A Matter of Principal

Why it's up to the principal to make schools better.

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At 29, I became a high school principal after a beloved school leader had retired.  The teachers in the building were fearful that I might ruin what they had: a highly functioning school filled with college-bound students and positive energy. They made it clear that they were giving me one year to see what I was going to do with their school.  If they didn’t like the direction I took, they would find teaching jobs elsewhere.  As a former teacher myself, I understood their concerns.  So I got to work. 

Studies have repeatedly shown that the key to education reform is improving teacher quality.  Within school walls, teachers make the largest difference in the life of an individual child.  However, it is the principal who carries the greatest responsibility when it comes to whole school change. Recently on The Root, Kenneth Cooper wrote, “I’d take a good faculty with a bad principal over a bad faculty with a good principal.” But the long-term chances of success for the second school are greater.  With a talented principal, many of the teachers will improve.  At the school with the bad principal, the phenomenal teachers just might pick up and leave.

In the national dialogue about our nation’s public schools, a widespread belief has developed that there is an overwhelming number of “bad teachers” who need to leave the profession.  Most teachers are not excellent on their first day in the classroom.  Just like any other employees, they require supervision, coaching and support. The principal must serve as the instructional leader for the entire school: providing the direction of the staff’s professional development, giving regular formal and informal feedback to teachers on what’s working and not working in their classrooms, and using student achievement data to determine short- and long-term goals. 

Gone are the days where principals can sit in their offices, preparing their National Honor Society speeches and sending the occasional student to detention.  Principals must serve as “teachers of teachers,” even as they fulfill all of the other duties of the position, such as fundraising; facilities management; student discipline; adhering to district mandates; communicating with families and creating a spirited school climate. The job requires a vast skill set and huge time demands.

Recruiting strong school leaders should be on the priority list of any school district that wants to turn its schools around.  Putting all recruitment efforts into finding good teachers will be wasted energy if their bosses don’t nurture their talent.

Luckily, the faculty at my school did not jump ship after the first year.  I made sure to honor what was already working, but I also pushed back on some of the areas where we were settling for mediocrity.  The teachers appreciated this balance, and together we worked as a community to ensure that all of our kids had the tools necessary to succeed.  It’s still a work in progress, but with a committed leader and dedicated teachers, the results will follow.

Rachel Skerritt is a regular contributor to The Root.

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