Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Most Thankless Job in Education

I was appreciative of Dianna Darold's comments in her column last week. You probably also noticed the letter to the editor from the Executive Director of the School Administrators of Iowa, Dr. Roark Horn. His and Dianna's comments reminded our community the value of the principalship and thanked them for their service. October was National Principal Recognition Month. Sadly, I didn't do a very good job of giving a shout out to our building principals this past month. My lame excuse is that I think they know I appreciate them and the work they are doing. Indeed my failure further emphasizes the point that our principals often go unnoticed. An often thankless job in education, principals are usually remembered for managerial skill rather than the profound impact they have on student achievement. Most principals will tell you they are hired to be instructional leaders, but they are fired for missteps when it comes to the management of the organization.  

There are no easy jobs in education and the role of building principal is no different. The fact is, I am not certain there is a job more difficult in the field. It is not uncommon for these jobs to be fraught with conflict from the time they walk through the door of their office in the morning until they go home at night. These conflicts often bleed over into home life and may be the last thing a principal thinks of before they go to sleep at night, and the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning. Sometimes the conflict causes interruption to to normal sleep patterns leading to exhaustion and other health problems. You see, doing the right thing is almost never easy. Plus there are plenty of folks who believe the right thing is something different than the call the principal has made. Sorting out fact from fiction in one student or employee discipline issue can consume hours of a building principals time, detracting from the primary work of the building principal: ensuring quality instruction is occurring in their classrooms so that student achievement rises.

Although dealing with conflict is a large part of the role of building leadership, it is not the reason they became principals. Principals become school leaders because they want to have an impact beyond the walls of their classroom. They have been successful teachers and want to have the same impact on a much broader scale than the classroom they previously served. Once assuming that mantle of leadership, they have a more expansive view of education and the ability to impact student learning on a much grander scale. 

We know the classroom teacher is the most influential factor on student learning. This makes sense because of the direct contact that teachers have on students in the classroom. So where does the principal fit in the influence of student learning? In a 2008 study by Kenneth Leithwood, he found the vital role principals play is second only to classroom teaching as an impact on student learning. Indeed, their is much more to the principalship than management of the building and handling student discipline.

The fact is, the principalship has become more complex in this arena of high stakes accountability, advances in technology, implementation and measurement of core academic standards, rigorous and relevant professional development, and now teacher leadership. These positions have become more collaborative and distributive in nature, forcing principals to manage multiple projects at once, while keeping the building running smoothly and ensuring students are achieving at high levels.

Next week I will return to the concept of teacher leadership and the impact that is having on learning at Hudson. Before we go there, I think it is appropriate to share one of the key findings of my research into the implementation of teacher leadership systems: as teacher leaderships systems have begun to proliferate Iowa schools, the role of the principal has become even more complex. Indeed a misconception exists that these systems will somehow make the job of principals easier. Not so!

I would argue that our teacher leadership system is functioning at a very high level. Not to diminish the impact of those serving in those vital roles, we can attribute part of this success to the role the building principal plays. This success is not limited to teacher leadership! We can point to connected learning, implementation of new curriculum(s) and teaching strategies, robust professional development, and ensuring a positive learning environment.

A lot of great stuff is happening in Hudson, and there are many people who are responsible for the success that we are having. Many folks can share, celebrate, and take credit for that success. It would be a mistake to forget the valuable contributions of Mr. Schlatter and Mr. Dieken!

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