have long been out of the fray of day-to-day school operations, and that can make school leaders skeptical of those colleagues.

But some principals who’ve worked in both worlds—in school administration and in central office—say they gleaned useful skills and insights that they still use to their advantage in leading and managing their buildings.

Here are 10 big lessons they learned:

1. Thinking about the big picture helps you make better decisions. Teachers are usually focused on their classrooms, students, and the parents in front of them, but working in the central office forces one to see how all the different parts that make the system run fit together, said Michael Gillespie, an assistant principal at Herndon High School in the Fairfax County, Va., schools.

A former English teacher, Gillespie spent three years in the district office as a language arts specialist and then as a secondary school literacy specialist, before returning to the school as an administrator.

“As a central office leader, you have to think big picture, and think organizationally, and think about how you can promote change in a big setting,” Gillespie said. “I learned a lot about that. What kinds of questions you have to think about, what kinds of movements you have to make, how to try things out.”

2. It’s ok to slow down sometimes. School administration is often fast-paced and reactive. There’s always something that needs attention right now. Gillespie learned to take a more deliberative approach that considers all sides and seeks out the root cause.

But at the same time, it’s harder to make quick changes at the district office, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Gillespie said.

“You want to make sure that you are being creative and helpful,” he said. “You learn how to move intentionally about things and make sure that you are making the right choices. ...I think you learn how to move in a way that’s attentive to the needs of the people your job is there to support.”

And he uses that process at his school. “Sometimes I’ll try to slow us down and say, ‘let’s dig into this a little bit and think about what this means,’ ” Gillespie said. “I think that comes from looking at a big system and really thinking about that... I do say we need to address this thing that popped up, but at the same time, let’s have another conversation about how we can continue to make the system work differently or make a change.”

3. Stepping on the gas works, too. Mauri Friestleben, the principal of North High School in Minneapolis, found the snail’s pace of the central office—which she described as a “lack of urgency—unnerving. That was one of the reasons she left her central office job as a special assistant to the superintendent after nearly two years to return to a school.

“You can sit in meetings forever because you don’t have lunch duty, you don’t have buses coming, you don’t have a parent [to deal with],” she said. “There is this absence of what feels like the real work. I missed feeling that sense of urgency.”

Friestleben also didn’t like what felt like constant crisis management and that those who were the loudest got the most attention.

“It just shocked me how there seemed to be very little time or energy spent on the high, overperforming teachers, the high, overperforming schools, the parents that are just really supportive parents, who would do anything you ask them to do,” she said.

4. Widening expertise makes you a better principal. Craig Herring, the principal at Walt Whitman Middle School in Virginia’s Fairfax County schools, went from math teacher to math curriculum specialist to the director of pre-k-12 curricula, which broadened his perspective. Along the way he oversaw an online high school, library, and counseling services.

“I do think you gain different experiences, you gain different skillsets,” Herring said.

For Gillespie, he knows a lot more about areas outside of his area of expertise. He worked with dozens of teachers in different content areas and with principals running schools with diverse student bodies. He worked with math specialists, social studies teachers, and with principals on restorative justice programs, and spent a lot of time finding and developing more effective professional development for teachers.

That experience gave him a much deeper knowledge of professional development—the good and the bad. He’s found that quite useful as a school administrator when he’s asking teachers to take time away from their classrooms for professional development.

“The tricky thing about school-based administration is that you have to be involved in a lot of different things and support a lot of different departments that you didn’t teach,” he said. “You gain a breadth of experience that allows you to increase the toolbox or the set of knowledge that you have and put that to use in your day-to-day work.”

5. Tapping experts and resources in central office benefits your school. Gillespie knows who the experts at central office are who he can ask to work with his staff or to connect him with schools that may be working through similar problems.

“It’s framed for me what the role of central office is,” Gillespie said. “I don’t see them as someone who is working against us. Quite the opposite. I see them as someone who is doing everything they can to support us. I know that these are some of the smartest people working in the county, and they are passionate about what they do, and they are really intentional about the choices they are making.”

Herring learned about ways that the central office can help support schools that may not always be apparent or advertised. One example he discovered: the district’s family engagement office will send a representative to visit schools at the principal’s request to see how parents are greeted when they visit the school and whether it’s a welcoming environment.

