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April 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 7

Reader's Guide / A Time for Principal Empowerment

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The theme of this issue of Educational Leadership—"The Empowered Principal"—was sketched out before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered school buildings last spring. But it feels appropriate to have an entire issue devoted to principals as we head into the final months of this challenging school year.
This pandemic year has significantly expanded principals' responsibilities and importance in school communities. As the Center for Policy Research in Education has noted in a series of research briefs, principals have taken on new roles as community caregivers, student and staff advocates, and resource connectors. They have also had to manage multiple layers of uncertainty, while frequently shouldering the blame for factors beyond their control. Many principals have found it difficult to pull away from work, including—or perhaps especially—on nights and weekends.
Principals will also play a central role in schools' recovery from this period. It will be up to them, in large part, to determine learning priorities, foster instructional changes, sustain and rebuild school cultures and infrastructures, and find ways to root out systemic inequities. It's not a stretch to say that this will likely be one of the greatest school leadership challenges of our era.
Appropriately, this issue is designed to provide tools, resources, and ideas to help principals feel and be more empowered to lead change in their schools. While it focuses on principals, it is also relevant to other school leaders and those in district roles who support principals.
The articles in the issue could be grouped in different ways, but I've found they break down nicely along three areas of empowerment (with some overlap): Strategic, Interpersonal, and Self-Inquiry. As you read, you might ask yourself how well these different areas are accounted for in your leadership-development efforts.
Strategic. Several articles focus on ways to make better use of strategic tools or resources that are commonly at school leaders' disposal, but are often over-routinized. For example, Robyn Jackson offers tips on crafting school vision statements that go beyond platitudes and possess the specificity and authenticity to guide meaningful change. Likewise, Coby V. Meyers and Bryan A. VanGronigen outline a back-to-basics approach to putting more teeth—and depth—into school improvement plans. Now especially, school strategic planning has to be seen as "more than bureaucracy."
Interpersonal. As this year has confirmed, relationship building and communication are at the heart of principals' work. These areas can also come under strain when schools face challenges or embark on new initiatives. In their piece, Robert Feirsen and Seth Weitzman discuss the importance of developing "conflict agility"—the ability to honor and build on dissension rather than be stymied by it. Similarly, former principal Sanée Bell offers guidance on gathering and responding constructively to feedback from staff. Handled in the right way, feedback can be "a launching point for growth," both personal and schoolwide.
Self-Inquiry. As leaders of complex organizations facing many challenges, principals must also take time to gain a greater understanding of their own blind spots and needs. Mark Anthony Gooden writes movingly on the power of racial autobiographies to help principals broaden their perspectives and deepen their "why" around equity-centered leadership. However, inquiry work does not have to be undertaken independently. In their article, Soraya Sablo Sutton and Nate Gong highlight the workings of a small-scale support network designed to help school leaders build "collective resilience."
As these and other articles show, true principal empowerment has many layers.

Reflect & Discuss

"The Most Powerful Tool in a Principal's Arsenal" by Robyn Jackson

➛ If your school has a vision statement, does this statement reflect what you are passionate about making happen for your students? What are you personally committed to for your school that isn't explicitly in this statement?

➛ If you, as principal, were to create your vision statement for your school, what would it be? What actions might follow from this statement?

➛ In your view, why are school vision statements often vague or limited?

"Constructive Conflict" by Robert Feirsen and Seth Weitzman

➛ Which of the three "A's" do you find yourself using most when faced with conflict? How do you know?

➛ How would you rate your own capacity for "conflict agility"? How would making improvements in this area change your impact as a leader?

➛ What questions or discussion tactics might you use to keep an open mind when talking with someone who disagrees with you?

➛ Are you ready to commit to writing a racial autobiography? Outline the steps required to get started.

➛ Why do you think educators are often apprehensive about writing racial autobiographies?

"Growing Principals into Strategic Talent Leaders" by Amy Holcombe, Shannon Brown Peeples, and Tina Johnson

➛ Principals: Do you think of yourself as a "talent manager"? How might you be more strategic in how you recruit and "grow" great teachers?

➛ Teachers: Has your principal reached out to point you to new challenges and encourage your growth? How would you like to be encouraged professionally?

"The Best-Laid Plans Can Succeed" by Coby V. Meyers and Bryan A. VanGronigen

➛ What are the differences between short-cycle plans and traditional plans? What are some benefits and challenges of each?

➛ Of the five fundamentals of improvement planning—driving purposes, root cause analysis, action steps, measurement, and alignment—which is the hardest to implement and why? What advice from the authors might help ease that challenge?

➛ Do you consider your current improvement planning empowering? How could it be better?

➛ Do you regularly ask staff for feedback on your leadership? If so, do you always act on it?

➛ What could you do to help teachers feel more comfortable providing honest feedback?

➛ How could categorizing feedback into "behavioral" and "process" buckets help you better organize the feedback you receive?

End Notes

1 CPRE. (2020–2021). Leading in crises. Retrieved from:

Anthony Rebora is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership.

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