Professional Development Opinion

So, You Want To Be A Principal?

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 17, 2013 6 min read
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(This is Part Two in a multi-part series. You can see Part One here)

Last week’s question was:

What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a principal?

In Part One of this series earlier this week, Lyn Hilt, Joe Mazza, and Cheryl James-Ward posted their responses -- and I threw-in a few ideas of my own. Next week, I’ll be offering contributions from a few more guests, as well as from readers -- so feel free to contribute your own thoughts! That post will be the third, and final, one in this “principal” series.

Today, Justin Baeder, Allan R. Bonilla and Josh Stumpenhorst are sharing their reflections.

Response From Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder is a former elementary principal, and currently serves as director of The Principal Center. He writes about principal performance and productivity at Eduleadership, and is @eduleadership on Twitter:

If you care deeply about teaching and learning, should you stay in the classroom or move into a leadership role? It depends on whether you’re comfortable trading your direct impact for having a bigger, but less direct, impact.

Being a school leader is all about making powerful, albeit indirect, contributions to student learning. One of the hardest things for new school leaders to understand and stay focused on is how this influence functions.

As a leader, it’s not your job to go around fixing everyone’s problems for them, to slay the dragons of poor teaching and student misbehavior.

It’s your job to build systems, and make sure those systems work reliably--systems for keeping students from falling through the cracks, systems for helping teachers grow professionally, and systems for dealing with the countless problems that inevitably arise in a building full of hundreds of complicated, wonderfully human beings.

Too many leaders don’t understand the importance of this systems-level perspective, and try instead to be heroes. But being a hero in a world of dragons is deadly, and even without a hero complex, most administrators barely keep their heads above water in their first few years. But as Dave Burgess says in his book Teach Like a Pirate, it’s not supposed to be easy--it’s supposed to be worth it. And it is.

In between all the meetings, observations, walkthroughs, professional development, and emails--so many emails--it’s your job to maintain a big-picture perspective, making sure that everything is running smoothly, that students are learning, and that teachers are growing. You can choose to be a hero, or a system-builder.

As a school leader, you have the profoundly rewarding responsibility of ensuring high-quality teaching and learning for all students. I believe school administration is one of the most honorable and rewarding professions on the planet, and I wish you all the best as you pursue your calling to lead.

Response From Allan R. Bonilla

Dr. Allan R. Bonilla
has served as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal and is currently a leadership coach and school improvement specialist. His just released Corwin Press book is I’m in the Principal’s Seat, Now What? The Story of a Turnaround Principal:

First of all, make sure that you are prepared to take on the role of a school leader responsible for the teaching and learning which will take place within the walls of your school. We have all heard the expression “the buck stops here”. As principal, teachers will look to you for direction and support. Students’ test scores will be a reflection on your instructional program. Parents will want the best for their children and will look for alternatives if they are not satisfied with your school. Choices are abundant today.

Have you taken courses or have you earned a degree in school administration? Do you have the knowledge background to assume a leadership role? Are you current on education literature? Have you had the opportunity to shadow a school administrator for perhaps a day? Are you able to volunteer your services at a school so as to see actual day to day operations?

The big question should be “Why do I want to be a principal?” Hopefully it is because you have wonderful ideas for creating an exemplary school and are eager to implement them. Hopefully you have a true love for children and want to see them all succeed. Hopefully you want to foster a positive school culture in which your teachers can flourish and can motivate and inspire their students to love learning. Do you truly want to make a difference?

I did not always want to be a principal. When I was a teacher I loved the close relationships I formed with my students. As a counselor I valued the one on one experiences. As an assistant principal I appreciated the impact I could have on the entire school. But as a principal I was able to implement those ideas for excellence which I had been nurturing for so many years. Many educators, who have been through the ranks, say being a principal is indeed the best job to have.

Response From Josh Stumpenhorst

Josh Stumpenhorst is a 6th grade Language Arts and Social Science teacher in suburban Chicago, IL. He is the 2012 Illinois Teacher of the year, 2012 Illinois Computing Educator of the Year and an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2011. He blogs at www.stumptheteacher.blogspot.com and tweets as @stumpteacher:

My first piece of advice for someone wants to become a principal would be, “don’t”. However, if you don’t heed that advice then here are some other tips I would pass on. Understand that I am a teacher with absolutely no administrative experience outside of working for more principals and assistant principals than I would like to count. With that being said, my advice is more about what kinds of things I would like to see in my next principal.

• Be visible. See every teacher and every student every single day. Even if it is just to say hello, your visibility matters.

• Be transparent. Honor confidentiality but don’t allow secrecy to breed division and distrust among their staff.

• Focus on kids first. While this seems so easy, it is often forgotten in the midst of doing what is easier for the adults. Have a kid on every committee and in every meeting possible so that students as well as teachers inform all decisions.

• Be a teacher. Teach a class as often as you can. Surprise a teacher and teach a class period or a full day. It will help the principal stay grounded in what really matters and keep their perspective on the kids.

• Own your school. From clean bathrooms to high quality teachers, own every piece of your school. Love it and create a school that you are proud to “own” in every aspect.

Understand that no one person in a school building has more control over culture and change than the school principal. I have personally witnessed the two extremes of this both in person and through friends. Great administrators can inspire change and passionate learning while poor ones can destroy a school’s culture and burn teachers out.

Thanks to Justin, Allan and Josh for sharing their responses today!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including readers’ comments in a post next week.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and am starting off with Corwin.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here.

Look for Part Three -- the final post in this series -- on Sunday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.