Is the Principal's Job Doable?

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Is the Principal's Job Doable?

By Frederick Brown, deputy executive director, Learning Forward

Someone asked that question a few years ago during a meeting of The Wallace Foundation Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) professional learning community in New York. I felt it was an incredibly appropriate question considering the many demands being placed on today’s school leaders.  To provide a bit of context, let me remind you that the principal pipeline initiative involves helping six large urban districts create a large corps of “instructional leaders” – principals whose main task is to improve teaching and learning. The districts include Hillsborough County, FL, New York City, Gwinnett County (GA), Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Prince George’s County (MD), and Denver.

This particular question about the viability of the principalship was directed to a panel that included the superintendents of these six districts. Keep in mind that these districts survived a vetting process by Wallace before receiving their funding. As a result, they are among the top districts in the country when it comes to focusing their attention and resources on the principalship. Several of the superintendents were quick to acknowledge their beliefs that the job of school principal is incredibly demanding and perhaps not for everyone. However, each superintendent who answered highlighted that principals absolutely need the appropriate supports in order to do their jobs effectively, but they all felt the job is definitely doable.

I will come back to that word “supports” in just a bit, but first I want to take a moment to contrast that moment in New York with another moment when that same question was posed during a State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) meeting several years ago in Baltimore. At this particular meeting were principals from across the country, and they were the ones to respond to the question about how “doable” their jobs are. Their answers were both passionate and poignant. Although no principal said it wasn’t possible to do their jobs, many of them described a set of circumstances that left the audience wondering how long they would be able to sustain their pace. They described being required to complete formal evaluations of dozens of teachers each year. They emphasized their districts’ responses to their state student assessments and their roles in supporting the testing processes. They described work weeks that typically lasted 80+ hours and weekends that were all but nonexistent. It was a sobering moment and left many people in the audience wondering if we are simply asking our principals to do too much.

As I reflect on both the SCEE meeting and the superintendents’ panel, I’m drawn back to that word “supports.” What is it that districts (and perhaps provinces and states) can do to help support our school leaders? Built into Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Initiative itself are the foundation’s beliefs about some of those supports including:

  • Very clear leadership standards in place that outline what leaders are expected to know and be able to do
  • Strong leadership preparation that ensures leaders can move into a principal position with the skills needed to do the job
  • An induction process that provides job-embedded learning experiences during the first few years on the job
  • Ongoing mentoring and support to help principals navigate the ever changing educational landscape

The six PPI districts had to prove these supports were either partially or completely in place before they were awarded the grant. After hearing from some of the overwhelmed principals from the SCEE meeting and other districts I’ve visited, my guess is their districts may have lacked some of those basic supports. So what other supports do principals need? Here are a few I would offer:

  • As part of their training, induction, and ongoing professional learning, I would argue that principals need help understanding how to more effectively distribute leadership, particularly the management aspects of their work. Gone are the days of the superhero principals trying to manage all aspects of the work.
  • Building leaders need central offices and regional service centers that are viewed by principals not as “mandate generators” but as “centers of support” and “providers of resources.”
  • Principals need opportunities to network with their colleagues in learning communities where they can take ownership of their own learning and focus their efforts on solving “problems of practice” that will help move their collective work forward.
  • It’s imperative that principals receive support to help them strengthen their effectiveness of leaders of adult learning. In order for principals to become “multipliers of effective teaching” as Paul Manna outlined in his 2015 report, they must understand the basic tenets of professional learning as outlined in the Standards for Professional Learning (2011).

Is the principals’ job doable? In many places, unfortunately, I would say the answer might be NO. However, we know what it takes to change that reality, and it’s my hope that those principals who find themselves in “undoable” positions will find a way to advocate for a new reality.