The Principal Predicament

My experience as the Principal of three different schools has begun to shape my perspective on issues of Principal preparation.  The job is complex and like teaching is becoming even more complicated each and every day.  All three Principalships have been drastically different and what led to success in one place has not guaranteed success in another.  We do our communities and ultimately kids a disservice if the Principal selection and training process doesn’t include an evaluation of the unique skills needed for a specific community.

I have served as Principal of a turnaround alternative high school with a homogeneous student population and 100% free and reduced lunch, a comprehensive middle school with a diverse population and 65% free and reduced lunch, and currently a diverse comprehensive high school with 41% free and reduced lunch, and a variety of programs including International Baccalaureate.  Although I’ve held the title Principal in all three positions, the skills and dispositions necessary were drastically different.  How are we assessing the skillsets of Principal candidates to ensure they have the ability to be successful in a specific context?  Leadership development programs for Principals tend to focus on organizational management or data analysis while neglecting other skills such as the ability to develop and communicate a clear and compelling vision with a school community.

Many Principals fail not because they do not understand instruction, but they fail to understand the pace and cadence of change appropriate for a given situation.  A turnaround Principal should have a greater sense of urgency than a Principal leading a high achieving school when it comes to making changes.  The Principal of a high achieving school can easily destroy established and effective systems by acting in the same way as the Principal in a turnaround situation.

We spend a great deal of time and effort creating Professional Learning Communities for teachers to develop collective teacher efficacy.  Principal mentorship programs tend to be run by individuals who are years removed from the rapidly changing job responsibilities.  We wouldn’t dream of pairing a teacher with a mentor who has been retired for ten years yet this is commonplace with Principal mentors.

Districts should seek to capitalize on the experience of current successful Principals in systematic ways to benefit those new to the job.  Too many successful Principals move to the central office in a few short years in order to earn more and advance their careers.  We should consider Master Principal programs that reward successful Principals financially for mentoring and honing the skills of the next generation of school leaders.  Effective Principals are a key lever of student success yet much of their success is sadly left to chance.  We can and must change to ensure these leaders are supported for the benefit of our children.


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