Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Role of the Principal?

Each year at about this time, a few colleagues who are considering applying to become a vice principal or principal ask for some guidance.  I enjoy spending time inviting others to tell me what they think the role involves and then helping them prepare their application package, and if shortlisted, reviewing possible interview questions and scenarios.    This post is a summary of my reflections on “What does it mean to be a secondary school principal?”

Serving as the principal of a large public secondary school is important, complex and challenging work.  As the formal leader of the school, you are ultimately responsible for the learning and working experiences of every student and staff member and your effectiveness will influence the confidence level that thousands of parents have in the school and in public education in general.  However, I like to believe that most effective school administrators never imagined they would become vice principals or principals when they entered the profession.  Indeed, they laugh knowingly when the role is lampooned on television shows and movies, where the principal is frequently portrayed as an inflexible taskmaster or a buffoon that kids mock and teachers do not respect. As passionate and reflective teachers who were committed to refining their practice and working collaboratively to build the professional learning community in their schools, vice principals and principals simply evolved from informal to formal school leaders. Good principals do not define themselves by their title, take themselves too seriously nor believe that they are the boss.  They understand, value and respect the work of all the educators in the school and take responsibility for asking the difficult questions to help the school community continuously grow and improve.  It also helps to have a grounded perspective and a healthy sense of humour.


We must understand the limitations of the “system” we work in.  Principals are often moved from school to school every five years or so, despite the evidence that indicates in takes years to build trust and create positive change.  Various stakeholders - students, teachers, support staff, parents, district staff and the Ministry of Education - have different and, at times contradictory expectations of the school principal and this can pull you in many directions.  Good high schools are very busy places and there are some long, eventful days filled with crises, incidents, meetings and evening events and these demand energy and enthusiasm.   Public education faces ongoing underfunding at a time when schools are also scrutinized and ranked using incomplete and invalid criteria. In our province, decades-long tensions exist between the provincial government and the teachers’ union and every few years this discord creates disruptions that detract from creating ideal learning and working environments.  Dated and, at times, rigid language entrenched in two different collective agreements provides the principal with very little latitude in staffing and hiring decisions.  The mandate of schools continues to grow, having evolved from teaching curriculum to focusing on skills and processes to engaging every learner on a personalized discovery of their unique passions. Curriculum-based learning outcomes are shifting to cross-curricular competencies like communication, problem solving, collaboration and critical and creative thinking.  Schools are responsible for teaching digital literacy, personal finance, physical and emotional well being and both social and personal responsibility.  Societal trends such as substance abuse, cyber bullying and childhood obesity are added to the list of things we want our schools to help solve.  I believe in the critical role that public schools play in sustaining a healthy, pluralistic democracy and I embrace the challenge of our expanding mandate, nonetheless, it would be easy to become overwhelmed. While remaining current on best practices and new initiatives, the principal must be clear on the school's vision and purpose, be able to differentiate between what is urgent and what is really important and, above all, maintain a positive perspective.

Despite the complexity and challenges of the role, going to a modern, well equipped school every day with a thousand or more capable adolescents and scores of dedicated educators is exciting, engaging and rewarding work. To lament a lack of resources, top-down implementation or unwilling staff members as roadblocks to improvement is not leadership.  Instead of focusing on what we cannot change, an effective leader looks for ways of improving structures, skills, and processes with the people and capital the school has. In my two decades in the role of school administrator, I have come to realize that the key to being an influential leader is to view all challenges through an appreciative lens by wondering, “what are we doing now and how can we make this better?" Together, we are the “system”, and any positive change we hope to see is in our hands.

Our single most important responsibility is helping to create and sustain a welcoming, positive and engaging learning environment where all students feel that they belong and can learn.  Unlike teachers and coaches, principals can find themselves increasingly distanced from students.  You cannot do the job effectively if you are not in tune with the kids in your school.  It is crucial to be out in the hallways every day and in classrooms as frequently as possible.  The principal needs to enthusiastically attend games, plays, concerts and club meetings and, just as importantly, enjoy hanging out in the cafeteria, smoke pit and parking lot, before school, between classes and long after the bell.  You need to listen to, speak with and survey kids and be a visible part of the caring community you hope to build.  As a teacher, you have direct contact with hundreds of kids a year, but as principal, you have to work harder to make connections with kids - but it remains the most important and rewarding part of the job.  

