A retired principal I know described her former job as a little like being a mayor of a small town. "Everyone knew you. You knew everyone. And just like Mayor Koch, you had to keep asking everybody, 'How am I doing?'"
These days, accountability for principals has changed quite a bit—although building good relationships still may be the most essential part of the job. The 2013 MetLife Survey1
of 500 principals and 1,000 teachers on "Challenges for School Leadership" finds that 9 in 10 principals (and 74 percent of teachers) say that a principal should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in a school. Among the newer challenges the principals identified are addressing the individual needs of diverse learners, engaging the community in improving education for students, and managing school needs despite depleted budgets.
The report also notes disturbing trends: Principals' job satisfaction is declining. Almost half of principals (48 percent) report that their daily stress levels are higher than they were just five years ago. And one-third of the principals surveyed say they are likely to leave their positions in the next five years.
Commenting on the survey findings during a telephone press conference, NASSP's Mel Riddile and Achieve's Mike Cohen were not surprised about the results. Riddile identified "the big autonomy gap" as one reason for the increasing pressure. Principals are held responsible for matters they don't entirely control, he said. "Building a new culture, guiding long-term change, empowering teacher leadership, establishing student literacy across content—principals are focusing on the right things, but they often aren't adequately prepared to carry all these initiatives out. Many in the public think anybody can teach or lead. It's much more complex," he said. Mike Cohen regretted that educators are "operating in an environment of public discourse that focuses on blaming rather than honoring." The multiple demands of the day—from closing achievement gaps to preparing students for college and careers—are complicated and cannot be implemented quickly.
This issue of Educational Leadership identifies ways to meet the pressing challenges of the principalship, and it explores the most effective supports for principals. Elizabeth A. City (p. 11) begins the issue by discussing how to work with existing resources. In times of short supplies of people, time, and money, investments that create hope and energy should be the leader's focus. Hope can take root in small things—a robotics project, a writing contest—whatever helps students and teachers believe that something different is possible.
Jean Johnson (p. 16) of Public Agenda looks at the many constituencies surrounding the principal—diverse groups that all need to be transformed into pivotal allies and partners. "Progress comes when people recognize the need for change and believe that they themselves can play an essential part."
In line with these recommendations, several articles explicitly redefine the role of the principal as "leadership for learning." Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart (p. 42) describe walk-throughs that focus on what the students are learning, not whether the teacher is following a prescribed routine. And Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos (p. 34) outline steps for creating the collaborative culture and collective responsibility of a professional learning community.
Four countries that have built a comprehensive approach to attracting, recruiting, and supporting high-performing school leaders have many lessons to share, writes Vivien Stewart (p. 48). Most have invested in talent development and distributed leadership. "In the age of Twitter," Stewart notes, "the effectiveness of leaders may depend less on administrative powers and more on the capacity to attract followers…. A better image of leadership may be of leaders in the middle of a circle rather than at the top of a pyramid."
When I asked Tom Hoerr, who has been a principal in St. Louis, Missouri, for 35 years, what makes principals stay in a challenging job, he said,
The most rewarding thing, for me, is feeling that you've made a positive difference in others' lives. I have had lots of difficult times and made many mistakes, yet I live for the times when someone tells me how their life is better because I worked with them.
With kids, it's often easier. The growth is obvious and they come back, years later, to talk about how their time at my school changed their life. But some teachers, too, will share how they see the world a bit differently or how they took a risk and succeeded, and thank me.
It's a hard, taxing, and a frustrating job, but I love it.
Here's to hoping that all of you out there in the principalship will get thanked today—and stay on the job.