6. Experience with managing large budgets and finance. As director of curriculum, Herring’s budget was about $100 million, and he oversaw about 250 people. That gave him experience managing money that many principals don’t get. His school budget is around $250,000 annually.

“It’s not intimidating to me in any way. I know how to stretch it and use it in ways that are best for kids,” Herring said. In his central office job, he worked with the transportation and facilities departments, which principals also have to work with when they become school leaders, but generally don’t have a lot of interactions with while they are teaching.

7. Understanding the “why” behind policies. Often teachers and principals are asked to carry out a new policy or implement programs, but have no idea why. Herring said his long tenure in the central office has given him a good understanding of the historical reasons for certain initiatives.

When he doesn’t know why the district is doing something, he knows who to call to find out who or what is driving new programs and directives, what the central office is trying to achieve, and how it fits into the district’s larger goals or mission. While he may be able to get more information on the “whys,” and share staff and principal feedback to those in central office, he may not always be able to stop those initiatives from going into effect.

But the central office staff is receptive to his input because they know that he’s been in both worlds, and they sometimes make adjustments based on his feedback, Herring said.

“Sometimes it’s like ‘guys we can’t help. That came down from the Virginia Department of Education; these good folks in central office aren’t just trying to torture us. They were given that directive by the state school board,’ ” Herring said.

Friestleben still uses her knowledge of the bureaucracy to get answers to burning questions, especially when she feels like she is not getting a straight answer, she said. And she can hold her bosses accountable because she knows what they are supposed to be doing, she said.

“I know too much now,” Friestleben said. “I think it’s probably hard for some of my direct supervisors. A lot of the time in district leadership, you’ll have one go-to person, and they’ll take it from there.... Well, when you’ve worked in the central office, you know how to get things done. And so, you go directly to who is going to get it done for you.”

8. The absolute necessity for getting buy-in from teachers. Herring learned that buy-in from teachers makes or breaks an initiative and their concerns must be heard. The same goes for other constituencies that would be affected by any proposed change, he said.

Herring knew that when the school district was embarking recently on a 1:1 model, one of the first things he had to do was talk to teachers about how it tied in with the district’s focus on student engagement. He led a cohort of teachers on an exploration of blended learning and authentic and useful integration of technology in their classrooms; what worried them about the move to 1:1; what support they needed; and how officials could make the process seamless.

“I think it’s going really well,” Herring said. “I think teachers are excited about it. We’ve built good expectations. We told them we want you to use technology when you feel it’s the right tool for the job. Don’t use it because of external pressure.”

9. The dividends of building relationships and a network: As the superintendent’s liaison to the community, Friestleben developed working ties with key community leaders, including the president of the teachers’ union and the then-president of the Somali-American parent association at a time when the district was seeing an influx of Somali refugees and students.

Those leaders became useful contacts when she finally left to become a high school assistant principal and later principal.

“It gave me relationships that I didn’t have before,” she said.

10. Don’t kid yourself, there’s a surprising amount of politics. Friestleben said she had no idea that school board members were so likely to micromanage district operations. Principals and teachers are largely insulated from that kind of meddling.

“We spent a large amount of our time responding to inquiries from school board members, or directions from school board members,” said Friestleben, who stressed that while the experience gave her a compassion for those in the central office that didn’t have before, she never wants to work in a central office again.

In the short time she was at the central office, Friestleben worked for two superintendents and saw several new school board members come on board—giving her a glimpse into how turnover at the top can lead to changes in both policies and practices and can send the staff back to the drawing board many times over on the same issue.

For Herring, it was not political meddling so much as some staffers positioning themselves for better jobs, although there were school board members who successfully ran on issues that, if implemented, weren’t necessarily in the best interest of students.

Still, he said, the staff in central office is working to support students’ success.

“Almost everybody that I’ve run across is doing what they’re doing to help kids,” Herring said. “I don’t think anyone comes into this work [saying], ‘let’s keep these kids from learning.’ Maybe I am being a little Pollyanna, but I really have enjoyed getting to know so many very capable people. They are wicked smart and have great ideas. Even if I don’t agree with the methods, ultimately, they are just trying to do the best they can for kids.”

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.