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October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

What Makes or Breaks a Principal?

Principals must learn to navigate through a difficult dilemma—the tension between caring for others and getting things done.

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Peter was hired as principal to "clean up the mess" after his predecessor's two-year tenure at Willow Grove Middle School. The principal he replaced had been brought in to "turn around Willow Grove" and had insisted on implementing his own turnaround strategy despite growing resistance and alienation among the faculty. After two years, he had been invited to resign.
Peter's initial task was clear: to rebuild relationships so that the school could tackle the difficult tasks teachers faced in their classrooms. His challenge is all too common in this era of accountability and take-no-prisoners leadership. For Peter and many school leaders, this challenge represents a seeming paradox: The bold action needed to improve the school's performance often puts staff relationships at risk.
Relational skills are essential to strong, sustainable school leadership (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Fullan, 2003). But developing the capacity to build solid professional relationships requires forms of learning that we typically don't find in principal certification courses and professional development workshops.
Through our work in the University of Maine's master of education program in educational leadership (Donaldson, 2008) and from the work of others, such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Sullivan & Rosin, 2008), we have gained an understanding of how leaders' relational skills and dispositions grow. Here we describe how leaders develop three clusters of relational skills and qualities: acting as consultants to translate pedagogical knowledge into practice, mediating conflict and reaching consensus, and valuing relationships.

Becoming an Effective Consultant

To foster improved teaching and learning, principals cannot simply direct teachers to use "best practice." They need to listen to staff, students, and parents and help them translate their concerns about student learning into actionable strategies. Two primary assets serve the principal in this respect: a reasonable understanding of pedagogy and curriculum; and a set of consulting skills that combine active listening, problem solving, and support.
Professional associations, journals, the Internet, and local staff development opportunities now bring unprecedented amounts of research on teaching and learning to principals and their staffs. Principals' major challenge is not getting access to information, but finding the time and support to make their own learning a priority.
The solution is for principals to learn along with their faculties. When teachers gather to examine assessments, practices, and new strategies, principals must join in. The principal who continues to learn with and from teachers is sending a double message: I value my role as an instructional leader, and I value you as my colleagues in this central endeavor.
Consider the case of Elle and her principal, Rob. A special education teacher in rural Maine, Elle began on her own to investigate response to intervention (RTI), a model for working with struggling students. Eventually, she went to her principal and asked for help in getting RTI working in the school district. Rob took the idea to a districtwide principals meeting, which led to the formation of RTI learning teams consisting of teachers and principals in each of the schools. As Elle said,When we started getting together with our principal in small learning groups, what really spoke to us was knowing that our principal was just as invested in learning about RTI as we were. It reminded us how much we're committed not only to the kids but also to learning and implementing best practices together.
Having adequate pedagogical knowledge is not enough, though. To help teachers and parents put this knowledge to use, principals must hone their consulting skills. Rather than being "the expert," the principal needs to help others examine and reframe their own challenges and develop strategies for action.
Learning these consulting skills is a long-term process. Although useful resources explaining the steps of consultation are available (Donaldson & Sanderson, 1995; Garmston & Wellman, 1999; National School Reform Faculty, 2005), reading such material is only a start. It takes lots of practice to learn to listen attentively and appreciatively and to hear teachers', students', and parents' concerns accurately.
Role-plays and practice consultations with colleagues on real issues can help principals understand how they influence others. Through observation and feedback from colleagues, principals come to see how their own words, actions, and manner—including their ability to hear cognitive and emotional messages—enhance or inhibit their success as supportive instructional consultants.
Christina, a first-year high school principal, strongly supported technology innovation in the classroom. Being new to her district and unfamiliar with her superintendent, however, she was reluctant to approach him for increased financial support and professional development during challenging budgetary times. In a meeting with her learning team in the University of Maine program prior to the actual meeting with the superintendent, Christina and another student role-played the upcoming interaction. Other class participants were designated as observers to focus on her behaviors, verbal and nonverbal, as well as the content of her message.
During the debriefing after the role-play, Christina was surprised to learn that although the substance of her argument was cogent and persuasive, her manner demonstrated another message, one of anxiety and self-doubt. She realized that her demeanor had to be one of self-confidence and assurance if the superintendent was to hear her argument and support her proposal. Christina then focused on developing more confident behavior.

