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March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

The Principal Connection / Curing the Healthy

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Take these pills every morning," my physician said. "They will probably make you sleepy or nauseous and might give you a headache."
I hadn't been feeling well, and the doctor had identified a problem that needed to be solved. I wasn't looking forward to feeling tired or nauseous, but I promptly filled the prescription and began to take the medicine.
"My faculty is so resistant to change," a principal complained to me later that same day. She was frustrated because some of her teachers' instructional strategies ignored students' needs. Yet teachers received all her wonderful recommendations with apathy or outright resistance.
"Do the teachers agree with your assessment?" I asked. There was a long pause, and then she said, "Well, no."

Why the "Healthy" Won't Take Medicine

I couldn't help contrasting these two situations. I was willing to follow my doctor's orders, even though doing so would temporarily cause me discomfort. But my colleague couldn't get her teachers to even listen to her recommendations, much less implement them, even though students stood to benefit. The difference in these responses stems from a difference in readiness levels, the differing degrees to which the teachers and I were ready to hear that something was wrong and acknowledge that change was needed.
I knew that I had a problem, so I trusted my doctor's judgment even though it would cause me some discomfort. Some of the teachers didn't perceive that they had a problem. From their perspective, they were educationally healthy, so why take the principal's medicine?
This sort of resistance confronts many leaders. It's hard to get people to accept a difficult road toward change if they don't think that change is needed. This is especially so in education, where "the bottom line" can be difficult to identify and measure.
Principals often fail to realize that it's not enough to identify a problem and present a course of action, even though the problem may be real and the prescription apt. Giving faculty a prepackaged solution is wrong even if that solution is right. Instead, we need to take a broader view. The first step in solving a problem is to get agreement that there is a problem. After we have worked with faculty to name the problem, we can collaborate with them to determine a solution.
The ultimate solution may be similar to what a good principal could have devised by working alone, but that's not the point. The point is not to craft a strategy that just looks good on paper, but to create a solution that everyone will endorse and act on. Few of the complex problems facing school leaders can be solved by leaders working alone.

Toward Lasting Solutions

Too often, we forget a key truth about adult learners. The same principles that apply to how students learn also apply to how adults learn. Students learn best when they are motivated, when the learning task is just a bit beyond their comfort level, and when they can construct meaning as they go. Just like good student learning, the best adult learning is experiential and meaningful. It can also be inefficient and messy. But even though it takes longer to arrive at a solution through such a learning process, that solution is more likely to be understood, effective, and lasting.
My principal friend had not taken this route. Instead, she had identified the problem, analyzed the situation, and created a plan—then presented it to her faculty members and expected them to implement it. It's possible that her analysis and recommendations were on target and that students would have benefited if the faculty had followed her lead. But that wasn't likely to happen. By solving the problem for—rather than with—the faculty, she made it her problem alone.
It's hard to take the time to involve all faculty members and to accept solutions that aren't exactly what we had in mind. It's difficult to listen to ideas that you just know will never work. And it's scary to rely on the judgment of the group to choose the wisest course. But if our goal is a school in which everyone is a learner, then our path is clear—even when that path is messy. When principals take the time to listen to and involve everyone, that investment will yield powerful benefits.
Health update: I'm finished with the pills now and feeling pretty good. And I'm following my doctor's advice to hit the gym!

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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