What to Expect from Your Principal
By Simon Rodberg, Founding Principal of DC International School
In the midst of the pandemic, blame is easy. Parents can be mad at teachers, teachers can be mad at elected leaders, politicians can be mad at teacher unions, principals can be mad at superintendents…
The truth is, some of this blame is deserved!
But as adults in schools — as teachers and principals — we’ll do better if we stop blaming first and, instead, figure out what we should expect from each other.
Good principals make clear, at the beginning of the year, what they want teachers to do.
But if you’re a teacher, what should you expect from your principal?
Setting the Right Kind of Expectations
Of course, as a teacher, you should expect a schedule, necessary supplies, a listening ear, and support with challenging kids and parents. But as important as these are, they aren’t the core job of the principal. Decision-making is the principal’s core responsibility.
Principals need to figure out, and lead their teams on, a path through the relentless complexity of schools, such as:
- How to balance happiness and productivity in their students
- What learning to prioritize
- What tools will best build equity
- Which activities can continue in the pandemic and which ones need to pause
Scheduling and supply distribution and support are comparatively easy. Decision-making is the hard part!.
If people knew what to do better in education, on any consistent basis, they’d already be doing it. And without clarity, the weight of decisions — schools have kids’ lives and futures in their hands — can be paralyzing. Principals still need to decide.
You may have noticed, in the bullets above, that the decisions are among options: how to balance and prioritize, what to push, and what to pause. Good principals constantly see and weigh trade-offs. This can frustrate teachers, but it’s key to leadership decision-making.
When I was principal, I got requests from teachers every day: for smaller classes, for an aide in the classroom, for the paid version of math software, for an additional planning period, for a release from lunch duty.
These teachers weren’t doing anything wrong. Teachers should argue for what they want. Figuring out the trade-offs — what would suffer if I said yes — was my job.
In many cases, the trade-off came down to the individual needs versus the bigger picture or the larger policy. If a teacher wanted to let some students in early each morning for tutoring, how would we manage the entrance of other students? If we create an intensive reading class for four students with one teacher, how would that change the class size for the rest of the school? If we let an overwhelmed teacher take some extra leave, what precedent would that set, and how would it affect overall morale? If I didn’t weigh the trade-offs, the teacher making the request might be happy, but at the cost of resentment and inequity among others.
Teachers don’t need to see schoolwide trade-offs; it’s not their job. Of course, they do see the big picture in their classroom. Good teachers know their students’ individual needs — one student needs to learn phonics, another needs to learn poetic devices, a third needs to throw out her chewing gum — plus the overall mood and long-term goals of the class. They know how to balance the individuals as well as the good of the whole. Teachers aren’t kids, but good principals do the same.
That’s not to say good principals always get it right! As teachers, you want principals who aren’t afraid to be wrong sometimes. Otherwise, they’ll never really decide. I knew one principal who always left one-on-one teacher meetings with the teacher feeling like he was on their side — that is, until after a different one-on-one meeting when the first colleague heard he’d switched side. In fact, he never took a side; he didn’t have the confidence to make a stand. The calendar kept moving forward under this principal, but the school didn’t.
Learning from Mistakes
What happens, though, when principals are wrong?
This is the other side of the ability to see trade-offs and decide among them: the wisdom to be good at being wrong.
Teachers should expect principals to have the emotional stability to pause, rather than explode when they go wrong or feel wronged; principals should recognize their errors, publicly accept responsibility, and strive to fix mistakes.
Good principals know they can’t always be right. Instead, principals should be accountable for being right in their process: approaching issues with an open mind, seeking multiple options, and encouraging dissent.
A classic study by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider found that trust among adults was central to school improvement. They called it, specifically, “relational trust”: mutually shared expectations for how people in a school do their jobs with and for each other.
That trust is even more important in the time of coronavirus.
Principals can earn teachers’ trust by seeing trade-offs, deciding how to move forward, and dealing well with being wrong. You can’t expect infallibility or for them always to be on your side, but you should expect them to get their process right.
Simon Rodberg was the founding principal of DC International School, a public charter school. Before that, he was an assistant principal and central office leader in DC Public Schools, and taught English and other subjects from 4th to 12th grade. He now consults and teaches school leadership at American University. His book What If I’m Wrong? and Other Key Questions for Decisive School Leadership is out now from ASCD.
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