Today’s principal: Visible, collaborative, responsive
Shared values are the bedrock on which leaders build the edifice of group achievement
— John W. Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson
Gone are the days when a school principal would shout out to her secretary, “Hold all my calls. I have to finish writing the School Improvement Plan.” She no longer leads from behind her desk, communicating directives to staff via memoranda or initiatives to parents via letter. Today’s principal is visible, collaborative, savvy, and responsive to the needs of all members of the school community.
She walks side by side with her teachers and support staff, opening pathways for them to access rigorous curricula, reaching out together to comfort children when they stumble, and cheering them on as they perform at the choral music concert. She engages her teachers and support staff in developing goals and action plans to improve the school. She connects with students and parents to seek their input as well. Decisions are not made in isolation. They are made through collaborative processes designed to build shared values and shared ownership, just as Gardner advised in the aforementioned quote.
After all, a principal is really like a mayor of a small city, with enrollments ranging from 300 to nearly 3000. Although the first and most important priority is ensuring that children are learning, a principal must also ensure that the learning environment is safe and orderly. A principal must ensure that parents stay informed on the students’ progress toward learning outcomes. A principal must communicate often and effectively with his supervisors on the current state of the instructional program and student performance. A principal must respond to inquiries from the community on topics that can encompass everything from the play the drama club chooses to perform to the social media postings of a staff member. As Jim Fernandez, principal of Albert Einstein High School, often says, “I’m not in charge, but I am responsible.” The buck definitely stops with the principal in terms of accountability, but that does not mean he must be an autocrat. He must still be inclusive and considerate of the thoughts and needs of others as decisions are made and implemented.
The area in which the principal is most valuable is in the relationships she builds and sustains. She does this by attending every school (and community) event that she can: the field hockey game, the Eagle Scout ceremony, the Latin Dance competition, the NAACP Community Kick-Off meeting, the PTA meeting, and the list goes on. She does this by supporting her staff, listening to them as they share their innermost challenges: the teacher who has been diagnosed with cancer, the building service worker who is mourning the loss of his mother, the assistant principal who is developing her leadership capacity. The principal comforts them all. She is present, she is visible, she is collaborative, and she is responsible. She is the bedrock that brings everyone together around the shared values necessary for the group to achieve.
Written by James P. Koutsos, president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals