School & District Management Opinion

Who Has the Most Important Role in the District?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 21, 2015 5 min read
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Teachers are classroom leaders. They are the ones who have the information and the skill to develop the young learners well prepared to begin their journey through life with meaningful work and responsible choices, with all the associated experiences, problems, relationships, emerging information, successes and failures. They are the ones who know the students, who discover and build on their strengths and guide students as they grow in ever deepening and expanding knowledge and skill. Hopefully, they are the listeners, the ones students confide in when they don’t understand or can’t do their work, when there is a loss or problem in their life, when they are tired, or hungry, or sick. Teachers are the ones who hold the secrets shared and tactfully maneuver as they adapt to the barriers and challenges each student brings with them to school. Teachers are the ones who engage the children every day with information, caring, skills, opportunities, and encouragement. Teachers are the ones who communicate concerns to supervisors and parents when a child is in need. Teachers are the ones who advocate.

Principals are also leaders; they lead the building. Their work is also multifaceted.

The job of a modern-day principal has transformed into something that would be almost unrecognizable to the principals of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The concept of the principal as a building manager has given way to a model where the principal is an aspirational leader, a team builder, a coach, and an agent of visionary change. (Alvoid, L. & Black Jr., W.L.)

As the expectations for students change so does the learning for teachers and their principals. As teaching practices are called upon for change and consideration, it is the principal who must learn alongside the teachers in order for him or her to be a respected partner in feedback and coaching in the informal and formal observation and evaluation process. Principals are the mediators between teachers and students, teachers and teachers, students and students, teachers and parents, and sometimes even between parents and students. They are the communication link between and among these groups as well and the school’s “face” in the community. They are the holders of culture and ritual, present day and night. If the school is forward thinking enough to have established partnerships with higher education and business, the principal must be able to engage in and nourish the partnerships, observing the advantages, identify and address difficulties, and celebrate student and staff successes. They are the leader in the middle. There are mandates from state and federal governments, but also local policies and directives from boards of education and central office. How these are communicated to faculty, staff and parents most often rests with the principal. Acceptance varies widely based on a principal’s a sigh, a shrug, or a thoughtful written or in person discussion of an issue.

Superintendents lead the system. When responding to a Brookings Institution report that questioned the effect superintendents had on students, “Superintendents may well be as important to student achievement as the popular perception, their portrayal in the media, and their salaries suggest, but there is almost no quantitative research that addresses their impact,” we wrote then and repeat now:

The superintendent leads the system. That work is done in concert and with the support of the district’s governing body. The smallest of sentences in the results of the study reveals the most important factor "...it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable.

Perhaps this is exactly as it should be. The way the system works, how it operates and how it feels flows from, or at least through, the superintendent. We suppose there are better ways to measure the elusive qualities of leadership and their impact quantitatively, but this study did not set out to do so. Teachers, the professionals with greatest proximity to the students, are held directly responsible for the achievement of their students. In a new accountability system, the principals are held responsible for the successes and failures of their teachers. But to only focus on the teachers and the principals belies the system’s impact and, accordingly, that of the superintendent. And, of course, there are boards of education who govern the system. They, too, have a role to play in creating and sustaining a system that educates and serves...all the community’s children.


The August 2015 issue of Scientific American was on the coffee table in a doctor’s office waiting room on a recent visit. It was a journal that had been long used as a source for science research projects. The cover story was “How We Conquered the Planet: Our Species Wielded The Ultimate Weapon: Cooperation.” The author, Curtis Marean, is a professor at Arizona State University and Director of its Institute of Human Origins. His research interests lead him to investigate why, among the multiple early groups of our species, it was the H. sapien whose reach spread across the globe. He has theorized that “a new social behavior evolved in our species: a genetically encoded penchant for cooperation with unrelated individuals. The joining of this unique proclivity to our ancestors’ advanced cognitive abilities enabled them to nimbly adapt to new environments. It also fostered innovation..."(p.34).

So, there it is...an insight from a simple visit to the doctor’s office. Deeply within our internal biological codes lies the answer to the question. The question “who is most important” takes one on a fool’s journey. All are important and each is essential. But there is, indeed, one thing that is most important: cooperation. None of us will succeed without the other and students will be the losers if we fail to remember what brought us this far. Yes, cooperation among us all with an eye focused in this century but a proclivity from thousands of years ago.

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success - Henry Ford

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.