Do your teachers trust you? Do your teachers think you have the skills to help them get better at instruction? Do they know that if a parent complains about them, you will handle the situation fairly? Are you and your teachers on the same page when it comes to student discipline?
Most of you would probably answer yes to all these questions. But your teachers, it turns out, have a more critical take.
In a nationally representative survey, the Education Week Research Center asked principals to size up themselves. Although one or two of the questions ask principals how they think teachers view them, most questions ask how principals view themselves. Using the same questions, the research center asked teachers to tell us how they see their principals.
The dueling viewpoints are striking.
While teachers and principals agree it’s important to have positive working relationships with one another, their points of view dramatically diverge on the more specific aspects of how they relate. For example, 69 percent of principals say that they “completely agree” that teachers at their school feel empowered to bring problems to them. But just 25 percent of teachers say the same.
Principals give themselves high marks for how they impact their school’s working and learning conditions—77 percent say they make a “completely positive” contribution to the environment, while 23 percent say they make a “somewhat positive” contribution. For teachers though, just 37 percent believe their principals make a “completely positive” impact on the school environment, while a combined 30 percent say their principals make either a “somewhat negative” or “completely negative” contribution.
So what might explain the gap in perception in a relationship as important as this?
“Part of it is that teachers’ assessments of conditions in their school are closely wrapped up in job satisfaction and the perceptions of their work more generally,” said Jason Grissom, an education professor at Vanderbilt University who studies school leadership. “I suspect they implicitly hold leaders accountable for their more general feelings of job stress,” in part because principals nowadays play such a broad role in schools as the instructional leader.
The sentiments may simply reflect the common tensions between bosses and employees across industries, but the evidence is pretty clear that a school that doesn’t have a trusted and respected leader is not going to thrive academically or otherwise.
But the responsibility for productive principal-teacher relationships can’t be shouldered by one party. For starters, sheer numbers make the principal’s side of this relationship more labor-intensive. There’s one principal. And, in most schools, dozens of teachers. And principals’ jobs are so complex—with demands and pressures coming from many directions. That can make them feel like teachers hold them responsible for things they may have little control over, Grissom says.
As the nature and demands of the principal’s job have rapidly evolved, the relationships they build and nurture with teachers are arguably the most essential element of their own success and that of their school. It’s a big—and critical—commitment.
While our survey results don’t capture the nuanced, day-to-day nurturing that many principals invest in their teachers, they do represent a big-picture view of the principal-teacher dynamic, that, at the very least, show that principals need to find ways to get a good—and more objective—read on how their teachers actually see them.
Said Grissom: “These gaps are important to pay attention to. How principals perceive themselves day-to-day, versus how their teachers experience their leadership. Principals need that self reflection.”
There’s just too much at stake if they don’t.
Lesli A. Maxwell
Executive Project Editor
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as Editor’s Note: Dear Principals