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Spring 2015 | Volume 21 | Number 1
Principal Leadership: Focus on Professional Development
Mark Estrada taped a picture of his school's goals next to the light switch in his office so that he's constantly reminded of what's important.
"It's one of those little things you do to stay focused on the task at hand," says Estrada, principal of the 1,175-student Lockhart Junior High School in Texas. "Every time we have staff meetings or get groups together, we always take time out to discuss our goals. It's a constant … reminding yourself of what you're here for."
Estrada, an ASCD Emerging Leader, is serving his first year as Lockhart's principal after two years in the same position at Plum Creek Elementary, one of the junior high's feeder schools. Like many who are relatively new to administration, he's learning on the job what works and what doesn't.
Estrada and others have discovered that the days of leadership by decree are gone. Today, successful principals collaborate, communicate, and share responsibility with their teachers and staff. They understand the job has evolved to one that puts instructional leadership first, even when the mundane, though equally important, day-to-day administrative demands threaten to interfere.
"When I was in my graduate program, I was in training for a job that didn't exist yet," he says. "What I've learned, as a school leader, is that a lot of work has to be done before people can just start collaborating. I made a mistake in my first principalship by assuming that people would just want to work together, and that was a nightmare. You have to lead them to get to that point."
Still relatively new in the K–12 world, this flat leadership model brings with it a host of benefits and challenges. The vast majority of principals were teachers at some point, and many welcome the opportunity to address student learning through the development of professional learning communities (PLCs). At the same time, they worry about the increased potential for burnout and the challenges of developing a pipeline of leaders who eventually will consider building-level administration as an attractive and viable career option.
"If you look at [the principal's job] as a plate of food, instructional leadership is the new main course," says Pete Hall, an author and education consultant who was a principal for 12 years in Reno, Nev., and Spokane, Wash. "It's the filet, the tender, delicious filet. And it's the work that should be driving decision making for principals at every level, from making budget allocations to the teacher sciences to professional development."
What has the biggest influence on a student's success? In the post-No Child Left Behind world, where schools now dissect, disaggregate, and use data to improve instruction for all groups of students, high-quality teaching has emerged as the overwhelming answer. But quality teaching demands effective principal leadership, especially in schools with the greatest needs, and especially as districts transition to the Common Core State Standards.
Indeed, as ASCD's 2012 report, Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core, noted,
Until now, principals have been the overlooked constituency as states have sought to gain acceptance of the standards from rank-and-file classroom teachers while simultaneously working with district-level leaders to create systemic supports and reforms aligned to the standards. However, principals and related administrators hold the power to leverage the Common Core State Standards in schools: they are the linchpins in either delivering or facilitating the delivery of resources and supports to classroom teachers. One of the most pressing needs is to provide powerful resources and professional development to school building leaders. (p. 34)
The report identified several key responsibilities school leaders have to undertake: become the instructional leader, instill a culture of learning, share and collaborate with their peers at other sites, and serve as the information clearinghouse for the entire school community.
The Wallace Foundation, which has been researching school leadership for more than a decade, called principals "the central source of leadership influence" in its 2012 report, The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning (p. 6). The report noted that the most effective principals perform five key practices well: shaping a vision of academic success for all students; creating a hospitable climate; cultivating leadership in others; improving instruction; and managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement.
"The principalship has moved to a 'guide on the side' instead of a 'sage on the stage,' and the ones who are the most successful are really modeling what a good classroom looks like," says Susan Race, senior director of ASCD's Professional Learning and Institutes and a former principal. "It's about having good people and allowing them to do their jobs, facilitating their work, and providing assistance when they need it."
Making this leadership shift, however, requires time and training. Professional development in the educational community should focus on more than training teachers: it should also help principals and other building-level administrators gain the tools necessary to be successful. In its 2015 legislative agenda, ASCD seeks a "robust federal investment in time and resources" to provide ongoing professional development for teachers and school leaders.
