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March 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 6

The Principal Connection / Reaching Common Ground

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      It's not easy being principal. Regardless of the quality of our schools, the strengths of our staffs, or the ages of the students we serve, there are certain constants. People don't submit forms on time. Work doesn't meet expected levels of quality. Meetings begin late and end later. Students can be inattentive and rude. Faculty members can be inattentive and rude. And yes, administrators can be inattentive and rude. Sometimes responsibility seems to have gone out the window. Consequently, sometimes a principal winds up acting as gatekeeper, nagger, standard setter, devil's advocate, and Scrooge. Is it any wonder that we sometimes come across as a bit crabby?
      The principal's job is not just to set the vision for a school, but also to make sure that everyone embraces that vision and works to make it a reality. Simply put, our job is to ensure that everyone else does his or her job well. In the process, we will occasionally be seen as “the enforcer.” As a friend of mine noted, in many teachers' eyes, the wordboss is permanently inscribed on our foreheads. That can be hard for us to accept because we like to see ourselves as part of the team; we'd rather be seen as colleague.
      But for better or worse, the reality is that weare the boss. Principals must make hard decisions, and virtually no decision is appreciated by everyone. I often say that I can tell how effective I am by gauging who is happy and who is unhappy; if everyone is happy, then I'm probably not doing my job well. Keeping students' needs foremost while balancing everyone else's interests is a Sisyphean task, and unless we're careful, our desire for approval and equilibrium can get the better of us. Naturally, we all want to be successful and well liked. But the flip side is that we sometimes find ourselves making decisions on the basis of what makes teachers happy or what causes the least amount of conflict rather than what is good for our students.
      That's not to say that teachers' and students' interests are necessarily in opposition. It is possible to align interests and make decisions that everyone supports. However, in a community of people playing a variety of roles that give them all different perspectives, it is inevitable that interests will sometimes conflict. It is just as inevitable that principals will wind up in the hot seat when this happens. A couple of strategies may help prevent or minimize such conflicts.
      Often, when I'm thinking about a situation that may lead to conflict, I create a Venn diagram. First, I assign an individual or a like-minded group of individuals—teachers, students, or parents, for example—to each circle in the diagram and then write in each circle what I believe is that person or group's perspective about the situation. The circles intersect where different individuals or groups agree; differing perspectives are shown in the outer, isolated parts of the circles. This exercise helps me determine commonalities among stakeholders. If there aren't any, at least I am aware of who holds what position and why.
      Once the potential positions are clear, it is important to involve others in defining the problem and finding its solution. When teachers and administrators work in isolation, there is little opportunity to reach a common solution through collaboration and compromise. Bringing together all members of the school community enables them to share their diverse perspectives and learn from one another. At times, I have shared my Venn diagram with the groups depicted on it and asked them whether I have accurately portrayed their perspectives. As you might guess, that can prompt a fascinating discussion.
      Leading people with competing interests to a consensus is no easy task, but it can be done by creating a forum in which everyone listens to one another. The process begins with identifying the issues and recognizing how individuals and groups might hold different yet equally valid perspectives. The key, as in so many aspects of leadership, is to involve others in creating the solutions.
      I view my role as creating a setting in which everyone learns. When all members of a school community—students, teachers, and administrators alike—embrace this common vision, we experience the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

      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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