Becoming a Mediator and Consensus Builder

The second cluster of relational leadership skills enables principals to support others' work by facilitating groups and coaching colleagues to facilitate their own groups. Leading groups is a complex process. Two specific aspects of this skill have proven crucial in our leadership development work: confronting conflict and cultivating consensus.
Many educators who aspire to leadership, either as teacher leaders or as principals, have little experience mediating conflict among adults. Conflict, however, is a constant in the world of school reform. A regimen of simulations and role-plays can powerfully shape the principal's capacity to handle conflict constructively.
The interpersonal rehearsal scenario shown here is one method that the learning leaders in our program find useful. This strategy tailors the role-play to each principal's emotional and relational realities and provides feedback on specific interpersonal strategies the principal is striving to develop. Leaders in our programs tell us that these opportunities are powerful because they so directly address their own leadership situations and their own leadership skills, behaviors, and feelings.
Mark, a new middle school principal, used the interpersonal rehearsal scenario to describe his problems with two senior faculty members who consistently blocked the planning activities of their faculty team. He talked about how these two acted in team meetings and, especially, how he felt both angered and intimidated by their dominating, negative behavior. His learning team discussed ways to respond to the two teachers. Mark then took time to plan how he would respond at the next meeting.
In the role-play of a team meeting that followed, two people played the senior teachers, three others played the rest of the team, and Mark played himself. In the debrief session, rich discussion from all participants allowed Mark to hear how his own strategies seemed to work (or not work). This feedback and the video of the role-play gave Mark specific, immediate, and useful coaching to develop his repertoire of conflict-management techniques, including ways to monitor and tame his own emotional responses and respond calmly and effectively to others.
Another skill that relational leaders often need is the ability to cultivate consensus. In schools where teachers are striving to employ best practice to help every student learn, differences of opinion and personality will arise. Most aspiring principals haven't had much hands-on experience fashioning consensus among a diverse set of adults. Because there is no substitute for experience, we require our program participants to lead committees, teams, departments, or task groups in their schools and districts, and then we use ourselves as a laboratory for learning group skills.
Sally, an aspiring elementary school principal, headed up an early intervention committee to design supports for students experiencing problems in literacy and numeracy. She immediately realized that her committee members differed in their beliefs about the best methods to remediate literacy difficulties. Sally consulted with her small learning team in our program. With their help, she developed an action plan to gradually move her committee toward consensus.
She began by structuring activities for her committee that helped members explore their differences by looking at student assessment data from the interventions to see what actually worked. Over time, Sally was able to redirect her committee from its philosophical arguments about literacy to the practical matter of assisting the students receiving intervention. Consensus grew around what was working for kids—and confidence in Sally's leadership also grew.
The skills and qualities these experiences call forth are heavily weighted toward the interpersonal and intrapersonal: Principals learn that it's not just what you know, but also how you interact with others and present yourself that shapes your influence.

Becoming a Person Who Values Relationships

The third cluster of relational leadership qualities is a value set rather than a skill set. The most effective principals operate from a value system that places a high priority on people and relationships. This orientation communicates itself both subtly and powerfully to staff, students, and the public, sending the message that everyone's voice counts and everyone's feelings are important. The principal's person-to-person relationships reverberate throughout the culture of the school.
Can one learn to value relationships? Some argue that individuals come "hard-wired" in this respect; certainly, people have different levels of interpersonal skill and emotional acuity (Goleman, 1995; Kegan & Lahey, 2002). But we have discovered that principals can learn to value relationships as part of leadership and, just as important, can learn to behave in ways that communicate that value.
One approach to this process involves a combination of philosophical exploration and personal reflection called thedevelopment of a leadership platform(Ostermann & Kottkamp, 1995). Principals, whether aspiring or practicing, write and refine their core beliefs and values as leaders, focusing particularly on both pedagogical and relational dimensions of their work.
In our program, we ask leaders to develop their own approach to fostering teamwork and collaboration, identifying when and how joint decisions and work are most beneficial for students as well as the natural limits of such shared activity. We ask two vital relational questions: How will you form professional relationships among faculty and staff that will support the learning of all students? and What are your definitions of power and authority; under what circumstances is their use by a principal justified? In small writing and discussion groups informed by readings, principals receive feedback on their written leadership platforms, learn how others think, and craft operating principles to guide their work. An elementary school principal described the heart of this process:My core beliefs, my vision, as an educational leader shape and are shaped by the institution and community I am a part of. This symbiotic relationship helps me maintain a course toward our shared goal (vision). It helps me survive and thrive.
Philosophical orienteering of this sort inevitably brings our leaders face-to-face with the dominant relational dilemma of the principalship—the tension between caring for others and getting things done. What will I do when my central office or school board pressures me to behave in ways that threaten my positive working relationships with the staff? How will I maintain respectful and open relationships with resistant or oppositional staff members? How will I square my responsibility to supervise and evaluate teachers with my relational values? Such dilemmas are ever present in the principalship.
If principals haven't thought through a coherent rationale that balances relationships and responsibilities, they can feel uncertain and appear inconsistent to others. In work that can so easily reduce relationships to "we–they," principals need to step back regularly, to reconnect with their touchstone values, and to recommit to a schoolwide "us."

Experience: The Best Teacher

We're often struck by the intensity and intimacy of the principal talk we witness outside the formal confines of meetings, professional development sessions, and classes. Many of these conversations focus on concerns about interactions with others: the noncompliant staff member, the angry parent, the heavy-handed superintendent, the 6th grade team that isn't functioning well. The message is clear: Principals need time to learn how to navigate the constantly changing seas of relationships within their schools and districts.
Learning about relational leadership happens best when principals can pause and reflect. Case studies, simulations, role-plays, and interpersonal-skills workshops, although valuable, can't compare with reflection and problem solving focused on real experience. Principals sharpen consulting skills by using them in their practice and seeking feedback. They hone their skills in conflict resolution and consensus building by trying them in real meetings and conferences and mulling over with trusted colleagues how it went. They revise and reconfirm the balance between caring for others and getting things done by revisiting this balance often, both in conversation with others and alone.
Principals work in a complex network of relationships. Their success at mobilizing faculty and staff to do their best work depends on their abilities to grow and maintain honest, supportive relationships with and within that group of important adults. Principals cannot cultivate those relationships without regularly cultivating their own relational skills. And that means learning from the daily work of leadership with the help of insightful and caring colleagues.

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Donaldson, G. (2008). How leaders learn: Cultivating the capacity for school improvement. New York: Teachers College Press.

Donaldson, G., & Sanderson, D. (1995).Working together in schools: A guidebook for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fullan, M. (2003). Leadership and sustainability: Systems thinkers in action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Garmston, R., & Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (2nd ed.). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2002). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National School Reform Faculty. (2005).NSRF Materials. Bloomington, IN: Harmony Education Centers. Available:www.nsrfharmony.org/protocol/a_z.html

Ostermann, K., &. Kottkamp, R. (2002).Reflective practice for educators: Improving schooling through professional development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sullivan, W., & Rosin, M. (2008). A new agenda for higher education: Shaping a life of the mind for practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gordon A. Donaldson, Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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