"All educators should receive a stair-stepped induction into the profession, time to reflect and refine their practice, and personalized professional development that recognizes their strengths and enhances their growth," ASCD's recommendations state.
For example, to successfully implement the Common Core, Race says principals must know how the standards will affect instruction in their schools, be prepared to support the staff in making changes, and ensure that instruction and teacher evaluation are properly aligned. Ongoing communication with staff, students, and parents about the standards and their effect on the school also is critical.
Amanda Britt, now in her fourth year as principal at Arkansas' Cotter High School, started her career as a teacher in Paris, Ark., about three hours away. There, she worked with an "awesome principal" who built an "environment where we collaborated, communicated, and learned to love to be together.
"We trusted each other. They were my closest friends, and I think they would say the same thing," says Britt, also an ASCD Emerging Leader. "I was part of the leadership team, working on the school improvement plan, helping to improve parent involvement. When I came here, I realized that I needed to do the same thing, but I had to learn how to become a trusting leader. Building the leadership capacity and trust with other staff members in the school is of the utmost importance."
Jayne Ellspermann has been a principal for 24 years in Marion County, Fla., first at a large middle school, then at a combined middle and high school, and for the past decade at the 2,600-student West Port High. To her, school leadership "is about empowerment."
"It is so important to see your role as part of a team," says Ellspermann, who was named 2015 National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "You are constantly working with other people to maximize their potential so that you can offer the very best to your school community. It's important that you help everyone in the school community see how a decision is made and how it will impact them before you implement it."
Ellspermann says she asks herself two questions almost daily: "What am I doing and what are we doing to foster student achievement so they can be the best? What can I do to support teachers so they can be successful?"
That focus on communication, empowerment, and collaboration has helped West Port, one of Florida's largest high schools, overcome significant economic challenges to be one of the highest performing in the state. It has three magnet schools on its campus, one for the visual and performing arts, one for students interested in medical careers, and a dual enrollment program with a local community college. In 2014, more than 10 percent of West Port's graduating class received associate's degrees along with their high school diplomas.
"All along, I think really good principals have seen that their primary responsibility is ensuring they have good instruction [in the classroom], and that student achievement is the most important thing they can accomplish," she says. "Sure, you are hiring people, managing the budget, making sure the campus is maintained, getting the buses here on time, and taking the time to have the right cafeteria management and support. But you have to be focused first and foremost on student learning."
Eric Townsley, an ASCD Emerging Leader and principal at South Tama County Middle School in Toledo, Iowa, says collaboration is "vital for student success." Like many leaders, he has implemented PLCs at his school, which has 300 students in grades 5–8.
Even though Townsley tries to make time to be in classrooms each week, he says PLCs are critical for principals who want to be considered excellent leaders.
"The principal must be a leader of learning," he says. "Although my focus may not always be in instructional leadership, it is an important part of my role. I have also had to relinquish control. I have created trusting relationships with staff and support them in their leadership."
Marc Cohen, now in his 16th year as a school administrator and ninth as a principal, says effective school leadership helps "create a clearer vision for the possibilities that the school, the teacher, and the student in the classroom can reach." As a principal, he says, leadership is "about hiring the right people to give the best to the kids, about being willing to make the difficult decision and stick to the courage of your convictions to help the leadership team or staff do what's right.
"There are very few rooms where I'm the expert," says Cohen, principal of the 1,300-student Seneca Valley High School in Montgomery County, Md. "I can assemble good teams to work with, be well informed about the work I have to do, be trusting in the ability of my team to do it, be willing to be wrong, and be willing to accept other people's way of doing things. But I also have to be relentless in the level of accountability and standards that I hold students, staff, and myself to. That's what it takes now."
While the basic tenets of leadership are the same, the principal's role can vary greatly depending on a school's size, demographics, and available administrative support. Training for principals once they get the job—or the lack thereof—also is a factor.
"For a tremendous majority of the principals in the field, they're given the keys and told, 'Good luck,'" Hall says. "That's what I was told in my first principalship."
