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November 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 3

The Principal Connection / Taking Hold of Learning

Principals expect teachers and students to take ownership of their own learning. They must expect no less of themselves as they continually seek to improve their professional knowledge and skills.
Consider this scenario: A new federal law obligates each public school principal to take an annual standardized test, with questions based on national standards of leadership. Schools must analyze principals' scores— disaggregated for demographic characteristics—and examine whether their leaders are making "adequate yearly progress."
Foolish, we say. Yet we hold each teacher in a school community accountable for student achievement, and we hold students responsible for their own learning. Isn't principals' learning part of this chain? Can we ask more of others than of ourselves?

On the Cutting Edge

Good principals provide multiple opportunities for teacher learning because we believe that having skilled teachers correlates with strong student learning. But how often do we rely on information we recall from distant coursework, superficial mandated workshops, or district presentations?
Often, we neglect our own learning because we're too busy "working." Yet we hold doctors, lawyers, and car mechanics accountable for updating their knowledge and skills. Who would put their health in the hands of a doctor who relied on knowledge gained in medical school 25 years ago? Principals need to remain on the cutting edge of professional learning.
Many administrators do return to school. Doctoral programs for school leaders proliferate and provide great depth for principals' learning. States demand compliance with a variety of standards for certification renewal, but complying with such laws differs significantly from personal efforts to maintain and improve professional expertise. True learning is job embedded, shared with other principals, and rooted in deeply considered ideas about leadership and schools.
  • Read everything you can that relates to schools, teaching, and leadership. Professional journals proliferate. Subscribe to several and read them religiously, starting with Educational Leadership, which is the most comprehensive, understandable magazine I know of in the field. Skim some articles and study others, looking for the ideas of fellow practitioners as well as those of thoughtful academics who push your thinking. Take time during the day to read—with the office door open. This action will speak louder than any words to encourage students and teachers to learn.
  • Become informed about any programs your school is considering adopting or has initiated. Research them thoroughly and insist that teachers do the same. Avoid the pitfall of adopting silver bullets of education reform. Easily accessible online resources provide extensive information about any creditable program.
  • Attend professional meetings—and tell teachers you are "out learning."
  • Intentionally pursue conversations with other practitioners about the craft of leadership; listen to your colleagues and learn from them. Schedule and commit to these conversations as you would any other appointment.
  • Reflect often and deeply about your effectiveness as a principal. View your work through the eyes of those you serve. If those you work with see no congruity between their core values and yours, they will simply wait out your tenure in the building. Teachers stay, but principals move on.
  • Show by your actions that growth means more than complying with the directives of the central office, the school board, or others. When our professional growth consists of superficial compliance, our teachers will practice without reflection as well. Professional learning communities hold learning and community, not fulfilling a prescribed role, as their primary core values.
  • Seek feedback about your work. As an acting principal, I worked with one teacher who was a dear friend. She would come in my office, close the door, and announce, "Rooney, you've got to…" and explain some change I needed to make to mitigate hurt feelings, confusion, or a mistaken perception teachers had of me that I was unaware of. Although her advice was sometimes painful, she mirrored for me the unintended effects my behavior had on staff members. Teachers have a different perspective on our effectiveness.
  • Listen to books on tape or podcasts when driving. Good literature or public media broadcasts broaden our thinking and enrich us. In the course of a year, I listen to 30 to 40 books and as many podcasts in my car, without spending an extra minute of my time.
School leadership is not our job; it's our profession. Some see school leadership as a profound calling; for most of us, principalship is at the core of our being and gives meaning to our lives. Surely the work we do calls us to place learning at the heart of our actions.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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