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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

One to Grow On / Freed from the Box

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I was talking recently with a colleague whose specialty is school administration about how the role of the principal so often falls short of its massive potential. She nodded, paused, and then said, "I fear the system shuts principals into a box and then says, 'Now, claw your way out.'"
I think she's correct. Mushrooming mandates from local, state, and federal governments; irrational pressure to elevate test scores; single-minded special interest groups; and challenging economic conditions are a few of the wedges that push principals into increasingly smaller boxes, constricting their leadership and creativity. I'd think a long while before signing up to be a principal these days.
But many principals do fulfill their potential to make schools places of learning and caring. Their vision frees them.

The Weak, the Good, and the Golden

I've worked for and with a host of principals. A few, in my opinion, should not have signed on for their roles. They discouraged or demeaned teachers, harmed student prospects, and made schools bad places to spend time.
I've also worked for or with a much larger number of principals who worked hard to contribute to school improvement and whose influence on faculty and student growth ranged from neutral to modestly positive. Their schools were orderly; provided expected services; and attended to the array of problems that come with a territory populated by young learners, overworked teachers, and zealous or disengaged parents. Stakeholders were satisfied with these schools.
The principals I can't forget, however, are cut from a different cloth. To use a trendy education term, they're "value-added" principals. Their schools are also orderly, well administered, and trustworthy—but much more.
I think of Lee Bell, an elementary principal with whom I worked at a time when the concept of professional development was virtually nonexistent. Lee wasn't a connoisseur of emergent pedagogies, but he had a laser-sharp instinct for what benefited children. He did "action research" before that idea had a name, studying every aspect of what his teachers did as they interacted with students. He insisted on practices that had a positive payoff. Lee could be funny or abrasive (often both). But he garnered respect from his teachers, who worked hard—as did their leader—to ensure that every student in their school was on some adult's radar every minute of the day. Intensity of effort permeated Lee's school. I often thought it should be full of very tired people; it was, in fact, a generator of energy.
I think of Doris Standridge, who was my principal for a time. She was determined to create a place where adolescents wanted to be—where learning was cool and where there was a sense of optimism and promise. Doris was an exemplar of hard work. If the bathrooms were dingy, she'd clean them. If the cafeteria staff was short-handed, she'd dish up lunch. She made it evident that kids were the reason for her work and that they would never take second place in decision making.
Doris's most important instinct was to home in on teachers' strengths. She had a divining rod that spotted the promise in teachers. Doris made sure teachers knew that she saw and valued their strengths and would help them develop those assets. Her consistent question was, "How can I help you do this better?" When, on occasion, she encountered teachers who couldn't—or wouldn't—grow, she helped them understand that their lives would be richer in a job that made them happy.
I think of Richard Coleman, former principal of An Achievable Dream, a preK–9 school in Newport News, Virginia, that serves predominately low-income students of color. Defying demographic odds, students at Achievable Dream produce test scores that rival those of their more privileged peers. I never saw Richard seated! He knew every student in the school and each one's story. He understood deeply the odds against which each student struggled, and he gave his whole attention to talking with students during school transitions. He developed school routines, structures, and support systems that were absent in many students' out-of-school lives. Richard was on a mission to create opportunity where desperation should have ruled. He recruited many teachers who shared his mission and converted others. The place was a sort of education trauma center. And it was exhilarating.
I think of Joyce Stone, who became principal of a Vermont high school when it was on a steep decline. Joyce told her faculty, "We think we have a school here, but we don't. We have two schools. In one of them, students prosper and go to college. In the other, students are heading nowhere, and their prospects are bleak. We have no right to tell students they are worthwhile only if they go to college. Neither do we have the right to deny them learning opportunities necessary to pursue that option." Joyce successfully detracked the high school, and detracking requires a long trajectory of courage. It also requires transformation of teachers' beliefs, attitudes, and habits—which, in turn, requires principal leadership of the highest degree to build the teacher leadership necessary for massive change.
Joyce was in classrooms almost every day, learning with teachers how to provide a full range of students with equal access to excellence. She weathered storms of anger and resentment. Many of her teachers cried when she retired.
These people were not superhuman or perfect as principals. They were four of the many principals who actively challenge the education status quo every day. They were principle-driven; their inner compass set their direction. They operated from a vision so compelling that teachers signed on as well. They didn't work "in the box" because they could not. Their vision extricated them—and in the process freed their teachers from the box as well. May their tribe prosper!

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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