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April 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 7
Unreasonable district mandates … budget cuts … competing time demands … lack of student equity and access. To fight and win the many battles of the principalship, you can't go it alone.
No silver bullet, no set of practices, no list of essentials can make you a great principal. We each need to find our own way and our own style of leadership. Yet in my 28 years as a principal, I have learned a few things worthy of further exploration. Perhaps these reflections can be helpful to those who are eager to embark on a lifelong career as a school leader.
I entered the principalship after eight years of teaching. As a teacher, even though I worked with a team of other educators, the instructional decisions I made were mine alone. When I became a principal, decision making took on a more collaborative and collective flavor. I learned quickly that my energy and focus had to transfer to adults. Here are two approaches that have helped me engage in collaborative leadership with other educators in my school.
Consider a few familiar refrains:
How many of us work to the point of exhaustion but still feel that we see little progress? How many of us want our job to be about teaching and learning but find ourselves continually pressured and overwhelmed by the operational sides of the work?
The coprincipalship model offers one way to change the paradigm. Over the years, I have had successful coprincipalships with two different individuals. I learned early on that two heads are better than one.
In a balanced relationship with my coprincipals, I was able to both mitigate and share some of the frustration and anguish principals face on a daily basis. For example, my coprincipal and I could exchange teachers on our supervision and evaluation dockets to ensure that we were well matched with the teachers we supervised. We took turns attending district meetings as well as the many wonderful but time-consuming student events at our school. We worked together to find solutions to handling the many e-mails and phone messages we received, including helping each other block out time that was dedicated to the work we actually wanted to do at school. Each year, we learned to communicate better and better.
A coprincipal model turns much of what we know about leadership on its head. One of the first questions people usually ask is, Which principal is really in charge? In both of my coprincipalships, the answer was, both of us. We shared all decisions, but each of us specialized in certain areas. I was the primary detail person and focused on budget and facilities; my coprincipal handled student support and issues of health and wellness. This didn't mean that my coprincipal was oblivious to calendar and schedule issues, but simply that she was better suited to assume primary responsibility for student discipline. The crucial factor is not how the responsibilities and tasks are divided, but the fact that this division of roles clearly communicated to all stakeholders.
Another common question: Which principal is responsible in a crisis? Doesn't it take too long to make decisions? In my experience, this was never an issue: In a crisis, the two of us would talk and make a decision together, although one would often take the lead.
Some schools have redesigned the role of the principal by hiring a chief operating officer so that the principal can concentrate on teaching and learning. In such a model, however, all the managerial and operational issues go into the hands of someone else. I wouldn't want to give up the work with fund-raising or board development. In both of my coprincipalships, I appreciated how we worked with our school board as a twosome.
I also appreciated that in each of my coprincipal experiences, we benefitted from our differences of gender, race, and class. The opportunity to work closely with someone from a different background enriched the way both of us confronted and solved problems. We had many discussions about how our perspectives were grounded in our respective socioeconomic upbringings and experiences. Our differences strengthened our ability to work together successfully. To make the coprincipalship work, the two individuals need to have a special relationship. They must build the trust it takes to disagree but then to come back the next day ready to colead.
Many schools and districts would benefit from having two school leaders. When two people weigh in to reach decisions, it makes for smarter, more thoughtful problem solving that avoids knee-jerk reactions. When I did a Venn diagram showing the individual roles and responsibilities of my coprincipal and myself, the section in which our roles overlapped was usually where the organization made most of its progress.
As school leaders, we're often inclined to come up with the answers. We have the big picture. We know what new initiatives the school can afford.
But I've learned that when I try to impose what I think is the "right" answer, I lose in multiple ways. I lose the opportunity for new ideas and approaches to surface. I also lose faculty buy-in. When teachers are not involved in that which affects them most directly—decisions about curriculum, schedule, and students—they become less committed to school improvement and retreat to their classrooms, where they are in control.
A healthy faculty knows how to keep mission, vision, and students at the core of all discussions while continuing to work at solving seemingly intractable problems. A healthy leadership team, of which the principal is an important part, knows how to create that healthy faculty.
The way principals construct their leadership teams is crucial to overall success. Our team is comprised of representatives from all facets of the school community: student support, family engagement, and elected representatives from all arts and academic departments. We meet weekly after school for one and a half hours, and we always have a written agenda with notes that make it clear whether we are discussing an issue or making a decision. We remind one another each week about our overarching school goals and how our discussions and decisions continually need to improve the overall successes of students, teachers, and families.
