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Why Are Principals Silent about Reform?

Said a local teacher in disgust, “When schools do well, they say it’s the principal.  When they do poorly, they blame it on the teachers.”

I never thought of it that way.  But here’s something I do know from long experience:

Good teachers will continue to be good despite a weak principal.

Poor teachers will be worse with a weak principal.

And here are the corollaries:

Good teachers will do even better with a good principal.

Poor teachers will do better with a good principal.

Let’s look at these ideas.  A strong, knowledgeable principal sets the tone for the building.  She makes her expectations clear regarding academic performance, discipline, professional standards.  She leads by
example, exhibiting fairness with all employees, timeliness, honesty.  She supports her teachers.  In short, she runs a tight ship.

Good teachers thrive under these circumstances.  Their work is supported and appreciated, and they know that any innovative ideas or practices they come up with will be met with enthusiasm.  Poor teachers, on the other hand, know that they won’t be able to slide – that the principal will hold them accountable for the success of their students and will call them on less than professional behavior.  In addition, the strong principal will find ways for weak teachers to improve, not only through supervision, but through specific inservices to address weaknesses.

All in all, the entire school benefits by the presence of a strong, competent principal.

Orchestra-conductorNow let’s look at the weak principal.  Good teachers will survive, although they will not prosper as they might have with new ideas.  They tend to turn inward, to turn to other good teachers in the building for support.  They close their classroom doors and deal with discipline problems by themselves.  In short, they still do a good job – it’s just in their nature – but they aren’t able to develop all the potential they have.

Poor teachers, on the other hand, never have an opportunity to improve.  And knowing they can get by with as little as possible, that’s what they do – as little as possible.  If there is no disciplinary support from the principal, poor teachers don’t just handle it themselves.  Instead, they let it slide or they overreact and make things worse.  Attendance is poor – both the teachers’ and the kids’.  In short, the entire morale of the building suffers.

Knowing all this, I remain baffled by the silence of principals during this period of reform.  The focus has all been on teachers.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that principals aren’t really needed – that teachers themselves could just share the various duties of ordering supplies, making sure payroll was ready, etc.  As if that’s what the principal’s job is.

Frankly, in my experience, most teachers want strong leadership.  They want everyone to be accountable.  They want competent supervision and they want a shared vision for their school.  I’ve never seen a truly remarkable school without strong leadership.

So until we actually see some leadership from principals – the middle management people who have to make things work on a daily basis – I honestly don’t see how reform is going to take hold.  Instead, it’s going to be thousands of teachers milling about, arguing with legislators, pundits, businesspeople, and others who have no idea what it takes to make a school work well day to day.

The problems in public schools are fixable – school by school, teachers and principals working together.  It’s like a symphony and a conductor.  Beautiful music isn’t made by music critics and donors.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.