Britt became principal at Cotter, a 300-student school for grades 7–12 located about 30 minutes south of the Missouri border, as she started work on her educational specialist certification. Although she appreciated learning about the theories and thinking behind the work that administrators do, she says her program lacked the hands-on training she needed.
"The best training we could possibly have is centered around practical leadership," Britt says. "I made the mistake at first of trying to take everything off my teachers' backs, and then it all got piled on my back. I had to learn on the job that we all need to play a part in it to be successful."
Olympia Williams, principal at Ohio Avenue Elementary School in Columbus, says principals should receive training "in people skills and instructional leadership" because motivating adults can be difficult.
"The job of the principal is to deal with adults mostly," Williams says. "When you come right out of the classroom, you are used to dealing with children and it is a whole new ball game when you deal with adults. Your staff has to know that you care [and are willing to empower them] in order for you to convince them to change their practice."
And yet, with all this high-level, motivational focus, principals spend most their time managing the quotidian, in-the-trenches duties of the job. Britt, the only administrator at her school, says student discipline issues often consume her days.
"Finding a way to juggle everything is a huge struggle at times, and I'm always wishing I could just add five more hours to my day," she says. "I feel I let my teachers down because I'm not in the classrooms giving feedback as much as I would like. Discipline takes a huge, huge portion of my time. It wears on you. It really does, and it can burn someone out very quickly."
Cohen, who won ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award in 2009, says the profession has evolved greatly in the wake of high-stakes testing. He has seen principals who "have been forced to become only managers, paper pushers who are prepping for the test, test, test.
"High-stakes testing has had a significant influence on how I lead," he says. "What it did for us was force us to focus in on subgroups of students through formative assessments, first-time instruction, and reteaching instruction. As the principal, I'm now more focused on specific learning measured over a certain period of time. I certainly know the kids better than I did 10 years ago."
At the same time, he and others say the principal's job is a grueling one.
"It could easily be a seven days and six nights a week job if you let it," he says. "I've watched central office and school-based lead positions slashed across the country in the interest of lowering class size, and it's going to get to the point where the principal is asked to do so much that you can't do it nearly as well as you'd like. If that's not addressed in the next couple of years, I think you're going to continue to see a principal shortage and a dearth of people who want this job or can do this job well."
Hall left his building-level position in 2014 after writing a book, Building Teacher Capacity, which he is using to train principals on how to collaborate with and empower teachers. He is working with ASCD on its Principal Leadership Development Framework. (For more information about this framework, see the sidebar, "New Standards for Education Leaders")
"It outlines the education leadership aspect of the principalship through the lenses of the principal, the assistant principal, or an aspiring principal, and gives principals the tools they need to make sure administrators are in the right buildings and receiving the correct support," he says. "There's not a good model out there of support, either in principal development or evaluation, so this is a good opportunity to make a difference."
Ask any principal why they moved into the profession, and they will tell you the same thing: the work gives you an opportunity to make a difference.
Estrada says the small daily victories, which result from the focus he and his staff place on meeting Lockhardt's goals, make the long hours and pressure associated with his job worth it.
"What I like the most is working with kids, parents, and teachers, seeing them engaged and being successful at any number of things, whether that's the robotic team or honor society, athletics or choir," Estrada says. "If a student improves on his grade, or the teacher tells me about a good day they had in class using a new instructional strategy that worked, those are the conversations that drive me. That's what's fun about the job, those daily wins you get to see."
ASCD. (2012). Fulfilling the promise of the Common Core State Standards: Moving from adoption to implementation to sustainability. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from: http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/commoncore/CCSSSummitReport.pdf
The Wallace Foundation. (2013, January). The school principal as leader: Guiding schools to better teaching and learning. New York, NY: The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/school-leadership/effective-principal-leadership/Pages/The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.aspx
Glenn Cook is a freelance writer and photographer based in Lorton, Va. He is the former executive editor of the American School Board Journal.
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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