The meeting is facilitated by either the arts dean or the academic dean, and all faculty members know that the meeting is open if they wish to attend. Often, it is the job of elected representatives to return to their constituent groups to vet an issue or get more feedback. Ideally, we want to achieve consensus on decisions, but sometimes a two-thirds vote will suffice. Most important, everyone knows that at some point they will serve on the leadership team.
One of the most difficult discussions our leadership team faces each year involves the school schedule. The schedule represents the way we allocate two of our most precious resources—time and people. Each year, we begin with an affirmation of our school's mission and vision, and then we examine what new factors might call for changes in the schedule.
For example, we examine our college persistence rates and ask how these compare with those of similar high schools. Do we need to alter our schedule to pay more attention to college preparation? Or do we need a schedule that provides more support for students who are falling behind? Or, in light of the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) curriculum that we adopted a few years ago, we ask, Does our schedule allow for enough interdisciplinary study?
Each proposal for change in the schedule is aimed at trying to solve a particular problem, and we know that we need time to discuss, consider, and then make decisions. Although it's an arduous process, I am proud that our school has had 13 different schedules in 15 years.
Another area in which my leadership team has been invaluable is the school budget. More than once I have had to face devastating budget cuts at my school, but through the steadfast work of my leadership team, which also represented many teachers, we found ways to manage those cuts and do the least damage possible.
Even at a time of increasing policy mandates that put testing before teaching and learning, I have found ways to make wonderful things happen for teachers, students, and their families. However, the joy and satisfaction I've experienced on most days has often been paired with feelings of rage at the unequal playing field that exists for so many of my students.
Anger at the lack of equity and access has also fueled me to fight for better outcomes for my students. How was it possible that one of my brightest and most dedicated students, by virtue of being undocumented, would be denied college access unless we could find a full scholarship from a private college? And how could district and state policies threaten our school's excellent humanities curriculum by imposing new curriculum mandates targeted at ensuring that students passed high-stakes history tests? I needed to organize teachers and students to convince the state that what we taught was more rigorous and more relevant for our students than any standardized curriculum.
So many things make us want to throw up our hands in frustration. Just when a school achieves some rhythm with professional development, the district will without fail introduce a new priority, usually because of politics. Don't misunderstand me—these initiatives are never bad at face value. Who can be against workshops about bullying or training for all teachers on how to best serve English language learners? But as a school leader, my job is to lead the development of a five-year strategic plan and then vigorously insist that we cannot carry out every district mandate.
For some reason, school district bureaucracies do not seem to be set up for collaboration, but rather for confrontation. That's the debilitating part of the work. Why should classrooms be so hot that teachers have to purchase fans with their own money? Why must I make choices between cutting the library budget and the security budget? How do I find the balance and energy to keep fighting the large and small battles while I keep my eyes on larger vision and mission issues?
My answer to colleagues about the constant battling is, You have to learn to love the fight. You have to fight a little bit every day and not let it destroy you.
I have learned the importance of balancing rage and joy. Rage, although it is a powerful motivator, can eat you up and leave you empty. On my worst days, I would make sure to reenergize my joy by finding a way to get into a classroom to see kids engaged.
What has brought me back year after year? When asked what I love most about my job, I don't skip a beat: making it possible for teachers to create curriculum that engages students; helping my teachers teach their best; and making sure that my faculty knows how to agree to disagree—to have hard conversations and then move on when a decision has been reached. My satisfaction is the knowledge that I had some small role in these victories.
Most of my fellow principals likely would agree. If you keep your teachers, your students, and their families at the center of your work, the challenges become more manageable. Once you figure out how to involve teachers, students, families, and community members—as well as a network of like-minded principals, with their school communities—in fighting with you, you can stave off unreasonable district mandates and continue the business of running your school. In fact, that is the only way to win.
Here are some of the most important things my network of colleagues, teachers, students, and families have taught me over the years:
Linda Nathan is the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy and executive director of the Center for Arts in Education in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the author of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School (Beacon Press, 2010). Watch a video about Linda Nathan's career as a school leader and a video about the Boston Arts Academy.
Copyright © 2013 by ASCD
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