Teaching Commentary

Caught Between Nostalgia And Utopia

By Sheryl Boris-schacter & Sondra Langer — February 06, 2002 8 min read
Every time we rigidly define the model of the principalship, we confine who fills the role.

Two of our graduate students, both aspiring principals, asked us whether they could be effective school leaders and have satisfying personal lives. We briefly considered long-winded professorial responses that would skillfully address the issue and leave them both hopeful. Instead, we said no. Our bluntness surprised even us, but the evidence was too overwhelming to characterize any other reply as responsible and honest. The juggling of work and family is becoming increasingly difficult for working women and men in America, a problem felt keenly by school principals.

As is true with many professions originally reserved almost exclusively for white men, the principalship is still identified with mid-20th-century male work models. The premises governing this attitude toward the position include the outdated notion of a partner, usually female and unemployed outside the home, who brings the clothes to the dry cleaner and prepares dinner for the homecoming of an omniscient, male leader. Fortunately, social reconstruction and educational reform challenge these assumptions. Therefore, the model of one tireless, constantly available leader to one school building is no longer tenable. Educators were then left with the question, if the old model is not viable, then what should the new one be?

Today the principal is more likely than ever before to be a woman and/or a person of color, although white men remain overrepresented. The American principal is also working longer hours, is being held accountable for student achievement on high-stakes tests, and is usually on a one-year contract without union protection. Moreover, the pay differential between the principal and the experienced teachers in the building is often minuscule. All this leads to a well-documented national crisis in the principalship. A relatively small number of qualified candidates are pursuing a mounting number of vacancies. What we have learned in education about making substantive change must now be applied to our thinking about school leadership. We must replace tinkering with best practices and audacity.

We have spent the last 18 months interviewing and surveying hundreds of principals from across the United States. We asked them about persistence, about life balance, about careers and families, about imagination, and about possibility. Their stories revealed struggles, triumphs, and failures in time management, workload, and personal lives. They also shared ideas for changing the role of principal to make it more manageable, more gratifying, and more doable over time. If we add up these principals’ time in the job, their suggestions are based on thousands of years of experience. They offer sage advice for managing the existing positions and for thinking about alternative models for school leadership.

We assume that the reconceptualization of the principalship and the introduction of alternative models can contribute to increased recruitment and retention. There have been numerous efforts to redefine the list of desirable traits that principals need and ways to improve their preparation to increase their success. Likewise, reports have made appeals for increased salaries, more focused duties, improved public relations, and shared leadership. We have become more sophisticated in our understanding of the relationships among leadership, power, and privilege. Still, the expectations of the principal, the definition of the role, and the organizational structure of schools go virtually unchallenged.

The model of one tireless, constantly available leader to one school building is no longer tenable. But then, if the old model is not viable, what should the new one be?

Patterns emerged from our data confirming that there is no one best way to be a principal or to administer a school. Most of us have known this for a very long time, yet we still behave as though an ideal model exists. People’s needs, as well as organizations’ needs, are complex and therefore require an array of possible responses. We found, for example, that individual circumstance affected the principalship, as did gender, a person’s stage in life, and whether or not someone was responsible for a partner, a parent, or children. New principals are less able to manage their workloads and balance their personal obligations at a time when both are at peak demand. These patterns make a compelling argument for multiple and flexible principal models.

The principals reported a disjunction between their actual work and what everyone perceives their work to be. Although reform efforts have overhauled many of the ways in which we think about the role of the principal, they have rarely provided the resources for change. Instead, the principal is stuck between the nostalgia of the parents and the utopia of the researchers and reformers.

Regardless of their schools’ geographic regions, levels, size, or socioeconomic status, the principals overwhelmingly identified similar obstacles to their professional effectiveness and satisfaction:

  • Staff evaluation is too time-consuming, albeit central to school improvement.
  • Work responsibilities infringe upon personal lives.
  • Personal life defines professional boundaries.
  • Roles, responsibilities, and number of hours spent working increase yearly.
  • Gender issues endure in the principalship.
  • Life circumstance and professional experience affect the concept of balance.
  • The community’s vision of the principal is bound by tradition, thus making it difficult for flexible models to be developed.
  • Too much time is spent on managerial tasks and paperwork, and too little on instructional leadership and professional development.

The principals named several successful strategies they employed for meeting the challenges while maintaining at least a modicum of balance in their lives. Broadly defined, these coping mechanisms involve workload sharing, emotional sharing, personal nurturance, and purposeful structuring of time and work. They include the following:

  • Scheduled and structured classroom visitations.

  • Evaluations that involve personnel in addition to, or in lieu of, the principal.

  • Time for spirituality, reflection, and personal nurturing.

  • Increased teacher responsibility for what are traditionally thought of as principal/assistant principal tasks, such as attending football games and giving feedback to staff members.

  • Structured and protected time for working at home.

  • Structured time for pursuing personal interests, knowledge that invariably returns to the school in the form of skills and personal renewal.

  • Sharing burdens of leadership with personal partners and professional colleagues, including forming principal groups.

  • Working with parents to review community expectations that restrict the role.

Every time we rigidly define the model, we confine who fills the role. For example, if we insist that the principalship be vested in a single individual, then there is no possibility of a shared position. Similarly, if we continue expecting principals to be present at all school functions, then it is difficult to attract qualified candidates committed to both family life and the profession.

This has left us with a limited vision and equally limited success. Instead, we must allow for a variety of possibilities in any given school, over time. Sometimes and in some places, a particular model might suit in perpetuity, but in most circumstances we must be prepared to respond flexibly and think creatively if we want to attract and retain talented educators in leadership positions.

The principals we spoke with described such models, as they imagined them and from their personal experiences. In fact, there are schools engaged in some version of every one of the models they named. But more frequently, there are schools in America stuck in old paradigms with outdated images.

We should start actively modifying the principal's working conditions and questioning the field's enduring assumptions if we are to encourage new models and new practitioners.

We all know gifted teachers who refuse to take on administrative roles because that would mean a permanent departure from the classrooms they love. We also know wonderful principals who move into the central office because it is understood to be a natural career progression, not their heart’s desire. And what about the teacher who must choose between starting a family and becoming an assistant principal, or the principal whose children enter adolescence and demand more of his time?

For each of these scenarios, and for so many more, the practitioners we spoke with offered new ways to think about how the principalship could be structured. They suggested, for example, these options:

  • A co-principalship in which either all tasks are evenly divided, or there is a principal for instruction and a principal for management. Each principal can be on site every day, or the week can be divided.
  • A rotating principalship in which a classroom teacher takes on (and tries on) the principalship for a specified period of time, while the principal returns to the classroom, teaches in higher education, or conducts educational research.
  • Distributed leadership, a scenario in which some administrative tasks are divided among many members of a leadership team or across the teaching staff in general.
  • Professional-development opportunities for the principal that are built into the workweek. These include school visitations, meetings with community-based groups, and attendance at principal-support groups. Principals from other schools and communities may “swap” schools for a period of time.

There is much here that many have thought of, but little here that many are doing. We urge policymakers and school governing boards to consider the ideas put forward by practicing principals as the clearest path to addressing the current shortage.

We should stop wringing our hands and start actively modifying the principal’s working conditions and questioning the field’s enduring assumptions if we are to encourage new models and new practitioners.

Sheryl Boris-Schacter and Sondra Langer are professors of educational leadership at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. This article is based on data collected for a forthcoming book.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Caught Between Nostalgia And Utopia


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