The principal is responsible for helping to improve the professional work of all teaching and support staff.  Many staff will have worked at the school before you arrived and most know that they will be there long after you have departed and this can be an obstacle to change.  With very little formal or line authority, the currency of influence for principals is effective communication and relationship building. To support meaningful growth, the principal needs to understand the context of the school and constantly look to develop the capacity of others.  Before he can influence innovation, the principal must earn credibility by managing the school effectively and the myriad and mushrooming list of organizational tasks can take enormous amounts of time and energy to do well.  However, our role is not merely to manage an efficient school and keep everyone happy, but to gently yet persistently push the organization forward by asking good questions and, when necessary, having crucial conversations when there are concerns.  The principal needs to be cognizant of the level of professional engagement and quality of work of each staff member, yet also have realistic expectations.  Like former athletes reflecting on their playing careers, sometimes the further removed principals are from the classroom the more innovative we think we were when we were teaching every day. We must be mindful of the incredible challenges involved in preparing for and teaching seven classes of 30 diverse learners, day after day, for ten months.  All educators are on a continuum of growth and the principal must be aware of what is going on in individual teachers’ lives. Some staff may need support to make it through each week while others need authentic opportunities to flourish as leading innovators in the school.  All staff need to know they will be cared for and supported through personal or family crises or illness and that their principal is trustworthy and reliable.  At the same time, the principal must be willing to confront unacceptable practices and challenge those who are not meeting professional standards. Finding the right balance between caring and pushing can create tension, but it is a very important part of the role.

Serving as school principal can be lonely.  In some contexts, principals do not have assistant principals and this makes leading even more isolating.  I am fortunate to work with two thoughtful vice principals and together we form a supportive team that shares ideas, strategies and the workload and this helps clarify our thinking and supports all three of us in our development as school leaders.  To gain new insights and perspectives, school-based administrators need to look beyond their immediate context for opportunities to connect with other educational leaders.  In our district, all the secondary school principals meet weekly for two hours.  We dedicate the first hour to a professional development topic of our choosing and the second hour to business, district and Ministry news and updates.  Similarly, our district hosts monthly meetings that are open to all school-based and district administrators from our 50-plus schools and sites.  The agenda at these monthly meetings balances professional conversations with business topics and the gatherings foster a sense of connected community, shared purpose and vision across the school district.  We have a local school administrators’ association that includes elementary and secondary leaders together.  The association represents the interests of all of us with the board and hosts regular study groups, professional development dinner meetings and a biennial retreat.  Finally, the increasing use of social media has opened up an unlimited source of sharing, support and professional development for school leaders.  Every school principal, vice principal and teacher should connect and engage with a professional learning network via Twitter, blogging and other digital platforms to reflect on their practice with other educators, locally, nationally and internationally.  If we believe that continuous improvement and integrating technology into our schools are important, we must model this in our own professional practice.

Excellent public schools have capable, reflective and thoughtful principals.  Our role is to build capacity, of individuals and of the professional culture of the organization, so that we plan for our own obsolescence.  The mark of a truly effective principal and leader is not that the school struggled after his departure, but that it flourished.  The most influential agents of change in any school are always the teachers and they need to be supported and encouraged to set high professional standards while making learning (and not teaching) the central focus of the school. The work is important, challenging and complex and the conditions are rarely ideal, but this is the norm in any professional workforce and we are never alone. Ongoing dialogue and reflective work with a network of admin team partners, other principals and district leaders, in person and online, are keys to developing our capacity to lead.   I chose this work knowing the parameters and expectations and instead of focusing on external obstacles or wishing things were different, I accept that I am the system.  I work in a community that places a high value on education and with remarkably capable students who are interested in learning and engaging in their own success.  Overwhelmingly, the colleagues I work with are dedicated, professional educators who care about students and are genuinely interested in being the best they can be. Working together, we have a tremendous opportunity to create a caring, relevant and engaging school with a supportive and professional culture.  When viewed through this appreciative lens, serving as principal and one of the school's leaders is an honour and a privilege.   Our schools will continue to need reflective, energetic and innovative leaders, both formal and informal, and I would encourage and support the growth of any colleague who is considering becoming a school administrator – our schools need you!

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