School & District Management Opinion

When Principals Deserve Thanks

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 14, 2016 4 min read
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The role of principal is as complex as any leader’s. Their responsibilities are replete with expectations that include providing and maintaining a safe environment in which teaching and learning can flourish for the children as well as the adults. Principals are expected to be instructional leaders, building managers, communication and relationship experts. They are expected to have and hold the vision for the school, supervise and evaluate, encourage and coach, and build and keep a culture that invites risk taking, expects civility, and is inclusive of each child and adult. Principals are expected to collect, analyze and utilize data to inform decisions about most everything that goes on in their schools.

So, who would want that job? Thankfully, there are those who are called to lead our schools. Most of them are stepping out of the classrooms in which they engaged their students, year after year. Then, wanting to make a bigger difference...or a bigger salary...they pursue the building leadership role. With questions and pressures coming from all directions, the job can be an adventure daily and it can also seem overwhelming. We all are hearing about educators’ burnout and principals are no exception.

Education at a Threshold

Most understand that we are in a wave of change but many cannot envision where it is going or believe regulation and existing contracts and structures will cause the wave to bend and end up fitting within the current and the familiar. At the same time, new thinking proliferates in the field. Professional development and electronic resources make materials and the ideas of experts more available than ever before. But without an articulated plan to bring the future into the organization, these too can become stressors.

Envision leading a system in which something new is added each year. New ways to engage students as readers, how to use graphic organizers to visualize thinking and planning, the use of new technologies in teaching and learning, maximizing the safe use of communication technologies, including social media in teaching, learning, and communicating, coaching to improve practice for teachers and their leaders, learning how to build better assessments, new ways to develop learning opportunities, to name just a few, have all been part of the educational landscape. Yet, the school day, the school year, the school building and the way teaching and learning take place within them remain fundamentally unchanged. Even the most forward thinking schools and districts that have made brilliant shifts in practice with notable results still are working within the traditional framework we recognize as 20th century schools. All of this contributes to the untold stress that is wearing educators down, principals included.

While the struggle to figure this out goes on, while the balloon that is school fills with attempts at change and improvement, we must remember that relationships matter. Relationships matter as the trial and error of risk taking takes place. Relationships matter when teachers’ and students’ efforts to embrace new ways of doing things exhaust them. Relationships matter in the moment of the urgent and in the moment of celebration. To excel as a relationships expert in all these settings, the leader must take care of his and her own energy and wellness. They must bring the best of themselves to their work to lead with invigorating energy and inspire their community to follow them.

We Can Make a Difference

In our deepest truthful and often unspoken places, we are all vulnerable. When a marriage dissolves, a child is ill, the bills are unpaid, parents arrive, a contract decision is approaching and on and on, entering the day with a “public face” can be a difficult and some days not even possible. Each individual will in some way reveal that the inner swirl is escaping into outer actions and decisions. The leaders gather themselves in a cloak, covering and hiding to go on through the day. Haven’t we all had days like that? But, there always remains the need of the organization for the leader to be present and open hearted. So for the leader, it is more than a personal objective...leading well, being present and open hearted is necessary for the good of the order. If the leader can do this, even in these seemingly impossible times, it makes a difference. Here, a note from a teacher to a principal who was leaving to take a new job, says it all.

Thank you for all the many generous acts, which often went unnoticed because you didn’t tell anyone. Thank you for demanding excellence from everyone, because everyone “played better” in pursuit of excellence. Thank you for being such a big part of why our school has become a model school. Thank you for your friendship, which enhanced our professional relationship and made my personal life richer. And now for the words every teacher hopes to hear...I will never forget you.

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