Thursday, September 27, 2012

As a Matter of Principal

Wisconsin public education today, like many states, is in the condition of total reform. As in, when you go to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, a splash page should flash up and say, “Under Construction.”

A laundry list of different projects make up this list of reform. Heading up the list is the shift to Common Core State Standards, followed by NAEP cute scores, SBAC, Educator Effectiveness, ACT expansion, new reportcards, WISEdash, SIS, RtI, PBIS, and this list goes on.

Without a doubt, we all shoulder some responsibility for the effective implementation of these programs, but let’s not deceive ourselves and acknowledge the truth: Our building principals are going to bear much of the weight of these reforms. Much of it is on their shoulders; they are the modern Atlas, accountable for upholding the sky (apparently from falling).  

Now, I am blessed with an unbelievable administrative team. Smart, hard working, positive, caring, driven. They arrive early and go home late. They sacrifice time with their families without question. They trust but verify, have difficult conversations based on values, admit mistakes when wrong, and care about details when no one else does. To a large extent, the professionals who make up my administrative team are also my role models.  So, I come from a considerate and measured place when I ask this question: How on earth are our building administrators going to accomplish all that they are going to be asked to do?

In the ecology of a principal's calendar, there is no white space. We've all been there: after-school learning programs, summer academic academies, district-wide assessment cohesiveness, educational gaming partnerships, Google Apps training, new elementary Math curriculum, 20 percent staff turnover, inclusionary practice programming, a BYOD initiative, English curriculum revision--just to name a few our own recent projects. Our existing educator evaluation system is currently robust, and any white space after the previously mentioned is consumed by IEP meetings, discipline, attendance issues, parental concerns, and swarm of other urgent issues.

I already know what’s coming: overused and tired responses, such as “It’s not about doing more but doing things differently.” Or, “Focus on what matters most.” The tipping point that we are at, however, is significantly beyond clich├ęs, such as “We are gonna have to do more with less.”

Principals need time, leadership development, advocacy, and emotional support, and we (superintendents) need to help.

This means fighting against interests that don’t understand administrative function and want to compress leadership roles (such as hiring a dean of students or part-time administrators). It means finding a way to help building principals access the best professional development possible and advocating to school boards-legislators-parents-and community stakeholders for principal autonomy. It means helping them focus on possibilities instead of current obstacles.

In Greek Mythology, Heracles constructed two pillars to hold the sky for Atlas, hence freeing him of bearing the sole responsibility of possible collapse. What pillars will we build to help our building principals so that they don’t singularly bear the weight of the sun, the moon, and all the stars? 


  1. I think that all the points you raise are fair ones. Principals typically find a way to get everything done on their calendars, but as you mention there has to be a tipping point especially in the wake of budget cuts which take away, rather than add support. The problem is most of the decision makers when it comes to education reform don't know what a principal does. They think of the principal as a disciplinarian, not as an instructional leaders. We have to change that mindset.

  2. Thanks for articulating the realities of this job. So many of the initiatives you have cited involve digesting pages of details, many in "draft" or "pilot" form, usually at half or whole day meetings where administrators collaborate to understand what is being asked (demanded) of them. An intense learning curve exists in comprehending these new initiatives and requires additional prep work before unveiling to teachers. This is all time taken away from being in the building handling day to day operations or in classrooms actually working with teachers. Don't get me wrong - many of these initiatives are excellent, well-intended improvements. The difficulty comes in the break-neck pace at which multiple, major, systemic changes need to be implemented. This week alone, I spent Monday afternoon leading an in-service for my teachers, Tuesday at a half-day in-service on Transforming Education for Personalized Learning, Wednesday night on a panel discussing hiring practices to education students at a local University, all day today leading a planning team in developing an upcoming all day in-service on technology for all teachers in the district and tomorrow the entire day will be spent reviewing "student assessment data" as teams of grade level teachers cycle through at 45 minute intervals. Of course, I am trying to remotely manage email, discipline issues, teacher questions, and parent concerns while still finishing up the parent newsletter that goes out tomorrow. (In between I actually had a cold that has come and gone - but not because I rested to get rid of it.) Brad is correct in his concern for principals during these ever evolving times. Thanks for your recognition of what is really happening.

  3. This is so true Brad. So many metaphors come to mind with principal job expectations-- "Too many balls in the air," and "Need to push some things to the back burner." I wish the back burner was even available. There are so many important things that I should be considering that those items aren't even on the counter, let alone even close to being on any burner. You mention Heracles and Atlas, but let me also bring in Sisyphus. We keep pushing the rock, but we never seem to get over the threshold. We'll keep trying though.

  4. Brad,
    The role of principal visibility is such an important part of a successful school. All the tasks you list compete for principal time. Visibility calms a school and keeps people working to maximum capacity. I like some of you suggestions because the come with money behind them. A lot of times solutions just push one priority off the plate in exchange for another. It is hard to turn more than one wrench at a time. The Dean of Students is a good suggestion because those problems can not be addressed "later" and they really take time to work out well.