It’s 4:30 in the afternoon at a public school classroom in the Bronx, and eight newly appointed principals are deep in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Their work – to identify the ideas, values and emotion in King’s words – is not about preparing classes for students or lesson plans for teachers. It’s about preparing themselves to be effective leaders.
One principal struggled to articulate what was special about his school and how to talk about it with passion. Another came close to tears as she reflected on her childhood as an immigrant and the importance of the support she received from her teachers and principal. Could she replicate that experience and that environment for her students? Despite years of education and experience as administrators, these principals were coming to realize that without a powerful vision and leadership skills that can inspire their teachers and students, their schools will not succeed.
This after-school workshop with newly minted principals is part of several leadership programs that my colleagues and I, as long-time educational consultants, have been offering in public schools across the country for over 10 years. During this time, we have supported hundreds of principals and aspiring principals in developing the knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to successfully lead their schools. Programs like these have a vital role in strengthening schools and, ultimately, improving education for children. Yet in most public policy debates around education, the professional development of principals is often little more than an afterthought.
Research shows that principals account for 25 percent of a school’s total impact on achievement and that student achievement in schools led by highly effective principals can be as much as 20 points higher than at schools led by “average” principals. If we want to improve schools, we have to improve their principals.
Despite this evidence, however, most local and national conversations about education don’t mention principals. We talk about homework, safety drills, school closings, parent engagement, testing and opting out of testing. And, to a great extent, we talk about teachers – from teacher practice and compensation to teachers’ unions and “teaching to the test.” While it’s true that teachers have more impact on student achievement than any other factor, it’s also true that each principal supports tens of teachers.
Too many principals, like those in the afternoon workshop in the Bronx, begin their work not knowing how to lead change in their schools, or how to give critical feedback to help teachers improve. They may have been good assistant principals, but nothing has prepared them, now that they are in the drivers’ seat, to structure their schools so that teachers collaborate to learn together, share best practices, and pinpoint the learning needs of children. Effective professional development and support can do just that, and more. Yet, while every school has days built into the calendar for teachers to participate in professional development, most do not do this for principals. And while most principals in large districts receive mentors in their first year and have supervisors who at least “somewhat” emphasize instruction in their communications, most smaller districts do not have such resources. Aside from a bare minimum of support, these principals are largely left on their own to seek out professional learning opportunities and develop their leadership skills.
In another professional development session, we asked our principals in the Bronx to role play giving feedback to a teacher who yelled at a student when he got up from his chair and stormed off in frustration at having failed a re-test on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. With the first four principals, there was frustration, false starts and wrong turns as they alternately blamed the teacher, demanded change, and sympathized with the teacher. But applying our suggested method of describing the situation, the hypothetical teacher’s behavior and the impact of that behavior, the fifth principal was able to diffuse the tension, obtain the teacher’s understanding of how her action did not align with the school’s values and articulate how she could find another way to engage the student and re-teach the book’s content. In later visits to their schools, we saw how one of the principals in this session had used what she learned to improve both the culture and the teaching in her school.
The multiplier effects of professional development for principals is hard to overstate. Effective professional development can help principals create an environment in which high expectations and cultural competence are the norm for both students and staff. In the right circumstances, it can help principals shape the organizations of their schools, such as by partnering with outside organizations to support their students and families, and structuring their budget and the school day and year to prioritize teaching and learning.
Turning around our nation’s schools so that every child has the opportunity to succeed is a critically important priority for our future. We need to spend time and energy on the students, families, and teachers. But we must not forget the principals who lead them: Sometimes, the catalyst for the change we need must come from the top.