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In Praise of Principals (in Hard Times)

By Elena Aguilar — May 10, 2011 6 min read

For the last few years, I have worked as a school leadership coach in Oakland, Calif. Primarily, I support principals to develop their capacities—work that gives me a wide-angle view on the daily lives of our public school leaders. I have long recognized that principals’ jobs are challenging, but this year I have seen Oakland’s principals rise to tackle a new array of difficulties. As 2011 unfolds, I often find myself in awe of the work they do, as well as their commitment and tenacity.

A Glimpse at the Work of Urban Principals

Administrators in Oakland must fulfill the same roles and responsibilities as principals across the U.S. However, as urban school leaders, Oakland administrators must also be adept at communicating with families from a range of backgrounds, cultures, and religions.

Like many other inner-city principals, most of Oakland’s school leaders operate with their heads in the noose of No Child Left Behind: They must raise test scores or lose their jobs (there is no such thing as tenure for principals). This is the “either/or” with which they live, regardless of the fact that social and economic factors outside of a school’s control make these mandates much harder to meet.

More than 80 percent of Oakland’s schools are located in neighborhoods that experience disproportionate amounts of crime and violence. I work with principals who have witnessed shootings on their campuses, who have been the victims of violent crimes at their schools, and who are accustomed to arriving at work on a Monday morning to discover vandalized property. Our district also has a high rate of teacher turnover: 50 percent of teachers in Oakland leave within three years of being hired, which makes building a high-capacity teaching staff challenging. Our principals are called upon to be emotionally resilient, culturally competent, dynamic instructional leaders, community builders, and so much more.

Let me be clear about one thing, however: A majority of Oakland’s principals accepted jobs in this vibrant, diverse city because of many of these conditions. They are passionate about improving the experiences and outcomes for low-income children of color and about transforming communities into safe, healthy, thriving places. Many of our principals have led remarkable improvements in our schools in the last decade.

The Deepening Budget Crisis

Many of these gains are in jeopardy, however. The estimated budget cuts in California for 2011-12 would be catastrophic. We would most likely drop to the bottom of all states in funding of public schools (we’re currently 47th). In Oakland, we’ve already had three years of budget reductions, and next year another $850 per student would be slashed. Educators here are hoping for an 11th hour miracle, but this spring, principals planned for Draconian cuts. Next year, class sizes will be at a maximum and not a frill will be found (“frills” defined as after-school homework support, counselors, field trips, art, music, nurses, secretaries, security officers, coaches, funds for professional development, yard supervisors, parent outreach and education, and much more). Our classrooms will be stripped to the bare necessities.

But what are “bare necessities?” At Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA) in east Oakland, Principal Moyra Contreras is realizing a life-long dream by leading a Spanish dual-immersion school. For next year, MLA needs 40 kid-size chairs, but Ms. Contreras has no funding for this. Recently, she described daily visits to the district’s warehouse where she scavenges for old chairs. “The Ed Code doesn’t say that kids must have chairs,” Ms. Contreras said sardonically. And so, the principal will be creative: she has a brilliant (but time-consuming) plan to fundraise for chairs.

In February, district principals were informed that more than 500 teachers would receive lay-off notices. If worst came to worst, dozens of schools would be closed. Principals re-directed more energy to support their teachers—counseling them, helping them make decisions, trying to be optimistic. In mid-April, many of these notices were rescinded, to our great relief. However, the damage has been done. This spring, much time and energy has been diverted to career triage, and morale is at a new low.

Hanging on by a Thread

When principals meet with me, it’s their time to let down their brave front. I hear the anxiety, grief, loneliness, and stress in their voices. They don’t sleep much. Their health suffers. Many use the same phrase: “I’m hanging on, but only by a thread.”

Like all of us, individual principals have strengths and areas for growth. Some of those areas for growth can create challenges for the teachers whom they lead. In other words, these individuals aren’t perfect. I’m sure many can be difficult.

I’m fortunate that my work as a coach allows me to see the best in our principals. I see how they juggle stressful jobs with their lives and families. I hear their hopes and dreams for their schools, and I am impressed by how hard they work. They have flaws (again, like all of us), but they show up day after day, year after year, to work in very challenging environments for absurdly low salaries (a principal in Oakland makes $20-$40 thousand less than what he or she could make in a neighboring district).

It’s probably not surprising that many of our principals in Oakland burn out after a few years. Some take other administrative jobs, while others move farther away from our public schools. I don’t blame them, but we’ve lost some fantastic leaders in Oakland during the 15 years I’ve been here. Clearly, a lot needs to change so that we can attract and retain masterful principals.

Time for Appreciation

But what can we do right now? How can we (those who work with and around principals) express our support and appreciation for the administrators who are helping hold our schools together in tough times? Here are some suggestions.

Go on a strengths hunt: For a few days, observe your principal, identifying what he or she does particularly well. Everyone has assets—I’m sure you can find some, perhaps even qualities or skills you’ve never observed before. Make a list in your mind, or even write it down, if you’re so inclined. I’d encourage you to go one step further and share this list with your principal. You could drop a note in your administrator’s box, or you could sit down with him or her and read it aloud. We all know how fulfilling it is to be verbally appreciated for what you do.

Stage an Appreciation Day: Most people, principals included, also enjoy homemade meals, thoughtful small gifts, certificates for massages. Did you know that Principal Appreciation Day is in October? I had no idea that it even existed and have never seen it recognized in any school I’ve worked in—have you? Here’s my proposal: in 2011, a year when principals across the nation are under an unprecedented amount of stress, let’s move Principal Appreciation Day to late May. In our own schools and districts, let’s end the year with an outpouring of recognition for these dedicated leaders.

Practice conscious compassion: While I am advocating here for principal appreciation, I really want to encourage all of us to bring a little more compassion into our struggling schools. It feels like there is so much “us versus them” thinking right now, even within our own buildings, where “us” sometimes comes to mean “teachers” and “them” comes to mean “administrators.” I admit to falling into this mentality at times. But this kind of thinking will never lead us to do what we most want to do: transform our schools for the benefit of all students. As corny as this sounds, I’m going to say it. Let’s open our hearts to all those working on behalf of our students and schools, and increase our compassion for one another when times are tough.

Finally, indulge me in using this public forum to thank all the hard-working principals in Oakland, including my own son’s. You inspire me every day. Thank you.

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